The Happy Museum from a distance

By Paul Clarke

Personal circumstances conspired to stop me attending the Happy Museum symposium. One thing keeping me at home was a visit from the Home Education Inspector, which was unmissable really. (We passed the inspection.) But, too interested, I couldn’t keep away from the Twitter stream and the photos coming from Paul Clarke, who I was delighted to see had been employed to document the symposium.

Tony Butler has just written a great post reflecting on the event, and listed some fascinating questions that he wants to pursue. Although each one is worth a thesis and I’m foolishly starting this at midnight, I’m paraphrasing each one and responding with some half-formed thoughts.

1) Why are museums good at ‘high well-being’ but less good at addressing good stewardship of our environment? Some tentative thoughts:

Maybe, because good environmental stewardship is not integrated into our ways of thinking or talking, not just in museums but in the wider culture? We don’t have an ecological epistemology. You might see campaigns about litter or tree-planting or counting birds. But these campaigns don’t reinforce how human wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of ecosystems and biodiversity. Museums endorse and reflect a traditional taxonomy, whereby Natural History and Earth Science are always in different museums or departments from Art, Design, Anthropology etc. Even the question which holds ‘high wellbeing’ and ‘environmental stewardship’ as distinct activities or concerns, reflects this separation (which isn’t to criticise the question or questioner).

2) Why has the dominant radical social justice paradigm in museums been so poor in linking social justice with resource equity and climate change? Some very tentative thoughts indeed:

Funding sources setting the agenda have required museums to focus closely on social agendas. 13+ years of Blairism: Museums & schools have been expected to overcome social inequality, while the Government’s policies on taxation and the liberalisation of capital worsened inequality. The more we saw inequality worsen the harder some of us in the sector tried to tackle it.

Wider society, including the elites of politicians and media commentators, are almost entirely blind to the connections between social injustice and the resource iniquities resulting from agribusiness, food shortages due to climate change, conflict fuelled by fighting over resources and so on. They are, however, starting to wake up to the connections between resource inequity and corporate greed.

Because reports like this (review of 2011 from an environmental perspective) don’t get extrapolated and mapped onto other projections or interpretations of what is happening in the world.

3) Why is it we have to revisit examining the relationship between culture and wellbeing when we have years of experience and analysis? Some rather simplistic thoughts:

From a positive perspective, because we do now need a radical fresh understanding of culture and wellbeing. Cultural research hitherto has been carried out in a vacuum, in which an understanding of wellbeing has a limited frame of reference, one which is not informed by an ecological epistemology. Conventional discourses skew the public debate because culture is generally represented as a decoration above brutish life, a form of escape rather than a return. When culture is not recognised as the fundamental means by which we spread and grow knowledge and thereby develop the means to thrive (not just between our own species but with others) we can only measure its value in ways that devalue it.

To be more critical, it is because we now have a Government which is blundering through a radical reform agenda with a questioning naivety, asking for simple restatements to inform their policies but without maintaining contracts of enough experts (e.g. DCMS civil servants) who have prior experience.

4) It is possible for small amounts of investment to make effective change. Why does larger scale funding often miss the mark?

I’m not sure about this one. I’d need to see a bit more evidence to prove this assertion. Not that I’m sceptical, just that it doesn’t fully accord with my experience. If there is an answer, it’s because large scale funding is usually for buildings and infrastructure, which gets spent up on project managers and concrete. Smaller education, or staff training or community projects which might have more impact on how museums deliver wellbeing are too often tied up by predetermined outcomes, often servicing those big infrastructure projects. These small projects often have conflicting outcomes, by both serving the corporate goals of growing visitors or income and serving social or learning outcomes. So, I’m not sure how common it is for small amounts of investment to make effective change, though I do concede it’s possible.

5) Is risk-taking more likely through funding of ideas and individuals or organisations and projects? Good question, one which I’ve not thought about much:

I guess this question arises from a comparison of funding of museums, where the only individuals funded are a few PhDs or researchers, compared to the arts, which is a more individualistic domain. I’d like to see more funding in the museums and heritage sector for creative enquiry, for individuals or loosely constituted teams. I’d very much like to benefit from such funding myself. However, I don’t know how much impact such individual enquiry would have on museum organisations (if that’s the way to make effective change). How much would museums have to change to allow an individual or a radical action research project to make a real difference? As I write this I’m remembering that there have been a number of individual creative research projects in museums in the field of cultural diversity, which have been exciting and have maybe helped to radicalise the profession if not the organisations themselves.

Ultimately I think this isn’t so much about individuals vs organisations, but open-ended outcomes for research vs closed outcomes that serve the most corporate aspects of an organisation’s agenda.

6) Could the ancient notion of the Commons provide a framework to deliver this change, gathering virtual and real-time communities around a desire to share and steward heritage?

Yes! And yes again. For me the Commons isn’t just an ancient notion but a current and highly relevant notion. Fundamentally, the commons are goods that are all shared (universally) and are all gifts (so, impossible to measure economically, or commodified, but important to value).  The idea of the commons sits well with taking a long view: they exist to be preserved and passed down the generations. Just right for the museum sector. The beneficiaries or owners of the commons are not just humans but all species. The commons is a principle that should be applied to both our biosphere and our digitally-powered knowledge sphere, and both need preserving as heritage and nurturing as new growth. Our knowledge sphere should be applied to preserving the biosphere as commons. Museums must start seeing their digital strategy as much more than marketing through a web presence but exposing their collections to the hive mind for this purpose. It’s much more than just a technical or legal challenge of digitisation. It’s a philosophical and educational challenge too.

7. This change can only happen if embedded within highly participatory organisations, right?

Well, yes. Participation and the commons go hand in hand. But I’ve run out of steam now. Let someone else have a go.

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2 thoughts on “The Happy Museum from a distance

  1. Pingback: Happy Museum Symposium – reflections | happymuseumproject.org

  2. Pingback: Museums: ‘high well-being’, stewardship of the environment and happy museums « Museum Network Warwickshire

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