How can cultural organisations across Greater Manchester support a society in which people want to live: one in which people express the care most feel towards their fellow citizens, enjoy higher wellbeing, and hold strong social norms for action on inequality, injustice and the climate emergency?

The challenge

Cultural organisations can play a crucial role in strengthening wellbeing, community cohesion and a commitment to progress on social and environmental challenges. 

The Happy Museum and Common Cause Foundation had embarked on an action learning process, exploring new opportunities for the sector in this role, when the covid pandemic struck. Organisations became focused on immediate survival, the challenges of reopening under social distancing, and the search for a viable business model going forward. But at the same time, the pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighted the sector’s shared propensity towards kindness and connection at times of crisis, and deep social and ongoing health inequalities and injustices. 

The action learning process was refocussed to support a cohort of arts and cultural organisations to explore how they could work to create positive change towards a more caring and equitable society and to build momentum to address wider social and environmental challenges. Crucially, this was a process that, having catalysed, we then left participating organisations to develop and facilitate themselves.

Participating organisations included The Turnpike, Science and Industry Museum, Royal Exchange Theatre and Bolton Museum. 

We secured the participation of pairs of staff from a total of thirteen organisations – galleries, theatres and museums. These included both large organisations such as Science and Industry Museum, Royal Exchange Theatre,
The Lowry and Manchester Art Gallery to smaller organisations such as Bolton Museum, and The Turnpike. 

‘We naturally talk about values in our external conversations, but less with our colleagues. This is a reminder to do this, and to commit to do it.’


‘It was important to us to develop collective consciousness of shared values across Greater Manchester: these conversations were really important to us, at a challenging time.’


‘I am more confident and more compassionate with myself in saying ‘no’ to things – making sure I have the time to do things that I am already doing better.’


‘Funders are also now coming on the journey with us… valuing the process rather than the end result and embedding long term learning through projects.’

Participating organisation

13 organisations

2 people from each organisation

Our approach

Building on evidence about the shared values of the people of Greater Manchester, Happy Museum and Common Cause Foundation worked with participating organisations to explore their civic role at a time when deep reflection on their social purpose was both crucially important and difficult to foreground. 

Monthly workshops prepared participants for wider conversations in their own organisations. We subsequently supported one of the participating organisations, The Turnpike, to take up a convening role. 

We began by focussing on participants’ own organisations, their colleagues and themselves. What were their own values, and how had these been consolidated, or challenged, as a result of coronavirus? How might participants catalyse such conversations with colleagues within their organisations? What approaches might they use to help align colleagues’ responses with a sharpened understanding of organisational purpose at this time?

‘Using this as reinvigoration of the service and to discuss divisions within [it] i.e. between front of house vs back of house values.’

Participating organisation

In the second workshop (October 2020) we focused on individual and organisations’ roles in their communities and in wider society. How might they create conversations to enable people in their communities to share their experiences and priorities with one another? 

The third workshop focussed on embedding change. What had participants learnt from these conversations? What did they want to develop further? What scope did they see for concerted approaches to sharing and strengthening compassionate values across the city region? 

Three network meetings, subsequent to these workshops, were organised and hosted by a participating organisation (The Turnpike), with our support. 

In all of these workshops, the emphasis was on sharing experiences across organisations, supporting participants to lead enquiries within their own organisational context, and promoting peer-to-peer sharing and support between participants. We drew on practical and local examples where values were being expressed and enacted in programmes and communications.

‘Funders are also now coming on the journey with us… valuing the process rather than the end result and embedding long term learning through projects.’

Participating organisation

What we achieved

The pandemic was both an opportunity and a huge challenge: the best of times and the worst of times. For some, it was an opportunity to step off the treadmill and to engage in critical reflection whilst, for others, the high levels of uncertainty about the future of the whole organisation and individual jobs was too high. Particularly within larger organisations, participants struggled to identify areas where they believed they had sufficient autonomy and authority to embrace and enact the changes they were keen to see. 

The programme was successful when senior staff championed the approach, giving others “permission” to engage and to lead, even at the most precarious time in their organisation’s history. High level advocacy was essential (preferably at board level), so that the profound nature and importance of this work, as well as the opportunities it could generate, was understood by key stakeholders and leaders. 

Developing values-based conversations takes time. Even though the pace of the workshops (every 4 to 6 weeks) was effective and supplemented by informal ‘drop ins’, it was clear that conversations within organisations, and with partners and communities, needed longer than the programme allowed. The nature of this work requires an extended programme at a relatively slow pace. Ideally, this would begin with a small number of workshops and be followed by a longer period of one to one surgeries and tailored support to meet the needs of participating organisations. Finally, participants should be encouraged to come back together to share experience and learning.

Learning from the programme can be best expressed through the experience of participating organisations. Manchester Histories were able to develop a new business plan, which included an exploration of the interrelationship between personal and organisational values as well as those of the wider heritage, arts and culture sector. 

The Craft and Design Centre embedded the values of care and compassion into its new business plan and used the time to reflect rather than restart, to re-assess its activity and to identify what it needed to change to better connect with communities and become a community centre and resource. Compassionate values also fed into a longer- term re-visioning with board members, makers, staff and other stakeholders about core purpose and strategic values. The Centre also made small and tangible changes including making time for conversations and ensuring everyone took their annual leave.

The Turnpike, based in Leigh, used the opportunity to reflect on the values underpinning the 50th anniversary of their building and through the process reinforced their commitment to a place-based approach and a foregrounding of compassionate values. Staff found the process helpful in achieving greater clarity about why they wanted to work with certain artists and it resulted in them extending artists more time, autonomy, and encouragement to connect in a sustained way with the communities they served. It also gave them space to think afresh about local partnerships and to think outside of the usual, potential partners and towards multi-agency partnerships where there was a convergence of values.

What we learned

A longer development period would have benefited both artists and archivists, so that there was more time for matching based on personal and professional interest. 

The project demonstrated how artistic practice is an effective way to support archivists to connect with emotive stories in their archives, deepening their understanding of the resources at their fingertips.

It was essential that archivists felt the trust and confidence to give over control to artists in a fluid process that was unfamiliar to them.

Project management of ten new partnerships and ongoing relationships took much more resource than anticipated but was essential to the project’s success. 

Archives are important witnesses to the past. They provide evidence, explanation and justification both for past actions and current decisions.

Back to Our Place

Image credits:  Livia Lazar, Anna FC Smith and Helen Mather