An interview with this month’s Guest Editor Hilary Jennings, Project director of the Happy Museum
This month we’re very excited to welcome Hilary as our Guest Editor; project director of The Happy Musuem, co-founder of the Case For Optimism and co-chair of Transition Town Tooting (to name but a few of the many ventures she is involved with). Her wide ranging portfolio naturally draws upon multiple disciplines and taken as a whole facilitates a holistic view of various global issues. Through the many themes her work touches upon the intrinsic links between sustainability, wellbeing and cultural engagement becomes clear. No issue is viewed in isolation.
To start off her month’s editorial residency we asked Hilary a few questions about how she ended up in her line of work and what it entails.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
Well I work freelance, which I’ve done for about the last 10 years. And I work primarily in the arts and culture sector. I suppose my work has various themes. One would be around well being and sustainability and how bringing those two things together could provide a potential way of looking at the world which might help us get out of the mess we’re in. But I’m also very interested in making, in the importance of using our hands and engaging with practical craft and other making activities. Those are the themes of the work that I do.
Obviously one of the main projects you work on is the Happy Museum. Can you talk a little bit about that for us?
The Happy Museum takes ideas around sustainability and wellbeing and it looks at the current crises that we’re facing in terms of climate change, resource depletion, inequality, you know, fairly systemic issues that we’re facing. Rather than focusing on economic growth and the acquisition of wealth and material stuff, if we were to focus on what genuinely makes us well as humans that provides a framework for looking at a more sustainable way of being on the planet. If you were to take that as a premise it says what would a museum do, how would it use it’s collection, it’s building, its relationship with its audience and community?
So how do you view the role of museums within society?
I think it’s a very interesting time for museums. I think that museums hold our history, they allow us to interpret our history, to investigate it, to consider it. That and the fact that they are largely trusted organisations and they have public space and public collections that can be used for the benefit of all. You can take a very straightforward view of a museum, which is that it is purely to hold our material culture and to use that for research and investigation but you can also see them as having a very broad role. And I think Happy Museum interprets that role very broadly.
How did you develop such a strong respect for and appreciation of museums?
There’s probably 2 strands to that. There’s one with me personally, as I was taken to museums a lot as a child. And from some research that we did being taken to museums by your parents is the most likely indicator that you’ll go to museums as an adult. If I was in a different city or a different country I would always look to see what the museum was to go and visit it as a way of looking more broadly at the place that I was visiting. In parallel to that, in terms of The Happy Museum thinking, I was working in the arts and culture but I was also involved with the Transition Town Movement which has very similar thinking in terms of sustainability and wellbeing and community. Tony Butler, who’s the founder of Happy Museum, was brining that kind of thinking and museums together and so when I saw the role advertised six years ago, it struck a huge chord with me and my colleague Lucy Neal, who became Happiness Associates on the project
In the Happy Museum Project you’ve done a lot of work around the importance of play. What is the importance of the role of play today?
The role of play is essential because it offers a number of things. One thing it is that it offers an openness to different possibilities. It’s not passive, it’s active. It’s a point of creativity, so things come out of play that you can’t anticipate in advance. I think at the moment one of the biggest problems we have is a sense that the future is written already and the future is not good. Paul Allen, who we’ve worked with in Happy Museum, from the Centre of Alternative Technology, has been speaking on this subject for sometime. He can find no positive visions of the world in popular culture at the moment, they’re all negative or dystopian. So while we don’t have any positive vision of the future, we don’t believe that we can create it. There’s a great quote by the futurist John Schaar who says ‘the future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination’. So by creating it we change the future and we change ourselves. And I think that play is the essential point at which we, on a very small scale, change the future. Because we create things that are not set in advance, so if you’re playing you’re not just absorbing something created by someone else, you’re creating something.
Talking about creativity and innovation, a lot of your work focuses upon applying a creative approach to global issues. So can you tell us a little bit about how you think creative thinking can be useful in pursuit of pragmatic action?
I think it the only approach really, for the reasons I’ve just described. We have to create the future. If you can in any way encourage people to think creatively and have a sense of agency, believing they have a role to play, that there is something they can do that will make things better; that will have an influence. We’ve been sold the lie that we’re passive consumers. If you look at the language of consumption, prevalent in our advertising and our media, whether its passive consumers of television or consumption of stuff, we’re encouraged to be passive consumers rather than active citizens who are impacting our world. I think anything we can do that shows, even on a tiny scale, that we can be creative and impactful are essential.
This idea of consuming without any regard for anything beyond the product being consumed is obviously touching upon another great interest of yours, which is sustainability. What first piqued your interest in sustainability?
Well for me it was becoming involved in a transition town in Tooting. (Transition action is making a change in how you live, where you live.) I’d connected with a friend locally and we’d done various things there. She’d run a film festival I was involved with. We were doing various community things around the pool when she discovered transition towns and suggested setting one up in Tooting. If I’m really honest I didn’t really understand what the concepts behind transition towns were, but it sounded interesting. So whereas some people come to sustainability having worked out what’s going on with the world I came to it and then worked out what was going on with the world. So for me the connection started very much at a community level. It was getting involved with things that were at a scale that I could relate to. I think that’s one of the key roles of transition type activity is that its somewhere between feeling powerless as an individual, because you recycle and you might worry about things, but you don’t feel like you can do very much and then feeling that the government’s not doing enough. So to find something like transition where you can actually be doing active things in your area, that you can see immediate results, that’s really what attracted me to it. So I think without that I’d still be at home feeling worried and powerless. Instead I feel worried and empowered.
1215.today is inspired by Magna Carta and its significance as an embryonic human rights treatise. How does your work feed into questions surrounding human rights?
I think there are two things here. One is that, and it’s a terrible phrase because it’s been so misused, is that ‘we are all in this together’. I’m very frustrated about the whole furore around the EU because actually the biggest issue at the moment is how we’re going to survive as a human race as a whole. And anything that’s dividing us is probably a distraction that we don’t need at the moment. We need to be thinking globally about how we share the resources of the earth now and into the future and, in terms of human rights, we’re all equal. They’re synonymous; I don’t think humans rights is separate from issues around climate change because climate change is going to impact the poorest in the world worst because they’re going to be coincidentally in the areas where climate change is already impacting the most and they’ve got less resources to protect themselves. So if you’re only focussing on human rights without thinking about climate change, you’ve got a big juggernaut coming at you. The flip side of that, is that whenever we have discussions in Transition or Happy Museum and you ask people what they want from life, it’s very often the same things. And they’re fairly simple things really; about family and friends and belonging. When it comes down to it, we’re quite simple creatures; it should be that we can all live well on the planet. It’s got enough for us all.
We’ve read that you’re a keen swimmer. How important do you think an active lifestyle is in maintaining a creative edge and practical focus?
If you were to look at The Five Ways to Wellbeing, from the New Economics Foundation, which I can expand on [in a later post], one of those is keep active. For me swimming is essential component of life. If I don’t do it then I don’t operate properly, physically and mentally. There’s something in it that’s almost as essential as sleep.
And finally, what’s your preferred stroke?
Well, front crawl and I’m trying to do more breaststroke. But I have just won a cup for floating. I floated further than anybody in my swimming club’s history.