The Happy Museum Project

The Happy Museum Project, led by the Museum of East Anglian Life and funded through the Arts Council’s Renaissance Strategic support fund, is a programme to help museums look at and test the role they play in developing community resilience and wellbeing against global financial and environmental challenges.

The Happy Museum Project was conceived in 2009 in the dying days of 15 years of economic growth. The coalition Government had not been elected, cuts in public spending were yet to bite and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council still existed. However it was clear that things were about to change and the UK cultural sector prepared itself for recession.

Although Happy Museum was inspired by thinking which long predated the economic ‘crisis’, its inception was timely. Its ambition was to inspire museums as cultural institutions to re-imagine their purpose, to interrogate the notion of ‘resilience’ and to address the challenges of the 21st century notably climate change, resource equity and social justice.

We wanted to show that cultural institutions have innate qualities which could foster individual and communal well-being in order to create a more sustainable society.

Moreover we wanted to persuade people that well-being and environmental sustainability were two sides of the same coin.

The Happy Museum took as its starting point, mental well-ness in part informed by US psychologist Martin Seligman. It proposed that individuals or organisations experiencing high levels of well-being would be more capable of responding and adapting to environmental and economic crises.

For many years economists and environmentalists such as EF Schumacher have believed we are living well beyond our means, however the recent economic crisis led many more to question whether orthodox capitalism is the sole means to societal well-being.

Most importantly, the wellbeing and sustainability agendas are now starting to link. The New Economics Foundation has long explored economics ‘as if people and the planet mattered’ and Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth looks at the subject from an international perspective.

The Happy Museum manifesto, and it’s recently revised principles, underpin the project. It proposes viewing people not as audiences but as collaborators, not as beneficiaries but citizens and stewards, seeing museums as participative institutions in which individuals are co-creators of their own space. Museum professionals are ‘active citizens’ bringing personal commitment into their professional roles as the seriousness of the situation demands.

12 museums have been commissioned through two rounds of funding, forming the core of a growing community of practice through which the project creates, tests and shares practice, fosters peer-learning and encourages deeper and more innovative thinking.

Alongside peer-led action research is a programme of econometric research – with a recently published report by Daniel Fujiwara of London School of Economics exploring the value of being an audience in museums using Taking Part and British Household Panel Survey  data.

The report shows people value visiting museums at over £3,000 per year with equivalent methodology valuing being an audience to the arts at £2,000, adult learning at £1,600 and participating in sports at £1,500 per year.

Initially funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Happy Museum has just received a further grant from the Arts Council England Renaissance Strategic support fund and we are delighted to announce a new c. £100,000 Open Commission Fund for new projects as well as possible individual scholarships and a programme of events.

Find out more about the Happy Museum Project.

Hilary Jennings, a ‘Happiness Associate’ for the Happy Museums Project, is a freelance consultant working across the arts, cultural, educational and skills sectors.

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