Thursday, 17 August 2017

Keynote Interview: "If Not Here, Where? The Museum as Bridge in Polarized Times"

Tony Butler is Chair and Founder, the Happy Museum Project and Executive Director, Derby Museums, UK. Tony Butler will be presenting the Keynote Address titled “If Not Here, Where? The Museum As Bridge In Polarized Times” at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, September 21, 2017 at our upcoming conference

Can you describe the Happy Museum Project and how it helps museums address pressing social and environmental issues in new ways?

As Director of Derby Museums, I love looking at Joseph Wright’s painting A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun in Derby Museum. Painted in 1766 at the height of the British Enlightenment, it shows a group of children and adults listening attentively to a learned man explaining the wonders of the planet and the universe. The people in this picture are curious, eager to learn and attentive to the teller. Our museums, inspired by the human instinct to acquire, categorize, and show off objects, help us to make sense of our place in the world.

The Happy Museum Project looks at how the museum sector can respond to the challenge of creating a more sustainable future. It provides a leadership framework for museums to develop a holistic approach to well-being and sustainability. The project re-imagines the museum’s purpose as steward of people, place and planet, supporting institutional and community well-being and resilience in the face of global challenges.

The project has worked with 35 museums in England and Wales to undertake small interventions exploring these ideas. Commissioned projects included: • In Canterbury - A ‘pharmacy’ made of recycled paper dispensing well-being treatments in the museums suggested by local people. • In the Garden Museum, Lambeth - A community run winter cutting garden exploring the ethics of the flower trade. • At the London Transport Museums - A safe space, conversation hub with homeless charity in London. • At Woodhorn Colliery Museum - A comedian in residence exploring how laughter, humour, and comedy can be used in interpreting historic collections.

These museums form a community of practice through which the program creates, tests, and shares practice, fosters peer-learning, and creates spaces for deeper and more innovative thinking. This is all backed by programs of research and advocacy which underpin and share thinking within and beyond the museum sector.

Why do you think it is important that museums take on the role of agent of social change?

As open and public spaces, museums must be mindful of our environment and the need for a more equal society. They should also seek to change perceptions of the world so that people look at their own places differently.

The function of museums as social spaces is significant. With recent trends seeing city space being increasingly transferred to private ownership, museums are an important bulwark against the erosion of the public realm. For many people, a museum visit is not a solitary activity but an opportunity to spend time with family or to meet up with friends. Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London, has described the centre as, first and foremost, ‘a place for encounters.’

We want museums to encourage active citizenship; challenging individuals to be more active within civil society (and includes individuals working in museums as well as their communities). Using what they learn from connections within their communities, the work of museums should better reflect current trends and issues which affect people’s daily lives. Active citizenship also relates to awareness and understanding of connectivity across the world, seeking international associations to contextualize local issues (and vice versa).

Museums encourage visitors to be psychologically ‘present’, with attention focussed completely in the here and now, and on the aesthetic qualities of things. Experiencing this kind of involvement is not only enjoyable in itself, but is associated with wider psychological benefits.

How do you think this work fits into our Conference theme or the work of the AMA?

Having read the recommendations from AMA’s sustainability report, many of its principles resonate with Happy Museum thinking. When we began Happy Museum back in 2011 we talked about sustainability as a three-legged stool of Social, Financial and Environmental qualities. The prominence you place into culture and into health and well-being adds two vital, extra legs.

I was especially drawn to the stages of organizational life in the report, which makes them appear like organisms which might evolve, expand, plateau and sometimes die. I think there is a dangerous ‘myth of permanence’ about museums which leads to many not being prepared to be useful or relevant to their communities. A few years ago, Mark Robinson wrote extensively about adaptive resilience, which though not quite Darwinian in scope, suggested that the most resilient organizations were the ones which could adapt their mission and values to external conditions.

The same could be applied to how communities (or countries) adapt to external shocks. The most resilient are the ones that are able to moderate their behaviours through sharing and giving. I’d suggest that in the light of the Brexit vote – the UK is showing all the signs of very ‘unadaptive’ behaviour!

For more information about the Happy Museum Project, please visit:

Tony Butler will present the Opening Keynote If Not Here, Where? The Museums As Bridge in Polarized Times at the Alberta Museums Association / Western Museums Association Joint International Conference UNITE 2017 in Edmonton, Alberta. For more information about Tony's talk or UNITE 2017, please visit

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