A participant in Derby Museum's Re:Make project for the Happy Museum Project.

DCMS research questions link between museum visits and wellbeing

Jonathan Knott, 18.11.2015
But museum professionals urge caution over interpretation of data
Recent visits to museums and galleries have no statistically significant link with how happy people feel, according to a new analysis published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DMCS). However, museum professionals working on wellbeing warned against taking the apparent findings at face value.

The analysis, published last week, was based on data from the government’s Taking Part survey from 2010 to 2013. The survey asked people about the cultural and sporting activities they had undertaken in the previous weeks or months and how happy they felt on a scale of one to ten.

The analysis found a “statistically significant association” between visiting a heritage site and attending and arts event in past 12 months and higher happiness scores. Participation in moderate intensity sport within the past four months was also found to correlate positively with happiness. But no similar link was found for visiting a museum or gallery within the past 12 months. Visiting a library within the past 12 months was found to be linked to lower levels of happiness, a finding which the authors said was not fully understood.

DCMS reported a link between engagement with culture and sport and happiness in 2012, using data from the Taking Part survey. But the department considers this new analysis, which uses a linear regression model, more robust as it attempts to control for a range of other factors like income, health and age that may also impact happiness. The report acknowledges that the links found are not evidence of what actually causes higher or lower levels of happiness.

Scepticism from museums sector

Museum professionals working on wellbeing warned against reading too much into this analysis, and suggested that interpreting it was far from a straightforward matter.

Helen Chatterjee, chair and co-founder of the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing, said that she would be “extremely cautious about taking this at face value” and argued that it was in reality very difficult to control for other factors influencing wellbeing. She added that there was a growing body of evidence for the role of museums in improving social inclusion, health and wellbeing.

Mandy Barnett, who leads on research for the The Happy Museum Project, said “Taking Part data allows us to control for a variety of things – but not everything”.

Tony Butler, the chair of the The Happy Museum Project, pointed out that the data did not measure changes in wellbeing over time, and also noted that other factors, such as the personalities of people drawn to different activities, could be relevant. “If nothing else, this shows us that there is more research to be done,” he said.


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Darran Cowd
Collections Officer, National Coal Mining Museum for England
19.11.2015, 09:26
I'm deeply cautious about this sort of reporting.

My first year (a very long time ago) in the sector was spent in the Imperial War Museum, mainly in the Holocaust exhibition area. I don't think anyone coming out from there (or many other museums) after the experiencing such a powerful subject would have said they were happy yet I would hazard a guess that the greater proportion had emotionally connected to the subject in a meaningful way. I certainly agree that happiness and wellbeing is a key aim for museums but statistically shouldn't it be viewed within wider range of emotional responses if we're going to quantify such things and plan future strategy and spend at Government level.

As for the finding, in the report linked to above, that people who "Have visited a library in the last 12 months are significantly less happy than those who have not, even when other factors are controlled for", well I'm just dumbfounded...
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
19.11.2015, 00:01
It would be rather depressing to discover that visiting a museum or an art gallery has 'no statistically significant link' with how happy people feel. However weighed against that is my personal experience that after much more than an hour or two hours going around nearly every museum and gallery I have ever visited, i am mentally and physically knackered, whereas I can't really say the same of watching a film, listening to a concert or a band, playing sport, exploring an outdoors site or walking the countryside. In fact the reverse is often true.

Museums and art galleries are a lot more demanding of their visitors than many other art and leisure activities and if they making the same demands on particular parts of your brain or your body, after a few rooms there is a very statistically significant link to my feeling, I'd like to do something less challenging for a change,please . Perhaps we need to offer more variety which is something heritage sites supply far better than museums or galleries, especially for adults.