Why we need happy museums

I was part of the Museums Association conference panel about the Happy Museum Project yesterday. Tony Butler, May Redfern and I gave three short presentations around the role of museums in promoting wellbeing in the face of global challenges. It was tricky to draw out the complexities of the issue in a short session and it closed with some useful provocations from the floor that could have done with more space, so this post aims to address them from my viewpoint. The three final challenges formed a tetchy chorus that Happy Museum points to a non-existent gap in practice and does not acknowledge the wealth of excellent community practice by museums.

May Redfern used her slot to voice typical challenges you might expect from client groups to a museum happiness project. I hadn’t digested this before being questioned from the floor, so I wanted to clarify my thoughts here. May drew on her experience in Castleford to point out that impoverished groups are more focused on more practical and long-lasting impact, and may not respond to what seems like either ephemeral fun or angst about the planet that only the affluent have time for.

In combination, there was an overall sense of challenge to the Happy Museum project, that museum people were unclear of its rationale and that disadvantaged audiences may not feel it matches their needs. Some couldn’t see the links between our three presentations, as I focused on the environmental context, Tony described the project overall and May challenged it from a social justice perspective. In later chats with participants, the need for clarity arose with queries like these: If the project’s aim is to engender happiness through work on rights and equalities, then museums have been doing it for years. If its aim is to tackle environmental challenges, which are pretty disturbing, then why call it ‘happy’? (To sugar a bitter pill?) Is it really about happiness or addressing harder issues?

It’s important to distinguish between happiness as pleasure-seeking and what many, such as Martin Seligman, are calling Eudaimonia in a broad movement for positive social change. Wellbeing is achieved through action, mainly with the aim of living sustainably. Pleasure and fun are an important part of wellbeing but are not the goal of a good life. The Happy Museum is perhaps more about Eudaimonia than happiness (but then who’d want to use such an arcane title!) In working with non-thriving communities, it would be necessary (and normal) to foreground practical and positive actions towards thriving, addressing basic needs on a par with and through cultural engagement, rather than suggesting audiences should leave their troubles behind to have some fun, or perhaps a taste of high culture.

This project is really about questioning what we mean by happiness than promoting it. As Tony commented in the session, it is about building on existing good practice to address the question: Does a culture geared towards material wealth make us happy? I think he was right to say that the museum sector has not addressed this question overtly or consistently enough. The rationale for a serious rethink about the mission of museums is that we are facing unprecedented and worsening environmental (and therefore economic) challenges, the root causes of which are excessive consumption and use of fossil fuels. The project is taking a radically different perspective, not radical in the sense of asking people to smash capitalism or run for the hills, but in the sense of addressing root causes and seeing the big picture in order to improve quality of life.

The confusion about whether Happy Museum is about happiness or the environment is a symptom of the ‘splitting’ of issues in public discourse. I have at times been made to feel awkward for my green perspective. I think this is explained by the false opposition of environmental and social justice. When people challenge me they suggest that to tackle the planet’s problems is to trample on dreams and to care less about people than matters technical or numerical. Jocelyn Goddard commented that we should be more positive about progress made by museums on wellbeing and not fuss over semantics. This is right. However, I think there is always room for clarity on terms, to ensure discussion is not at cross purposes and to reduce antagonism.

At the end of my slot I asked: If a ‘wellbeing not wealth’ mission means your museum challenging the status quo, what are the risks to your museum? This wasn’t really discussed further, and I wasn’t sure if this was because people weren’t ready to be so radical or because they thought they were already doing work that was challenging enough. I asked it because I have often been told that such a radical stance would risk a museum losing funding, and individuals being seen as ‘out of line’. How does a Government-funded body place central to its mission work which undermines the credo of a Government to generate wealth, despite the cost to the environment and the poor (despite its sticking plasters of Big Society and Compassionate Conservatism)? I thought it might be helpful to spell out, with some diagrams on this link, how a radical stance is a profoundly positive one, in comparison to the status quo which is driving us all to unhappiness.

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2 thoughts on “Why we need happy museums

  1. I think that your sentence “This project is really about questioning what we mean by happiness than promoting it.” captures much of what was lost in the discussion. And possibly what confuses people with the title of the project? Doesn’t mean the title needs to change. I empathise too with your frustration at not really having time to reflect on May’s piece or to have long enough for the discussions that follow – that’s the fault of the event and common to almost every conference. I wondered at the organiser’s agenda – did they set it up to create another “false opposition”?

    • I don’t think the organisers wanted to create a false opposition. Hilary and Lucy organised the panel, with some constraints given by the MA including a change of session title. They were happy for May to raise the challenges she did, precisely because the project is about questioning not promoting happiness. I think it just needed more time and groupwork to draw out the issues.

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