'The Happy Museum Project' leaves me sad

May 23 2012

Image of 'The Happy Museum Project' leaves me sad

Picture: The Happy Museum

Did you know about the Happy Museum Project? I didn't. But I do now, and I can't say I feel ecstatically happy. The Happy Museum Paper has been published, written by a learned team, and funded by a well meaning foundation. Like many of these museum world papers, it is a jargon-filled, impossible-to-read exercise in navel-gazing, twinned with right-on thinking and impossible idealism. Here, for example, is one of the paper's top ten tips to being a happy museum:

 5. Lead on innovation towards 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? 

If anyone cares to send in a translation of what this actually means in practice, I'd be most grateful. Of course, you won't be surprised to hear that the root of all this is the premise that museums shouldn't exist to educate and entertain with their collections - that's way too patronising. Here's the Happy Museum view of museums:

Museums are more accustomed to telling than to listening. Understandably, they see themselves as the ‘impartial expert’ whose role is to educate their visitors and, in many cases, they have become adept at presenting information to their visitors in an engaging and accessible way. However, they may be less adept at helping audiences find answers for themselves. [...] Treating visitors as passive consumers underestimates their capacity. Too often there is a one-way monologue whereas what is needed is dialogue that produces lasting change in both visitor and the museum itself. (Museums may be surprised to find that they have as much to learn from their audience as the audience does from them!).

Now I'm all in favour of museums listening to feedback from visitors. But the idea that museums should cease to see themselves as purveyors of expertise and information not available elsewhere is, if you take it to its logical conclusion, profoundly dangerous. The best response to all this can be found in an anonymous comment on the Museums Association website:

Anonymous (MA Member), 23.05.2012, 13:56

I never signed up to be a social worker.

"The Happy Museum" project was very exciting - for the first couple of pages. Yes, of course the primary purpose of museums is to improve lives, and it's thrilling when they do. But the project's call to turn our backs on collections in favour of communities (whatever they might be) left me with a bad taste in the mouth, which Maurice's article has strongly reinforced. 

I came to work in museums because I love old things, their beauty and what they can teach us, and I have aways had a strong belief in their value in bringing joy and insight to society. As a curator, I have always understood my purpose to be the care, study and interpretation of collections. It now seems that the skills and knowledge of collections curators are redundant (as well as the collections themselves), and that we are expected to abandon everything we hold dear (including the loyal audiences who have always enjoyed and sustained museums) to become social workers.

Finally, just when you thought things were getting loony enough, we have the article alluded to in the comment above, by Maurice Davies, the Museums Association's head of policy, who suggests that in these austere times it may be better to close a museum, and forget about looking after the collections therein, because:

Working on Museums 2020 [the Museums Association’s campaign to formulate a vision for the next decade] has led me to think that the core business of museums (like any service organisation) is in fact to have an impact - to make a difference to people’s lives. 

How about this: if times ever get so tough that we can no longer have it all, perhaps it should be the building - and collections care - that we let go, giving priority instead to Keith Merrin’s “facilitating communities to celebrate their own heritage”?

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