Health, Well-being and Cultural Heritage: Research, Evidence and Practice

On the 12 September 2017, NHSF ran a free early evening briefing session on health, well-being and cultural heritage research.

The contribution of arts and culture to health and well-being has received considerable attention over the last ten years from researchers, funders and government.

In collaboration with Collection Care Research at Tate, the Forum offered a free briefing session on this contribution. Following presentations from a panel of experts on state-of-the-art thinking on the topic, participants were invited to debate what kind of evaluation and evidence is needed to fill research gaps and build the evidence base. The event aimed ignite curiosity about how heritage science can contribute to this very active area of research and public policy interest.

There was much talk throughout the evening of measuring the impact of cultural heritage on health and wellbeing, and how to present this information to best influence social policies. 

Dr Tony Munton discussed cost-benefit analysis as a means of attributing value to cultural and sport activities. He suggested measuring happiness and putting a financial value on it as the first step in this process, where the relative cost-benefit of culture and heritage activities could then be compared to that of other activities.

Beyond subjective wellbeing, other values can be attributed to cultural experiences: learning and community cohesion, in particular, can also be objects of focus. Tony highlighted the importance of audience awareness when measuring the impact of heritage and culture.

Professor Helen Chatterjee considered what type of evidence would catch the attention of health and social care professionals. Drawing examples from her own work on social prescribing (the use of non-clinical, community-based assets to bring about changes in subjective wellbeing), she painted a picture of the changes people go through when they are engaged in different cultural activities. Helen highlighted the opportunity for such projects to generate evidence of quantitative significance but also of qualitative descriptions of a 'post-museum state of mind': "acquisition of new skills", "sense of belonging", "improved quality of life"...

[View Helen's presentation]

 Professor Nick Barratt's address focused on qualitative evidence of a different kind, that of outcome as storytelling. Nick recommended capturing a range of anecdotal experience and shaping it into a picture of change. Illustrating this approach is his work with isolated communities, making collections more accessible and finding out which objects elicit a response from a group. In such a project, it is vital to personalise the experience and create a narrative, to be included in the presented evidence.

Dr Christina Buse presented her work on the Dementia and Dress project, focused on clothes as memory and biographical objects. She advocated for the consideration of tactile engagements when considering wellbeing and qualitative experiences. As a final note, Chrissy concluded that beyond the measuring of wellbeing impact, it is important to address the question of how to ensure this positive impact is sustainable and continues into the future.

[View Chrissy's presentation]

Participants discussed opportunities and steps for the future, and concluded that more thought must be given to the architecture of evidence. Research on methods and types of evidence should take into account the target audience, and researchers should ensure the communities concerned have an opportunity to make their voices heard. Suggestions for future projects included the development of a regional toolkit or framework with a regional based model - as much current research is London-centric -, and partnerships with agencies commissioned by the local authorities to deliver mental health services.

Overall, participants agreed that stories and narratives tend to be the most convincing on a personal level, but that big health data and public data must be used to measure the benefits of cultural participation.

Image © Tate


Panellists' biographies:

  • Professor Helen Chatterjee, UCL and National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing

Helen Chatterjee is a Professor of Biology in UCL Biosciences. Her research is focused on the value of natural and cultural assets in health creation, as well as biodiversity conservation and biogeography. For ten years Helen has been researching the impact of cultural participation, in particular museums, on health and wellbeing. In 2015 she co-founded the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing; in 2018 the Alliance will merge with the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing to create a new ACE funded Sector Support Organisation, the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, which will report in to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing.

  • Professor Nick Barratt, Honorary Associate Professor of Public History, University of Nottingham

Nick Barratt is an author, broadcaster and historian best known for his work on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are. He is an honorary associate professor of public history at the University of Nottingham, acting Librarian at the University of London’s Senate House Library, and a teaching fellow at the University of Dundee. His most recent publication, The Forgotten Spy, tells the story of his great uncle – Stalin’s first mole in Whitehall – and is working on The Restless Kings, which explores the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John. He is currently developing a research network that explores the potential application of digital memory curation in dementia care.

  • Dr Christina Buse, Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of York

Christina Buse is a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of York. Her research interests include embodiment, ageing, dementia, material culture and design. She is currently working on the ESRC funded ‘Buildings in the Making’ project with Sarah Nettleton and colleagues, exploring the practices of architects who are designing care homes and housing for later life, and how knowledge about care and well-being is translated into the built environment. Her recent research includes the Dementia and Dress project with Julia Twigg, exploring the significance of clothing within the everyday lives of people with dementia, their families and care-workers. She also co-organises the research network ‘Materialities of Care’ with Daryl Martin.

  • Dr Tony Munton: Managing Director, Matrix Evidence

Tony is a Chartered Psychologist with more than 20 years experience in undertaking policy research for central and local government. He has worked at the Medical Research Council’s Social and Applied Psychology Unit at the University of Sheffield and the Institute of Education at the University of London, where again he did policy research for government. It was whilst at the Institute of Education that he developed an interest in what was then the emerging discipline of evidence-based medicine, lecturing at the Institute of Child Health on the subject. In 2001 Tony was seconded into the DfES to work in the Sure Start Unit. From there he moved to a permanent civil service post in the Home Office as Assistant Director to the Chief Scientist, Professor Paul Wiles, including a term acting as Head of Profession for Social Research. Tony spent five years as Head of Unit for Research, Development and Statistics in the Home Office and then the Ministry of Justice. Tony joined Matrix in October 2008 as a Managing Director of Matrix Evidence.

This event was offered by the National Heritage Science Forum as part of a series aimed at sharing the ‘state of the art’ of topics of relevance to academic, higher education and heritage sectors to provoke reflection, encourage debate and stimulate collaboration.