The Happy Museum Project is a creative enquiry to re-imagine the purpose of museums. The brainchild of Tony Butler, the Project was borne out of observations he made in his then role as Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket.
Supported by a Paul Hamlyn Foundation Breakthrough Award his proposition was launched in 2011 with a Manifesto – The Happy Museum – A Tale of How it Could All Turn out Alright including a number of core principles which 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.
From 2011 – 2014 the Happy Museum tested out and interrogated the manifesto and it’s principles through a programme of funded commissions in museums across England and Wales – supported by Arts Council England and CyMAL. The first six commissioned projects were announced in 2011, followed by further rounds in 2012, 2013 and 2014. During this period the growing Community of Practice met at three annual Symposia and their experiences and thinking fed into a revision of the Manifesto Principles in 2013.
‘The HM community of practice has been one of the most valuable tools throughout the project. The opportunity to share, interrogate and be challenged by the HM team and peers has encouraged us to push ourselves and our project.’ – commission.
In 2014 this learning informed the creation of a suite of resources including case studies and tools which form the basis of a How To guide to becoming a Happy Museum. It has been supported by a programme of open events and workshops to share the learning with the wider sector.
Alongside this programme of action learning in museums we commissioned a ground-breaking piece of econometric research with Daniel Fujiwara of the LSE Museums and Happiness – the Value of Participating in Museums and the Arts measuring the value of museums to people’s happiness. We also developed a major new research programme – the LIFE survey, which will explore how museums create well-being, and how significant that well-being is.
In 2015 we announced an ambitious 5-year Plan for the project with the ambition that Well-being and Sustainability become as familiar and relevant to museum thinking as Learning and Participation.
Along the way the programme had international reach with the HM team presenting papers across UK, Europe, to Australia, the US and soon to Brazil.
It has influenced policy thinking around Well-being and Sustainability and advocating successfully for the particular role of culture and museums. In 2011 the Office of National Statistics announced an open consultation on the first set of national well-being measures – which did not include measures on Arts, Culture and Heritage. HM used its networks and profile to campaign for the successful inclusion of measurement of ‘engagement with arts/culture’ from the outset.
HM was delighted to see the publication of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Well-being Economics’ report on Well-being in Four Policy Areas included Arts and Culture. This cements the role of Arts and Culture in Well-being policy development and is a direct result of advocacy work by HM with the APPG last year, giving evidence at a key APPG session. As the report notes – ‘Arts and culture play an important part in all our lives, and well-being data will help make the case for spending in these areas.’
As the UNESCO sustainability framework identifies
‘… a sustainable future – whatever form or forms it takes – will be decided by people in relation to their cultural traditions and values.’