A group of volunteers with repointing tools and buckets of mortar in front of a stone building.
A group of volunteers training in the use of lime mortar at Allen Smelt Mill, Northumberland, in 2016. © Allen Valleys Partnership Scheme
A group of volunteers training in the use of lime mortar at Allen Smelt Mill, Northumberland, in 2016. © Allen Valleys Partnership Scheme

Heritage at Risk, Volunteering and Wellbeing

New research illuminating the relationship between heritage volunteering and wellbeing.

 

Introducing the University of Lincoln’s Heritage at Risk and Wellbeing (HARAW) project

During 2020-21 Historic England has developed its strategy relating to how the historic environment could contribute to wellbeing. As part of this initiative, it commissioned the University of Lincoln to undertake the Heritage at Risk and Wellbeing (HARAW) project to explore the relationship between wellbeing and volunteering in activities dealing with assets on the Heritage at Risk Register, which identifies those sites that are most at risk of being lost as a result of neglect, decay or inappropriate development. The HARAW work has thrown new light on the ways in which heritage volunteering is associated with wellbeing and has identified achievable objectives for the future which will help people, places and our understanding and appreciation of the preserved past.

Wellbeing is a fundamental aspect of health, a priority of the World Health Organisation since 1948 and one of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

HARAW used a mixed methods approach.

First, researchers conducted post-participation interviews with 35 volunteers on ten completed HAR projects across England.

The interviews were recorded online during lockdown in 2020 and generated transcribed texts extending to 180,000 words. Researchers coded the transcripts using a grounded theory approach. This involved analysing the transcribed texts to identify comments relating to wellbeing; ascribing each comment to a sub-category with others expressing a similar concept (adding a new sub-category if no similar comments had previously been noted); grouping sub-categories into related categories; and grouping related categories into themes. Using this method, the themes which characterised the association between wellbeing and heritage volunteering emerged from the data analysis, rather than being predefined from existing theories. This reduces the risk of confirmation bias in which data interpretations are ‘fitted’ to match pre-conceived ideas.

The interviews were complemented by an online survey providing quantitative data. Each theme was then explored for the insights it offered into the particular or unique value of heritage volunteering, a question that has proved difficult to answer, and (in the context of HAR interventions) on the value of volunteering on at-risk assets.

Results of the analysis

Analysis confirmed previous anecdotal evidence from HAR staff at Historic England that wellbeing is associated with HAR volunteering.

Coding showed this wellbeing to fall into six themes: purpose, being, capacity, sharing, self-nurture and self-actualisation. These were all underpinned by the unique HAR experiential ‘offer’ of heritage and at-risk assets.

'Purpose’

Wellbeing in the first theme, ‘Purpose’, was associated with volunteer perceptions that they had chosen their volunteering purposefully, often because it allowed them to indulge their interests in history, archaeology and historic places, but also because it offered an opportunity for altruism (helping other people in a useful activity).

Wellbeing in this theme was strongly related to the heritage context of the volunteering (sometimes to the privileged access it offered), and also to the at-risk status of HAR sites, with many coded categories associated with awareness that the site needed ‘help’.

‘Being’

The second theme was ‘Being’, in which wellbeing was associated with HAR volunteering because it enabled volunteers to express their identity, to strengthen their sense of belonging and to do something they themselves valued.

Wellbeing in this theme was strongly associated with heritage, whether through personal connections to the heritage asset or through volunteers feeling that an interest in heritage was part of their identity. At-risk status was also strongly associated with Theme 2 wellbeing as volunteering offered fulfilment for those whose identity was rooted in public-spiritedness or whose connection was emotional, such as a desire to acknowledge a past achievement or to atone for a past wrong. Site vulnerabilities could also be a source of wistfulness which was associated with wellbeing.

‘Capacity’

Wellbeing in the third theme, ‘Capacity’, was associated with gaining skills, expanding knowledge and diversifying life experience.

Much of this was directly related to the heritage context of the site, including gaining heritage-related skills or satisfaction from the need to be creative when working with irreplaceable assets from the past. At-risk status on the other hand was rarely associated with capacity-related wellbeing, other than in offering improved understanding of the threats that sites can face.

‘Sharing’

Theme 4 ‘Sharing’ wellbeing was associated with volunteers gaining pleasure and satisfaction from engaging with others, with making, strengthening and widening inter-personal connections and with making their lives and communities more diverse and inclusive.

Sharing-related wellbeing was strongly associated with heritage, with happiness, satisfaction and a sense of privilege associated with rendering previously obscure sites more visible (and thus more sharable) and through sharing little-known stories or ‘guild’ historical knowledge. Likewise, at-risk status was strongly associated with wellbeing by generating excitement at new opportunities the saved or repurposed sites offer for sharing with others, and senses of satisfaction and pride in having created something good from an unpromising starting point.

‘Self-nurture’

The fifth theme, ‘Self-nurture’, included wellbeing associated with health benefits directly to volunteers, including increased physical activity, improved emotional and psychological mood, and wider social interaction.

Analysis indicated that wellbeing in this theme was associated not only with the health benefits themselves, but also with volunteers gaining reassurance from knowing that they were doing themselves good. Few of the wellbeing associations in this theme appeared to be related specifically to heritage or at-risk status, except where mitigating threats was associated with raised self-esteem.

‘Self-actualisation’

‘Self-actualisation’ related to wellbeing associated with volunteers’ sense of satisfaction and self-fulfilment from achieving goals, recognising their achievement, increasing their appreciation of heritage sites (and history in general), changing attitudes or behaviour, supporting placemaking, engaging in self-reflection, leaving a legacy, and exploring their aspirations for the future.

Heritage specifically was associated with Theme 6 wellbeing, because it offered reassurance by increasing volunteers’ sense of ‘continuity’ (connecting past, present, and future). Working with heritage also increased volunteers’ capacity to empathise with past lives and even experience the past vicariously in ways which may create similar wellbeing associations to nostalgic remembering and object handling. At-risk status was associated with satisfaction in having helped save or mend something from the past, enhanced by volunteers’ awareness that a heritage asset, once lost, can never be replaced.

Cross-theme analysis

In addition, cross-case analysis explored the association between wellbeing and specific attributes of HAR volunteering opportunities. Hypotheses proposing causal relationships between wellbeing and seven key attributes of HAR interventions were tested by comparing the pattern of wellbeing comments when attributes were present or absent. The attributes were identified from the interview responses. They were: site setting, site condition, volunteer environment, volunteer impact on asset, physical activity level, volunteer management, and opportunities for public engagement.

Analysis showed that all types of project had some association with wellbeing. However, the attributes most often and/or most strongly associated with wellbeing were rural setting, ruinous condition, outside activity, activity making a difference (to the asset or in other ways), physically demanding activity and activity engaging with local (non-volunteer) communities. These associations are explored in detail in the full report.

The special value of heritage

Across the themes, the wellbeing benefits specific to heritage appeared to be associated with opportunities to experience or achieve temporality (fulfilling volunteers’ desire for opportunities relating to their particular interests in history, archaeology and the past), discovery, authenticity, and continuity (offering connectedness, fulfilment and reassurance by linking past to present to future); while at-risk-related wellbeing was associated with positive feelings about rescuing something, shared nostalgia, changing something and leaving a legacy.

Analysis indicated that HaR interventions serve as a force multiplier for wellbeing because the characteristics of their ‘offer’ (combining heritage and at-risk status) are complementary rather than contradictory: connection with a valued, authentic, irreplaceable, sharable asset from the past (heritage) to which one can make a difference (by mitigating risk), completing a virtuous circle of associating wellbeing with heritage volunteering.

A new logic model and objectives for the future

Finally, the HARAW team developed a concluding logic model articulating the inputs, activities and wellbeing outcomes of HAR projects involving volunteers.

The team also identified six objectives for the future. These are to:

  1. Ensure that all stakeholders know how activity such as HAR interventions which prioritise heritage protection can also support wellbeing in volunteers;
  2. Scope all proposed HAR interventions for potential to involve volunteers and support wellbeing; 
  3. Promote publicly the potential wellbeing impacts of HAR interventions in order to attract a more diverse range of volunteers;
  4. Monitor HAR volunteers’ aims and experience over a sustained period of time
  5. Track the development of skills, knowledge, and experience (for volunteers who wish to record this);
  6. Capture feedback from HAR volunteers.

It is hoped that the HARAW report, the logic model and the toolkit developed by the HARAW team will help meet these objectives.

HARAW has been innovative in providing a substantial new evidence base for the special wellbeing benefits of voluntary working with Heritage at Risk sites. It shows this engagement offers a very diverse range of outcomes which improve the lives of volunteers. HARAW has permitted the development of a methodology both for the working practices during projects, and for the recording, analysis and understanding of volunteer experience. It has, furthermore, provided an intellectual framework for projects of this kind and a model for initiating future projects. The full report sets out in detail the project's methods, findings, recommendations and future research objectives which can act as the starting point for further development.

About the author

Carenza Lewis

Carenza is an archaeologist and Professor of Public Understanding of Research at the University of Lincoln. Previously a senior investigator for RCHME, presenter on Channel 4’s 'Time Team' and founding director of Access Cambridge Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, her research interests include historic rural settlements, childhood in the past, public archaeology and the social benefits of heritage participation, leading many public and community heritage programmes in England. Currently pioneering participative community archaeology in the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Poland, she is also President of the Medieval Settlement Research Group and Vice Chair of Trustees for the Council for British Archaeology.

Acknowledgements

The HARAW team was led by the author but thanks also go to all those in the team, which included:

  • Professor Niro Siriwardena, Professor of Primary & Pre-Hospital Health Care and director of the Community and Health Research Unit (CaHRU) in the College of Social Science;
  • Dr Despina Laparidou, CaHRU Research Assistant;
  • Dr Julie Pattinson, CaHRU Research Assistant;
  • Dr Claudia Sima, Senior Lecturer in tourism in Lincoln International Business School;
  • Dr Anna Scott, Associate Lecturer in the College of Arts and Programme Manager in the Centre for Culture and Creativity;
  • Professor Heather Hughes, Professor of Cultural Heritage Studies; and
  • Dr Joseph Akanuwe, registered nurse and post-doctoral research fellow in CaHRU.

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