The Original Manifesto

In 2011 we launched the Happy Museum Project with the publication of a manifesto – The Happy Museum – A Tale of How it Could Turn out Alright.  The aim of this short paper was to begin a conversation about how the UK museum sector could respond to the challenges presented by the need for creating a more sustainable future.  The paper was authored by Sam Thompson and Jody Aked of the New Economics Foundation along with Bridget McKenzie, Chris Wood, Maurice Davies and Tony Butler of the museum sector.

Our proposition was that museums are well placed to play an active part, but that grasping the opportunity would require re-imagining some key aspects of their role, both in terms of the kinds of experience they provide to their visitors and the way they relate to their collections, to their communities and to the pressing issues of the day.

The Happy Museum Paper framed a creative enquiry to re-imagine the purpose of museums. It included a set of pathways, described in a Manifesto for Transition under eight principles. They  examined how museums might cement the linkage between well-being and environmental sustainability, how they might pursue more mutual relationships within civic society and how they might better articulate the possibilities of a good life to help people in the transition to a low-carbon world.

There was much to interrogate in these principles: Are happiness and sustainability one and the same concept? How do we evaluate culture and well-being?

A series of six commissioned projects explored the eight principles, to see how they make sense to them as a way of looking at museums’ role in re-imagining a society committed to a high well-being and sustainable future.  In this way, we were creating a living manifesto informed by a community of practice, personal anecdote, experience and policy.

Here is a video showing Tony Butler explaining the ideas behind the Happy Museum and describing the original principles:

The Original Happy Museum Principles

The Happy Museum paper concluded with an 8 point ‘manifesto’ intended as a guide for museums wishing to embrace well-being and sustainability (these were revised into our current Principles in 2012):

1. Make People Happy

Seek to understand the importance of well-being, embracing healthy minds not just bodies, and healthy societies not just individuals. Embody and enhance the Five Ways to Well-being, as set out by the New Economics Foundation, which can be summarised as Connect; Be Active; Take Notice; Keep Learning and Give. For more, see Consider, too, how human well-being is entirely dependent on the well-being and abundance of the natural environment.

2. Pursue Mutual Relationships

Find ways to have more mutual relationships with your communities, supporters and visitors. Explore how museum staff and public can work together, with different expertise but equal status, to achieve common outcomes such as making a sustainable locality in which to live and work. Learn from voluntary organisations and social enterprises to try out new models of working with people. Consider the possibility of becoming a mutual organisation, or of running your organisation as a co-operative.

3. Value the Environment – Past, Present and Future

Value and protect natural and cultural environments and be sensitive to the impact of the museum and its visitors on them. Focus on quality and don’t be seduced by growth for its own sake. Contribute responsibly to the social, cultural and economic vitality of the local area and wider world. Acknowledge the legacy contributed by previous generations and pass on a better legacy of collections, information and knowledge to the next generation. Manage collections well, so that they will be an asset that is valued by future generations, not a burden.

4. Measure What Matters

Counting visitors tells us nothing about the quality of their experience or the contribution to their well-being. Listen to the debate about measuring happiness: watch the Office of National Statistics and their research into a happiness index; hear what think tanks and academics have to say about the subject; ask your audience how your work affects them emotionally; don’t wait for someone else to design the perfect metrics – talk to people, understand what makes them feel happier, measure that. And what about the other environmental impacts of your work? Happiness will be short- lived if museums achieve it for this generation at the environmental expense of the next.You need to know about both so you know if you are going the right way.

5. Lead on innovation to transition

Ride the inevitable changes by positively embracing the need for innovation. Show that museums don’t have to be only storehouses of the past but can also be hubs of innovation. Test ways that assets like your collections, staff and communities can be imaginatively applied to current problems. For example, could you work with corporate sponsors to develop products and services that are high well-being, low-carbon?

6. Think Global Be Networked

‘Think global, act local’ should be a guide for museums in transition. Whilst most museums might best support well-being in a specific locality, all could increase the extent to which they make international links, use digital tools to reach wider audiences and open their visitors’ eyes to global histories and contemporary issues. Use your networks to deliver this, but use them in reverse too: collect best practice, other models, partners, new ideas, comments, critiques and feedback in pursuit of perfection.

7. Learning for resilience

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 could lead in developing our understanding of why and how education needs to change to bring about these capacities.

8. Find Your Niche

Sustainable museums will be diverse. Build on all your assets (collections, buildings, knowledge, skills, communities, and audiences) to identify your distinct role. Learn from other museums, and other organisations that bring social benefit, but don’t clone them. Be clear about your long-term purpose and be sure it is what society wants and needs.