I had a great day and a half at the end of last week in Suffolk, for the Happy Museum symposium.
The event brought together the commissioned projects running as part of the Happy Museum project, with museum sector people who have an interest in the implications of the Happy Museum work.
Our role was to help shape the evolution of the Happy Museum Manifesto, and to share our experience of what conditions lead to the emergence of happiness in a museum context. Happy organisations, happy professionals, happy visitors, happy society. The commissioned projects all sounded like excellent examples of the sort of practical difference that a focus on happiness can make.
But this was no warm, fuzzy concept of happiness. I was surprised to find myself on the first day listening to a captivating talk by Paul Allen of CAT, about the environmental catastrophe we face: its causes, its impacts, and how we can do something about it.
What has this to do with happiness?
Well, from the start Tony Butler reminded us that caring for ourselves and caring for our surroundings are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have happy people without also having a happy environment. The insistence on the role of museums in tackling environmental problems – through their inspiration and their day to day practice – was one of the great things about the symposium.
We also heard on the first day from Andrew Simms at NEF about the role that the past can play in inspiring the future. We don’t need to wallow in despair – looking to our heritage can bring us happiness. America in the 1930s and Britain in the Second World War are examples of how human resilience can rise to the most challenging of circumstances. We even managed to upgrade the track gauge of 177 miles of the great western railway from London to Penzance over the course of a single weekend in 1892. So why shouldn’t we rise to the challenge of changing our consumption-driven lifestyles into something more enriching, rewarding and environmentally sustainable?
The other inspiration I took from the event was hearing more about the Transition movement, which several of those attending had been involved in. It was great to speculate on the role that culture, heritage and the arts might play in Transition.
The event prompted all sorts of questions… Are ‘happiness’ and ‘sustainability’ one and the same concept? What needs to change in the practice of museum professionals in order to achieve the happy state? What are the lessons for the wider heritage sector? What are the implications for governance and the way our museums and heritage organisations are run? There were no answers to these questions as such, but that was not the point. This was a conversation about how to start a new way of doing things, and while there is much that needs to happen now I was excited by the possibilities for the future that the event raised.
(PS Being in Snape also made me happy – as did the chance to have a brief tour of the concert hall. A wonderful re-use of a redundant historic building, providing another clue to the way that our past may hold the key to a successful future.)