Keith Merrin is the director of the Woodhorn Trust: Northumberland Museums and Archives

In search of the happiness factor

Keith Merrin, Issue 113/10, p19, 01.10.2013
The other day I met three ex-miners who had worked at Woodhorn colliery in Northumberland in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. They are organising a reunion (the colliery closed in 1982 before reopening in 1989 as a museum) and as I left them in the cafe, it struck me that most of our time together was spent laughing.

They stayed for longer and continued the banter, interweaving their reminiscences of a hard and uncompromising working life with jokes and anecdotes.

It was a timely reminder of how humour plays a vital role in connecting people. Woodhorn has just been commissioned to explore this by the Happy Museum Project.

The permanent exhibitions at Woodhorn reflect the distinct humour shared by many local people (from inside and outside of the mining industry).

We use it throughout the panels, object labels and particularly in some irreverent displays, audios and interactives. Yet, the exhibition remains authoritative and often poignant, perhaps more so for the injection of humour.

Humour plays such an important part in our lives, so why should laughter in museums only be heard in the cafe?

It seemed fitting to take this use of comedy a step further with the appointment of our first comedian-in-residence.

To develop the idea we visited the Stand Comedy Club in Newcastle (now a partner in our project) and met local stand-up, Seymour Mace. Hearing Mace talk about comedy was like listening to any other artist.

He emphasised the importance of collecting stories, drawing out the humour in them and reinterpreting them in a way that makes people think again about what is being said – and hopefully laugh.
We also discussed the positive physiological and psychological impacts humour can have on health and wellbeing. This is something else we will explore through the residency.

With support from Mace and the Happy Museum Project, we have put together what we believe to be an innovative residency approach; a stand-up comic will spend time at Woodhorn talking to visitors and staff and responding to the environment and communities of the site.

This will inspire a body of work to be performed at the miners’ picnic in June 2014, Woodhorn’s largest public event of the year. The comedian will also work with staff and volunteers to help introduce the skills of the stand-up into the way we communicate with visitors.

We are convinced that comedy can play a meaningful role in connecting people to each other, their heritage, art and environment. It should be part of the toolbox museums use to break down barriers and offer new ways to help people access collections.

We hope our comedian-in-residence project will demonstrate this and we’ll be sharing the approach with others in the sector. We’re promised a lot of laughs along the way, too.

Keith Merrin is the director of the Woodhorn Trust: Northumberland Museums and Archives


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Roy Stephenson
MA Member
Head of Dept., Archaeological Collections, Museum of London
01.10.2013, 20:07
Eeee a like a canny Geordie quip, delivered in a homage to Bobby Thompson, in the absence of good material, have this for nowt Keith

Bloke went to an Optician. Optician said 'can you see that board'
Bloke said 'Bord!? I can't even see a cage!'
01.10.2013, 13:33
We underestimate just how much happiness human beings derive from the social connections with other human beings. For far too long we have been convinced by corrupt advertising and media, that we should put our faith in material acquisition to attain happiness and we see that ultimately our desires are not fulfilled by this. There is now an application on the web that is designed specifically to make people happy. It is called the Y55 happiness trainer and it can be viewed on the following links:
Roy Stephenson
MA Member
Head of Dept., Archaeological Collections, Museum of London
01.10.2013, 12:26
Wor’ Geordie gans to Lundun. He meets the Queen, she sez ‘how Geordie come in for tea’. She then sez ‘would you like cake or a meringue?’
Wor Geordie replies ‘No queenie yer not wrang’………..