The Happy Museum Project - Reaching Out to the Community

by KathleenDuffy

Many museums are now extremely accessible to people from all walks of life, including the disabled. The Happy Museum Project is taking these positive developments to a new level.

Museums have changed over the past few years. Where funds have allowed they’ve been spruced up, dusted down, given a lick of paint, digitalised and democratised.

Schoolchildren make regular visits, there are public lectures, ‘behind the scenes’ tours and ‘hands-on’ learning opportunities. Now a project called The Happy Museum Project is making museums even more accessible to local communities by blurring the boundaries between the world of the museum and the world of the people who live outside its walls.

The Museum of East Anglian Life

The Museum of East Anglian Life
The Museum of East Anglian Life

It started with Tony Butler, the Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life .  This  is an open-air museum, complete with historic buildings set in a naturally beautiful landscape.  

The  Museum is not only where the local community can learn about the past life of their area.  Tony Butler felt that it was just as important for the Museum to be a place that recognised and nurtured the present cultural and emotional needs of the local community - their well-being was as important as their material needs.

So the Museum of East Anglian Life began projects that took them out into the community -  for instance, leading the Plough Sunday commemoration in the local church, hosting a beer festival, a November bonfire party.

But the Museum also went beyond the usual local cultural events.  Their mission was to help people to feel empowered and in control of their lives - to reach out to the vulnerable and marginalised.   For instance,  as well as going outside the Museum, the Museum runs learning programmes that bring these people into the Museum itself.  Some of its projects, as described by Tony Butler in an article in Resurgance magazine (1) are quoted as: 

  • Training and skills developments for adults with learning difficulties;
  • Training and skills development for the long-term unemployed;
  • A resettlement programme for inmates from a local  prison;
  • Therapeutic placements for mental health service users;
  • Reminiscence training for carers of people with early-stage dementia;
  • Training schemes for young people with behavioural  problems.

Local people get involved with their museum

It's Personal!


These programmes engaged the participants with their  cultural heritage on a practical and emotional level.  

As an example, the Victorian walled garden is now run by a group of mental health service users and a group of unqualified school leavers has restored an old Fordson tractor. As can be seen from the photograph below of an old steam roller, the Museum has working agricultural implements that have been enrolled into service.

Working steamroller at Museum of East Anglian Life
Working steamroller at Museum of East Anglian Life

Butler noticed how people who used the Museum were carrying on their supportive relationships beyond the Museum walls. New friendships were being formed, people were becoming less isolated and more confident.

The Happy Museum Project Takes Off!


From these positive results, Butler formed The Happy Museum Project.   A resulting paper, The Happy Museum: A Tale of How it Could Turn Out All Right was co-written by Tony Butler, other leading museum commentators  and the New Economics Foundation.  The paper emphasised how museums could inspire co-operation and stewardship of the local area. Although times were economically tough, happiness was as important as economic well-being.  

In Autumn 2011 a grant of £60,000 from The Paul Hamlyn Fund was shared amongst six British museums in support of the Happy Museum Project.  The money will  enable the installation of local community hubs, forming connections with their communities, and  encouraging  sustainability and well-being.

Here are the six museums taking part in The Happy Museum Project, as quoted from Positive News  (2):



The Playful Museum at The Manchester Museum

Manchester Museum
Manchester Museum

Staff will promote playful behaviour in the museum, to enhance wellbeing and happiness of children and families.

The Lightbox, Woking, Surrey

The Lightbox, Woking, Surrey
The Lightbox, Woking, Surrey

Experiencing the museum as a healing environment, a group of participants with mental health problems will curate an exhibition of landscapes and will create their own artistic response to those works.

The Cinema Museum, London

The Cinema Museum Vintage Display Board
The Cinema Museum Vintage Display Board
K Duffy

Local people will be invited to explore the museum’s international collection of cinema memorabilia and to become ‘community curators’, deciding how collections should be put together. (You can read more about The Cinema Museum here)

London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

London Transport Museum, Covent Garden
London Transport Museum, Covent Garden

In partnership with homeless charity St Mungo’s, a social enterprise will be created to engage individuals as Happy Museum volunteers on visible and valued museum community projects.

Godalming Museum, Surrey

Display in the Godalming Museum, Surrey
Display in the Godalming Museum, Surrey

The 1921 community museum will  present hopes for a sustainable future in the area, connecting visitors to the local Transition Town group, allotments and a new local hydro electricity project.

The Story Museum, Oxford

Pembroke Street, Oxford - Where you can find the Story Museum
Pembroke Street, Oxford - Where you can find the Story Museum

The Story Museum has been working in the Oxford community since 2003, running schools story projects, family days and theatrical and story-telling events.  Now they have found a permanent home which will be a new international museum, due to open in 2014,.  The Story Museum  will explore the importance of story for human culture.  Check out The Story Museum website for their future plans and present workshops and events.

The Happy Museum Project - A Positive Future?


The Happy Museum Project is due to be reassessed this year, 2013, and will hopefully be adopted by other organisations.

The idea behind The Happy Museum Project is to discard the old concept of museum visitors as onlookers and to see them as participants.  This involvement can lead to a new found sense of responsibility and stewardship for their local communities,  not to mention individual  personal growth and confidence .

Museums are not just about displaying our past. They also illustrate how life is inevitably about change and how these changes can often bring about transformations in our communities .  These transformations can be positive if people  feel they have an active role to play in these changes. 

 The Happy Museum Project recognises that material well-being is an important factor in our lives, but it is not the key to happiness. It is our connections to our fellow human beings that matter  most.



1.“Museums of Happiness” by Tony Butler in Resurgence Magazine, May/June 2012.

2.“Museums to become ‘happy’, progressive community spaces” by Christie Teal in Positive News Autumn 2011.

3. The Happy Museum Project website.



Updated: 06/04/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 03/08/2013

Hi Mira - The Cinema Museum does have a programme of films and events where people involved in all aspects of the film world come to speak to the community and they show lots of films too . Is that what you meant? Glad you found the article interesting! Thanks for your comment.

Mira on 03/08/2013

These are all some nice ideas to get the community involved and working together. Maybe at the cinema museum they could also offer the possibility to actually watch those movies! :)

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