The Happy Museum Project meets Zero Carbon Britain

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Paul Allen, CAT’s director of external relations, writes about a recent Happy Museum Project symposium, where he presented the findings of Zero Carbon Britain.

This week I took train across the UK to Saxmundham on the East Coast to present the finding of Zero Carbon Britain to the ‘Happy Museum’ Symposium. This is a radical and innovative project aimed at exploring how the UK museum sector can respond to the challenges presented by the need for creating a more sustainable future. Its proposition is that museums are well placed to play an active part, but may benefit from re-imagining some key aspects of their role.

My role, alongside Andrew Simms of the new economic foundation was to offer a perspective on the global context of the challenges we face, highlight the inter-relationship of practical solutions in environment, energy, economics and well-being, and present our thoughts on how to build positive, yet realistic visions of the future. The symposium participants represented a wide cross section of forward thinking museums from the National Mining Museum of Scotland to the ‘Cinema Museum’ housed in the Old Lambeth Workhouse, Kennington.

It was a very dynamic, interactive and highly motivated event, reflecting the fact that the happy museum project itself seems to be punching well above its weight, with invitations to speak to museums from Australia to Europe. The key difference that the project intends to make is through creating a community of practice to discover a new role for museums to help foster greater wellbeing with less consumption for the communities with which they engage.

Collections and places are being re-imagined in ways that demonstrate the unique offer of museums. One exciting area of their work is to empower and enable the ‘municipal spaces’ museums provide to explore the link between sustainability and well-being – and there was certainly plenty of motivation and interest from those assembled.

From the conversations that followed my presentation it seemed clear to me that in these days where contemporary culture seems to always portray our future as dark and dystopian, it is vital we recognise that to create a positive future, we first have to be able to imagine one. An important first step in this is telling a realistic and joined up story of how we have got to where we are today, and the assembled knowledge and artifacts of museums from mining to rural life hold the potential to really bring this story to life, in a context framed both by well being and through relationships with the natural environment.

The Happy Museum project is informed by a manifesto and is currently exploring six action-learning commissions. It is a fascinating project and well worth a look – to find out more, visit