The Happy Museum

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The Happy Museum – a health and wellbeing for people of all ages at Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds.
Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds, is part of Leeds Museums and Galleries. The Happy Museum is a national scheme which encourages museums to contribute to the health, wellbeing and sustainability agenda.

Our vision for the project was to make the museum a unique centre for our community; to find ways of doing more with less; to have more impact on people and less on the environment; to be organic, holistic and community directed, and; to get to know and develop relationships with community.

Description of the arts activity

In 2013, Abbey House Museum bid to take part in the project, and it ran during 2013 and 2014.
We worked with a range of different groups and ages:

  • Providing storytimes, and multisensory drumming and singing sessions for under-5s.
  • Working with adults who have learning difficulties to build clay sculptures and to make sculptures of giant monks.
  • Working with local conservation groups to help local people grow vegetables.
  • Providing yoga sessions for people of all ages.
  • Working with a local children’s centre to provide a healthy eating programme.

All of the activities were picked to reflect the lifestyle of a medieval monk, and therefore built on our strengths as a site and as a museum.

A lot of the people involved have become repeat visitors, so the programme has clearly been successful in helping them become more comfortable with visiting our spaces.

We have also developed ongoing relationships with many of the voluntary organisations we worked with during the project. Our staff have been invited to join the advisory board of the local children’s centre and this is helping us develop new initiatives as a result.

Many of the people we worked with during the project have told us it has broadened their understanding of what museums can work on. We particularly liked the fact that the initiative encouraged us to take risks and experiment as part of the process.

Details of the project participants

Our project included a range of stakeholders, including:

  • Site staff - the Keeper, Learning & Access Officer and Front of House team. These are the people who were driving, developing and delivering most of the vision in partnership with other stakeholders.  
  • Leeds Museums & Gallery staff- Volunteer Co-ordinator, Community Engagement Team, Learning Team, Audience Development Team, Partnership Officer, Fundraising Officer. These people provided input into the vision and were on hand to offer advice and support but they were also beneficiaries of the organisational change and the learning that took place throughout the project.
  • Stakeholder groups from the local community included: Pyramid of Arts, Local Parish Team- Community Vicar, Pioneer Vicar, Hollybush/The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), Kirkstall Community Gardens, Hawksworth Wood Children’s Centre. Stakeholder individuals and businesses- singers, willow worker, a local yoga teacher.
  • These stakeholder groups/individuals participated directly in developing and delivering the vision. We had worked with some of them before but many of them were either new to us or working with us in a new way. As relationships developed we saw these groups began to lead and develop the direction of the project.
  • Participants in the project included local groups including adults with learning difficulties, volunteers with TCV. Individual participants included people at taster sessions, garden volunteers, and many people we weren’t expecting, including church deacons, scouts, placements with TCV. Some unexpected participants joined in or approached us, having been signposted by other organisations.

Project management

Project management lay with Leeds Museums and Galleries, but was part of a wider national Happy Museum project, so had quality assurance through that. It was free to all participants.
Project cost was around £12k. All participants gave tacit or informed consent to participate by joining in. Recording had the usual 3rd party consent / release form signed.

Evaluation methods and findings

We evaluated the project using the Stories of Change methodology, based on qualitative and quantitative means and using different mechanisms for each audience.

The outcomes were quite diverse, particularly as participants transferred from strand to strand. Members of the Pyramid of Arts craft group and people who decorated monks are now maintaining our raised beds. Members of the Children’s Centre active stories group have decorated a monk.  Many under 5’s have come to multiple sessions. The group we commissioned to make the monks got involved in decorating and promoting the project to other groups with learning difficulties.

The under-5s programme has been really popular both in numbers and evaluations. Transfer rate form one session to another was high.  Numbers of parents feeling more confident and meeting new people was consistently high. Friendships and support networks have grown from the sessions. We have acted on suggestions and people have responded and come to new things. Our Front of House staff were able to take ownership of the under 5’s programme, which they found rewarding.
Work with the local parish team has developed really strong links with the team and through them lots of groups who decorated a happy monk to go in our church. This display has been up much longer than anticipated due to its popularity with the general public and the pride groups have shown bringing friends and family to see it.

The ability to take risks was liberating. We decided not to list sessions on our website or in our council wide publicity as we usually would but to target our advertising to our community. We advertised through fliers and posters in the community and leaflets in the abbey itself. Sessions were still well attended by our community and our regular visitors.    
An unanticipated outcome of the project has been the setting up of a community colour garden at one of our other sites – Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills. Continuing the theme of contributing to the health and wellbeing of local communities, this involves a partnership between the museum and local environmental organisation Hyde Park Source planting traditional plants used in dyeing and then following the process through with a series of workshops on plants and dyeing. The project is run by a combination of paid staff and volunteers and community groups locally have signed up to the workshops, including a local Asian Women’s group interested in textiles.

This project has been written up in West Yorkshire’s Museums: Making a Difference (2016) available online here:

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England