Visitors at Avebury henge, Wiltshire
Visitors at Avebury henge, Wiltshire © University of Reading
Visitors at Avebury henge, Wiltshire © University of Reading

Wellbeing and Historic Environment: Why Bother?

Exploring the relationship between wellbeing and the historic environment.

Historic England has produced an assessment, 'Wellbeing and the Historic Environment', that sets out the available evidence for the role of the historic environment in promoting health and wellbeing and looks at the ways in which that relationship could be explored further, both by Historic England and more widely.

What is Wellbeing?

Wellbeing ‘is quality of life and prosperity, positive physical and mental health, sustainable thriving communities’

 Research by the 'What Works Centre for Wellbeing' defines wellbeing as ‘about people, and creating the conditions for us all to thrive. It is quality of life and prosperity, positive physical and mental health, sustainable thriving communities’

  It recognises that humans are emotional and that they value non-financial benefits, so how you feel and your quality of life as you experience it matter too.

In 2008 the Government Office of Science published a report on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, in which they promoted the five ways to wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). These were created as suggestions for individual action to promote the process of wellbeing. Wellbeing and mental capital affects people’s life satisfaction and ability to learn and ultimately is about enabling everyone to fulfil their own potential.

If you prefer text format -for example for screen readers- you can also access a text alternative to the infographic on 'five ways to wellbeing'.

Wellbeing is politically and conceptually linked with addressing health inequality and social cohesion as long-term government priorities

Wellbeing evaluation can directly feed into and respond to more recent Government calls for wellbeing, integration and cohesion (for example, Culture White paper, the emerging Civil Society Strategy, and the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper). Government has recognised that Gross Domestic Product is no longer an acceptable indicator of a nation’s wellbeing because while it is rising social inequality is increasing. Wellbeing therefore is now a policy issue, politically and conceptually linked with addressing health inequality and social cohesion as long-term government priorities. In our assessment we provide evidence for creating the following:

  • A framework for considering wellbeing and heritage, designed to help Historic England develop a contribution to the agenda
  • Strategic objectives for wellbeing and the historic environment formulated through the Five Ways to Wellbeing (Give, Be Active, Keep Learning, Take Notice, & Connect)

A Framework for considering wellbeing and heritage

The framework demonstrates the relationship between wellbeing and heritage in 6 ways.

Heritage as a process.

This is about doing, most commonly in heritage circles through volunteering as an active and committed relationship over time, a process that yields wellbeing outcomes. Many volunteer projects tend to capture a limited demographic of (self-selecting) employed, educated and higher socio-economic groups.  Examples such as Operation Nightingale and Homeless Heritage provide models for creating opportunities with non-heritage or more vulnerable groups. There is potential to do more along these lines.

Heritage as participation

A large body of research indicates that cultural engagement is linked to wellbeing

 This is about visiting sites of cultural interest. The subject is supported by a large body of research which indicates that cultural engagement is linked to wellbeing.  Surveys are useful but limited because the degree of improvement can be too slight to be statistically significant; bias capture of higher socio-economic groups and causality are difficult to determine without greater contextual understanding of a person’s life. It relates best to curatorial practices.

Heritage as mechanism

This is about using cultural assets to bring people together for therapeutic or social purposes to provide a common point of interest or experience. Multiple examples exist, including, at a large scale, the British Museum Reminiscences programme and, at a local level, projects such as the memorialisation at the Chattri Indian Memorial, Sussex. This collaboration between the Undivided Indian Ex-Service Association, the Brighton and Hove Hindu Elders Group, members of the armed forces and police, the mayor and local people, maintains the unique and fittingly dignified memorial service to the Indian soldiers that died in the First World War.

The benefits of social interaction, creative opportunities and sharing memories may contribute towards social cohesion through sharing experiences and developing new connections. This has significant potential for the historic environment, especially in community and place-based initiatives.

Heritage as healing

Assessment of patients handling museum objects revealed a number of  benefits such as thinking and meaning-making, self-esteem and positive interactions

 This is about therapy through the properties of cultural heritage. Qualitative and experiential assessment of patients on wards handling museum objects revealed a number of transactional benefits such as thinking and meaning-making, self-esteem and positive interactions. Other projects on disadvantaged young people, including those with poor mental health, found that connectedness was the major outcome of project work, but also that they experienced an increase in their self-awareness, self-expression, sense of belonging and ability to relate to others by seeing things from different perspectives.

Heritage as place

‘place-shaping’ - ensuring that local people have a voice, feel empowered and feel a sense of belonging

 This is about reclaiming a sense of place, which can positively contribute to countering social isolation and environmental degradation. There has been a wealth of research on this subject (see Heritage Counts for aspects of this) and specific studies have articulated the character of place to the feelings of its inhabitants (for example, '20 Years in 12 Places'). Does the historic character of a place have the potential to support new-found expressions of community and shape an existing sense of belonging into a shared experience? Developing this further, the idea of ‘place-shaping’ naturally emerges; ensuring that local people have a voice, feel empowered and thereby feel a sense of belonging. Culture and heritage generally are understood as key methods of generating belonging.

Heritage as environment

The beneficial link between nature and wellbeing has been extensively researched and some findings can be usefully applied to the historic environment yet the gaps in our evidence need to be filled, primarily in the area of understanding what historic characteristics of a place (building or landscape) best promote wellbeing.

Strategic objectives

The role of heritage in improving wellbeing can therefore take many forms. Given our role in supporting successful place making and providing local historic environment advice, we are especially interested in the role of place to a community’s sense of identity and belonging.

Some of the ways this relationship may work for individuals and communities are by:

  • Combining physical activity with outdoors and cultural heritage
  • Forming a new relationship with the past that creates new perspectives
  • Utilising and developing skills and feeling meaningful through contributing productively to something
  • Providing social interaction and creativity that relates to links with the past
  • Creating a long-lasting benefit through increased self-awareness and social networks
  • Developing a wider collective sense of community, belonging and equality of inclusion through place-based initiatives.

Strategically addressing this as an organisation could involve three distinct approaches.

  1. Working with existing and, especially, new partners to consider the historic environment’s potential to support wellbeing and life satisfaction, and ensuring evaluation methods are consistent and comparable with approaches being developed by strategic partners such as the What Works for Wellbeing Centre.
  2. Using the Five Ways to Wellbeing (Give, Be Active, Take Notice, Connect and Keep Learning), to articulate the historic environment’s potential to support it.  An example of this might be a simple model setting out how the Five Ways could act as drivers for a strategic organisational approach.
  3.  As an organisation Historic England is working to ensure the wellbeing of its staff, and has various iniatives on mental health and staff support. There is clear evidence from a recent staff questionnaire that the wellbeing of staff would be improved further by our work having a demonstrable and intentional impact on society as well as on the historic environment. Clearly the public value of what we do is an integral part of our motivation to work in this sector, so social impact and staff wellbeing are explicitly linked.

What next?

Wellbeing can be best linked with the heritage of the everyday

 Wellbeing relates most closely to the neighbourhood, whether through local action, connecting with local people and groups or our local environment. By extension, therefore, wellbeing can be best linked with the heritage of the everyday.

Next we will be initiating projects and further research with new stakeholders and partners within the structure of Historic England’s Research Agenda in order to test our conclusions and trial methodologies for evaluating impact.

Based on our research we believe planning for wellbeing outcomes can be a mechanism for diversity and inclusion by breaking down barriers of access. We aim to work with local authorities to promote wellbeing and engagement with the historic environment through social prescribing; by developing wellbeing through the historic environment, by achieving local sustainability in new ways, relationship between people and place to empower local voices

Might this mean that we achieve the aspiration, as stated by a staff participant at a wellbeing event, that “Wellbeing has the potential to properly fulfil our remit of being for everyone by engaging marginalised and overlooked communities”?

About the authors

Dr Linda Monckton

Head of Communities Research, Historic England

Dr Linda Monckton, FSA, is an architectural historian who joined English Heritage, now Historic England, in 2003, first as a Senior Investigator and then later as Head of Research Policy for Places of Worship. She is currently Head of Communities Research. Her publications include works on religious buildings from the middle ages to the present day, post-excavation architectural fragments, heritage law and policy, and secular architecture from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Sarah Reilly

Communities Analyst, Historic England

Sarah Reilly is an archaeologist who joined Historic England in 1996. Working out of Fort Cumberland she carried out a range of excavations and building fabric recording projects. In 2006 she joined a new ‘Local Government Liaison’ team, managing our relationships with local government agencies, primarily IHBC and ALGAO, and leading on a range of programmes associated with Heritage Protection Reform, local government service delivery, and Historic Environment Reviews. Now Communities Analyst in the Strategic Research and Partnerships Team, she is currently concerned with heritage, communities, wellbeing and measuring impact.

Further reading

Ashley, S L T 2016 ‘Acts of heritage, acts of value: memorialising at the Chattri Indian Memorial, UK. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 22(7), 554–567

BritainThinks 2015 20 Years in 12 Places: 20 years of Lottery funding for Heritage, A report prepared by BritainThinks for the Heritage Lottery Fund

Department for Culture Media and Sport 2016 The Culture White Paper

Finnegan, A ; Nimenko, W. and Simpson, R. G. ‘Rear Operations Group medicine: a pilot study of psychological decompression in a Rear Operations Group during Operation HERRICK 14’, Journal of Royal Army Medical Corps 2014, 160:295–297