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  • Dr. Kiersten F. Latham

The Character Strengths and Virtues of Museums

In trying to sort out what a Positive Museology might look like (see Blog from August 15, 2018), I am going to play around with different sets of concepts and frameworks out there in other fields and philosophies. The first one is from Positive Psychology, specifically the classification of Character Strengths and Virtues. If you are interested in more details about this, you can find it here. Let’s go over these, and as we do, let’s think of them as a way to study or understand museums.

The Classification itself is a handbook developed from many years of work by multiple positive psychology researchers whose intention was to “create a systematic classification and measurements of widely valued positive traits” (Positive Psychology Program, 2016) by providing a theoretical framework to help practitioners in the field. Here are the six classes of virtues and under these are 24 character strengths:

Image from Positive Psychology Program

When I first read about this classification, I noticed that it rang true for me, but the ringing wasn’t just personal or psychological. It was ringing bells in my museological brain. Look these over and you’ll start to notice that all of the Virtues are areas that we talk about in museum work and theory, whether it is about the purpose of the museum or the content or goal of a program.

The first Virtue: one cannot argue that museums are about some sort of knowledge, and in some cases, wisdom. In this Virtue category, we find creativity (yes!), curiosity (of course!), judgement, love of learning and perspective. We’ll need to dig further into those in another blog because there is a lot to say about it.

Courage might seem like an odd one to include in museological thinking but, in this case, let’s focus on the character of the museum itself: bravery, persistence, honesty, zest. Why shouldn’t a museum have these strengths? Why not aim for it? Bravery could refer to doing what is right versus “being safe” (we’ve seen lots of examples of those in the past). And certainly, I would hope all museums aim for honesty.

The third Virtue is humanity, another one that seems obvious for museums, as this is a large part of what museums aim to represent. This Virtue is made up of three simple, but powerful strengths: love, kindness, and social intelligence. Imagine the kind of world this could be if our museums aimed for love and kindness. Even in the midst of telling difficult stories, if there is an intention of love and kindness always threading its way through, how might this affect museum visitors?

The fourth Virtue is my personal favorite, Transcendence: appreciation of beauty, hope, humor, gratitude, and spirituality. For me, this is the area in which I would position my research (another reason I like this framework is to help guide research on museums). Many museums are about the appreciation of beauty; not necessarily beauty itself but the appreciation of it (beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but the ability to see it is an amazing gift). I firmly believe that we need more humor in most things, and especially in museums. This could manifest in the outer museum (exhibits, programs, front line, visitor services) but also in the inner museum, with staff who should enjoy their work, have fun doing it, and play around with ideas and each other. Spirituality in museums is something I am working on fervently on recently in my recent research so I am biased when it comes to its applicability to museums. I take this word “spiritual” to not be religious, but to mean, as Matthieu Ricard says, “something to do with the mind, dealing precisely with the mind and the way you experience the world” (Tippett, 2017). Why have we veered away from the museum as a sacred space?

The Virtue justice seems to be a hot one these days in museums so I doubt anyone would argue against its relevance to museum work. Just look at the strengths that make this up—teamwork, fairness and leadership—all things we have been doing in museums for a long time.

The final Virtue, Moderation, which includes forgiveness, modesty, prudence, self-control may seem more difficult to fit. But I am willing to work on this in the interest of doing an exercise, one that works our way towards a Positive Museology. Look for more in the future. You’ll see more of these brief meditations on positive and contemplative models from me in future blogs.


Tippett, K. (Producer). (2017, July 20). Matthieu Ricard: Happiness of Human Flourishing [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/matthieu-ricard-happiness-as-human-flourishing-jul2017/

Positive Psychology Program. (2016, August 30). What is the classification of character strengths and virtues. Retrieved from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/classification-character-strengths-virtues/