Happy Museums

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 22.30.03

I’ve been lucky enough to win some funding from the excellent Happy Museum project to kick off a new collaboration between my colleagues at the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change, Bangor University and the local museum in Bangor, the Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery.  Our project, ‘What’s your Story?’ will develop an app to be used with museum visitors, encouraging them to record their thoughts about objects in the museum via their smart phones or mobile devices, creating a crowd sourced database of formal and informal content.  By enabling individuals to ‘put their mark’ on artefacts, the aim of the project is not only to promote a sense of community and encourage personal creative expression, but also to increase social capital.

The idea for this project was formed when I attended the excellent MuseumNext conference in the spring of 2013.  I was talking for the first time about my AHRC fellowship project, a study of crowdsourcing which looked at a virtual art collection, Your Paintings.  It was a completely different audience than I had been used to presenting to, and I was quite nervous.  I needn’t have been worried – the audience couldn’t have been warmer or more receptive.  For me, the whole conference was an exciting window into a sector that I had previously only skirted around the edges of.  The conference was inspiring and unforgettable, from the incredible keynotes (Rijksmuseum, Science Museum and Smithsonian) to the excellent fringe events (a particularly amazing evening was spent in the Van Gogh museum).  This year’s conference will be held in Newcastle Gateshead in June, and promises to be equally fantastic.

Two presentations provided the inspiration for the ‘What’s your Story?’ project, Tony Butler’s introduction to the Happy Museum project, launched in April 2011, and Hal Kirkland’s awe-inspiring talk about (among an impressive list of other work) the Audio Tour Hack project.  The idea of the museum as a space for increased wellbeing struck a chord, and the imaginative, fantastical world of the audio tour hack struck me as a perfect opportunity to increase that sense of wellbeing.  We applied for the new round of Happy Museum funding as soon as I got back from Amsterdam, and are thrilled and proud to be a commissioned project and part of the Happy Museum family.

Increasing visitor agency is a key theme in museum studies, with an emerging body of ideas on both subtle and overt ways in which ‘museums can facilitate, and not just impart meaning’ (Petrov, 2012). Similarly, two key aspects of psychological resilience are a sense of creating value, and of having agency in the world. The first promotes motivation, self-esteem and further engagement, the latter drives self-belief and a greater connection between the individual and their community. New technologies offer dynamic opportunities for engaging audiences and increasing visitor agency, creating what Nina Simon calls ‘the participatory museum’. In the participatory museum, visitors ‘construct their own meaning from cultural experiences’ (Simon, 2010). As more of our activities move online, new technologies will offer increased opportunities to reimagine museums and cultural encounters.

News about the project can be found here on the blog, over at the Happy Museum and on the new WCBC website (watch this space).


Petrov, Julia ‘Introduction: Objects and Difficult Subjects’ in Dudley, S., Barnes, A.J., Binnie, J., Petrov, J., and Walklate, J. The Thing About Museums: Objects and Experience, Representation and Contestation (London: Routledge, 2012)

Simon, Nina The Participatory Museum (Santa Cruz, California: Museum 2.0, 2010)