At a recent Happy Museum gathering at Woodhorn Museum, Lucy Neal introduced the concept of climate change as a ‘wicked’ problem.  Reading from Tackling Wicked Problems, a 2007 policy perspective from the Australian Public Service Commission she noted that the term ‘wicked’ is here used, not in the sense of evil, but rather as an issue highly resistant to resolution.  The paper identifies wicked problems, like Climate Change, as having common characteristics:

  • Wicked problems are difficult to clearly define. Different stakeholders have different versions of what the problem is and no one version is complete or verifiably right or wrong.
  • They have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal. Attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences.
  • Wicked problems are often not stable, they usually have no clear solution (although there might be worse or better responses)
  • They are socially complex and solutions involving changing behaviour with all the challenges that entails.
  • Wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation.
  • Some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

So far – so challenging?   What really set me thinking though was the observation that ‘wicked’ policy problems are difficult to tackle effectively using traditional public sector techniques.  New responses are needed that are collaborative, innovative and flexible.  I wondered how Happy Museum approaches might map against the types of response identified as needed to address ‘wicked’ problems.


The need for holistic, not partial or linear thinking

Happy Museum takes an holistic approach to the challenges of climate change, linking thinking around sustainability with a focus on societal wellbeing.  It sheds light on how thinking of these two issues in conjunction might offer the key to providing a more resilient future and investigates the particular role that museums and culture have to play.

Drawing on thinking beyond the cultural sector, from economics, ecology, psychology and design, our events are characterised by a diversity of participation. bringing our community of practice alongside representatives from think tanks, NGOs and academia such as New Economics Foundation (NEF) and Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and social movements like the Transition Network.  As we identified at a recent event bringing together a range of thinkers around this subject – ‘Our own happiness is short-lived if we achieve wellbeing for our generation at the environmental expense of future generations.’

Innovative and flexible approaches built on action, experimentation and evaluation

Happy Museum combines practical action with evaluation and research. Through a programme of funded commissions in 22 museums, our Community of Practice experimented and innovated with Happy Museum thinking to develop our six Principles.  An evaluation underpinned by the Story of Change model to plan and review is at the heart of our Principle Measure What Matters.  It’s a logical approach which reverse-plans from the difference we are hoping to make to what we do and how we do it, whilst leaving space for the imaginative and unanticipated.  As Albert Einstein once said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

 Work collaboratively across boundaries

Happy Museum focuses on sharing ownership and encourages museums to work from the basis of mutual benefit (give and gain) with their volunteers, audiences, participants and staff alike.

Through our Principle, Create Mutual Relationships, we explore how museum staff and public can work together, with different expertise but equal status, to achieve common outcomes such as making a sustainable and flourishing locality in which to live and work. Our commissions have tested new ways of collaborative working such as Human-Centered Design at Derby Silk Mill, and creating new connections with local environmental groups and agencies in projects at Godalming and Reading museums.

Engage stakeholders (which may include citizens) in understanding the problem and identifying responses

As the New Citizenship Project identifies – studies show that when we think of ourselves as consumers we are less likely to tackle society’s biggest problems, such as climate change, while when we think of ourselves as citizens we are more likely to participate, volunteer and come together to make society stronger and more resilient.

Our Principle Be an Active Citizen encourages us to support the needs of individuals and encourages active involvement and engagement from visitors, volunteers and staff alike.  As Nat Edwards of the Robert Burns Birthplace described at our third Symposium “When we started using the Happy Museum principles as the meeting agenda items, suddenly the catering manager started talking about her advocacy work in mental health and whether the learning team could help her, soon they were talking together – and now we have a regular event around that interest. Across the board, there’s a real sense of autonomy and can-do excitement among everyone.”

Develop core skills and competencies – communication, big picture thinking and influencing skills, and the ability to work cooperatively

Communities who learn together become more resilient. As Barbara Heinzen identifies in How Societies Learn resilience and adaptation come from learning gained in small diverse groups, project by project over time.

Museums enable individuals and communities to learn together. Museum learning is already all the things much orthodox learning is not: curiosity driven; non-judgmental; non-compulsory; engaging; informal and fun. The people needed in the future will be resilient, creative, resourceful and empathetic systems-thinkers, exactly the kind of capacities museum learning can support. Museums have the potential to develop our understanding of why and how education needs to change to bring about these capacitiesOur Principle Learn for Resilience encourages learning across and between communities using the collections as a catalyst and the museum as a host.

Envision and explore the future / adopt a long-term focus

At our 2012 Symposium, Andrew Simms then of the New Economics Foundation, identified the potential of museums to ‘challenge the myth of permanence’.   Museum collections evidence of the adaptability of the human race and show the enormous societal shifts we are capable of, shirts in energy, production, consumption, transport, arts and culture as well as in ethics and morals.  Museums are in a unique position to engage us in longer-term thinking as an antidote to today’s accelerating culture and to provide space and context to reflect on possible futures.

Our principle Value the environment and be a steward of the future as well as the past encourages museums to consider collections and the environment as part of the same ‘Museum ecology’ – its cultural and natural resources.

“Working on this project has made us realise that environmental sustainability is at the heart of the story the museum tells about development and change in the local community, and is important for its own sustainable long term operation.” Godalming Museum

Understand how to change behaviour.

Happy Museum has deliberately engaged with experts in psychology and human behaviour.  Contributors to Happy Museum events have included  Kris De Meyer from Kings College who specialises in the psychology and neuroscience of belief and is working with scientists on how an understanding of belief might inform their communication around climate change; Tom Crompton, Director of Common Cause who focus of an understanding of human values and is now working with Manchester Museum and playwright and activist Sarah Woods whose performance The Empathy Roadshow introduced us to the existence of mirror neurons, which, scientists argue, prove humans are hard-wired for empathy.


Viewing Climate Change as a wicked problem throws valuable light on the particular role and approaches that museums might take to connect with it in a way that is meaningful and effective.

We can also take encouragement from the fact our challenge may be wicked, but our world is complex, and in that very complexity solutions may arise.

“We live in a complex world.  Not just a complicated world, a complex world.  Climate change is a very complex problem.  The great thing about complexity is that it has emergent properties.  Things come out that you would never anticipate, in fact you cannot anticipate them.  The good thing about that is that it gives every single person, all 7 billion of us, are agents for change.  Most of us will fail.  Most of our ideas will wither and die on the vine, but a few seeds will flower and come forth, and the role of society is to nurture those ones, to fertilise those ones, to learn from those and to say what would we need to convert that up, to scale that up, and if you see the world as a complex problem, you’re no longer relying on the Prime Ministers and the leaders, you’re relying on all of us, as part of that change.  It’s quite a hopeful message, that we could see change emerge from different places, to give ourselves all some scope for thinking differently about the future.’

Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change, University of Manchester (full conversation here) 

Perhaps the primary role of society, of culture, of museums, in this moment is to nurture our citizens, to give them space and context and to encourage them to ‘think differently about the future’?

If you are interested in learning more about the Happy Museum and contributing to the development of our thinking and practice have a look at our new Happy Museum Affiliate Scheme being launched in November 2016..

Hilary Jennings – November 2016