Alt text a woman and a man discussing archive objects set out on a desk, in the background are boxes of further archives on shelves.
Experts -including Time Team's Phil Harding- discussing archive objects. Image by Tom Westhead. © Wessex Archaeology.
Experts -including Time Team's Phil Harding- discussing archive objects. Image by Tom Westhead. © Wessex Archaeology.

Lost and Found: Treasures in the Archive

A successful online digital heritage wellbeing project.

This COVID-19 inspired project showcases the potential of online heritage engagement to improve individual wellbeing for diverse participant audiences.


Lost and Found: Treasures in the Archive, a project developed by Wessex Archaeology, was conceived as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic as a means of supporting the mental wellbeing of individuals unable to participate in person with our activities.

A digital pilot project conducted in April 2020 with a small group of individuals with mental health conditions showed the potential of a digital wellbeing offer, and this enabled the design of a full project supported by Historic England’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund.

The project took a facilitated heritage-themed engagement programme online to create an interactive digital museum. Its aim was to generate stimulating activities in which participants could connect to a community, thereby promoting a sense of wellbeing and social interaction otherwise denied to them by lockdown restrictions.

Without realising it at the time we were researching the viability of digital engagement with heritage themed activity to improve individual wellbeing.

Project configuration

The programme was delivered online over five sessions as an inclusive participatory experience affording learning opportunities, social connection, creativity, decision-making and curation. A common format was adopted:

  • Week 1. What is in the Box? Four archive objects revealed to the group prompting mystery and/or debate as to their purpose or origin.
  • Week 2. Curate. A follow up discussion about the objects led by experts and group shortlisting of two objects to add into the digital museum.
  • Week 3. Create. Group taken through the process of 3D scanning of the chosen objects.
  • Week 4. Become the Expert. Exploring how the chosen objects should be explained in the digital museum.
  • Week 5. Legacy. The final session showing the chosen objects realised as virtual objects and shown as they will be in the Interactive Digital Museum.

Participants in the programme remotely selected artefacts held by Wessex Archaeology in its stores for the production of an online, interactive digital museum exhibition (The Museum of the Lost and Found-Wessex Archaeology).

The filmed sessions were facilitated by the Engagement Team and Research staff at Wessex Archaeology. Creating a psychologically safe online community was a paramount design consideration and was achieved by a welcome session comprising group introductions and familiarisation with the digital platform.

Managing the end of the programme, often the point at which participants experience a dip in wellbeing, was done by holding a celebratory event a few weeks afterwards. This helped to cement the social connections that had been made and to explore future opportunities to remain connected with heritage. Groups were kept small, about five people, to avoid participants being lost in the crowd on-screen, to encourage engagement and to maximise any wellbeing impact.

Participant criteria

Participant recruitment was achieved via establishing trusted relationships with partner organisations located in Wiltshire, Sheffield and the Midlands. Each group comprised volunteers from these diverse referral organisations:

  • The Richmond Fellowship;
  • Salisbury District Hospital,
  • Wiltshire Centre for Independent Living;
  • Carers and ex-carers Support Group,
  • Headway Brain Injury Charity;
  • Sheffield Mind;
  • Braidwood School for Deaf Children;
  • and Sheffield Young Archaeology Club

The sample size (n) was 41 comprising 29 adults (male – 11; female – 18) and 12 children (male – 7; female – 5).

Evaluation methodology

A mixed-methods approach was adopted for the evaluation of this project comprising: attendance and monitoring data; digital feedback forms sent out at the end of each session; reviewing recordings of the sessions; feedback sessions with the group leaders; reflective verbal feedback post project; verbally recorded case studies; staff feedback; and evaluation of the amount of engagement and the quality of the experience. Open questions enabled the qualitative evaluation to adopt reflexive thematic analysis to identify patterns and themes.

The quantitative data for psychological wellbeing impact was captured via an adapted version of the UCL Museum Wellbeing Measures Toolkit. This mixed-methods approach afforded significant fidelity in accounting for the effectiveness of the course and allowed better understanding of what was working, or not working, for the participants.

Evaluating the impact of the programme

The online digital questionnaire generating the data for evaluation was completed by 59% of the 41 participants and showed high levels of satisfaction with the course design, content and facilitation (Chalmers, 2021).

The evaluation results indicate that the project was effective in achieving its stated aims and intended outcomes across the different demographic groups for wellbeing and engagement, with building social connections, promoting learning and boosting confidence as key themes. The creative homework element in the programme design was an unexpectedly significant factor in the success of the course. There were no drop-outs and participants attended the majority of the sessions indicating that an online digital intervention offers an accessible and effective alternative to in-person activities.

Conclusions and recommendations

This project arose out of the immediate crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of isolation and a deterioration in the mental health and wellbeing of individuals. The evaluation results show the potential of digital online projects in combatting such issues.

Creating psychological safety for participants by ensuring inclusivity and confidence in using digital platforms is a key design consideration for online wellbeing initiatives. The recording of sessions and the creation of an online museum introduces the idea of digital curation and the extension of beneficial effects in terms of access to heritage for those unable to physically interact with it. This legacy aspect of a digital engagement project is worthy of further exploration.

Online wellbeing interventions are not, however, the panacea for all participants.

Interfacing with others online was not universally straightforward, or comfortable, and there may be value in feeding back to companies developing digital engagement platforms the experiences of the therapeutic user community. A few participants expressed regret in being unable to handle the artefacts and Thomson et al’s (2012) research on artefact handling in a hospital setting with a comparison group that accessed pictures instead is instructive here.

The inclusion of ‘homework’ is believed to have been a significant aspect of this project. In addition to maintaining an engagement link between the live sessions, it provided an opportunity for participant reflection and creativity based on the sharing of personal objects to stimulate talking points that were readily shared with the group. Given this and the relative novelty of digitally delivered, heritage-themed interventions to improve wellbeing, further research in understanding how such online programmes are effective would be beneficial.

Three recommendations for study are:

1) Realist Review to understand the causal mechanisms

The authors believe the sample size and the richness of the qualitative data makes the project suitable for a realist review (Pawson and Tilley 2004) to explore in greater depth how this intervention impacted the participants. Realist research regards programmes as theories incarnate and seeks to analyse an intervention in terms of the context (the necessary conditions for change to occur), mechanisms (the active ingredients that generate effects), and the outcomes (what changes) and their interactions to develop causal explanations to explain what works for whom, in what context and why. This context-mechanism-outcome (CMO) configuration could contribute to the development of a programme theory to inform or test the design of similar projects.

2) Application of Self-Determination Theory to evidence efficacy

The evaluation identified themes of confidence, socialisation, decision-making, learning and a sense of pride. Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (2000) identifies three basic human needs, namely autonomy, competence and relatedness: these clearly relate closely to the outcomes of the project. The theory might provide an interpretive lens with which to demonstrate the efficacy of this type of intervention to funders.

3) Potential synergistic effects of heritage activity and creative expression

A creative element was incorporated in the programme design via the ‘homework’ tasks and the evaluation recorded the positive benefits of its inclusion. Creative art activity is a design feature of two ongoing ‘social prescribing’ pilot projects led by archaeological organisations:

Further research into how the combination of heritage activity and creative expression in a wellbeing programme can complement, or magnify, each other is warranted to understand the potential synergies and benefits.

About the authors

Name and role

Giles Woodhouse

Title and organisation
Chief Strategy Officer at Wessex Archaeology
Giles is the Chief Strategy Officer at Wessex Archaeology with a responsibility for developing the organisation’s public benefit capability, and a doctoral student at the University of Bath conducting research in evidencing the social value of heritage engagement to policy makers.

Name and role

Leigh Chalmers

Title and organisation
Heritage Inclusion Development Specialist at Wessex Archaeology
Leigh Chalmers is the architect of the Lost and Found project. She has 20 years of experience as a practitioner in designing and facilitating heritage and creative art-based wellbeing programmes across a broad spectrum of participant groups.

Further information

Braun, V., and Clarke, V., 2006. 'Using thematic analysis in psychology'. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), pp. 77-101

Chalmers, L., 2021. Lost and Found: Treasures in the Archive. 8326 Final Report. Wessex Archaeology (unpublished)

Pawson, R. and Tilley, N., 2004. Realist Evaluation. London: Cabinet Office

Ryan, R. and Deci, E., 2000. 'Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-being'. American Psychologist, 55(1), pp. 68-79

Thomson, L., Ander, E., Menon, U., Lanceley, A. & Chatterjee, H. 2012. 'Quantitative evidence for wellbeing benefits from a heritage-in-health intervention with hospital patients'. International Journal of Art Therapy, 17(2), pp. 63-79

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