Health, Heritage and Wellbeing

When we think of Heritage Open Days, we think of uncovering hidden histories, discovering new places around us and celebrating the unique heritage in every corner of England. However, it’s easy to forget the positive impact Heritage Open Days have on our health and wellbeing.

© Portland Basin Museum -

On first glance, it might seem a little odd to put our health and our heritage side by side. However, according to the report for Arts in health by Dr. Rosalia Staricoff (published by the Arts Council in 2004) there is evidence that the arts ‘can help reduce heart-rate, blood pressure and requests for analgesic medication’. A recent survey by Glasgow Life also noted that cultural attendance prolongs lives.

Heritage in hospitals

Elsewhere, a team of researchers at UCL Museums have already investigated the role of touch and object handling in health and wellbeing. Their three year research project – Heritage in Hospitals – showed that museum handling had ‘significant benefits on patients’ wellbeing by improving mental and physical functioning, providing a positive experience during the hospital stay and improving patient-doctor/carer communication’. Clearly, the results speak for themselves and you can find out more about the research project on their blog here.

A similar exercise took place in Manchester, where specially-designed handling boxes were taken in to hospital wards and care settings for older people and they were encouraged to reminisce about Belle Vue Zoological Gardens. Belle Vue was once the go-to place for amusement in Manchester but closed in 1981. Encouraging older people to reminisce has been shown to enhance both the inner self and social skills. Furthermore, shared memories amongst the elderly opens up a potentially lonely time of life in to one that favours passing on knowledge and harbouring a sense of place. This heritage, health and wellbeing project was developed by The Manchester Museum in conjunction with Manchester City Council’s Valuing Older People initiative.

Arts for Health

Arts for Health in Milton Keynes is also using the arts and creativity to improve health and wellbeing. The initiative grew out of the voluntary Hospital Arts Committee which had the vision to develop an art collection at the hospital. Today, the Art Collection at Milton Keynes Hospital is the largest permanent art collection in the city, with nearly 400 artworks. You can find out more about their Arts and Heritage in Hospitals via the news report below:

Another successful project in Ashton-under-Lyme saw an exhibition developed that looked at ordinary people’s health over the last 200 years. Rather than lecture the public on the their diet and lifestyle, the Portland Basin Museum exhibition Fit For Life showcased objects such as original dentistry tools, an old hearing aid and a pot for storing leeches (!), with present day health tips woven in.

Health and wellbeing of visitors is evidentially becoming an important issue for the sector as a whole, as the Museums Association (MA) held a one-day seminar on the topic earlier this year in Newcastle. The MA linked this event in with their Museums Change Lives vision for the social impact of museums, which places wellbeing at its core and is well worth a moment of your time. 

Health and wellbeing at your event

Of course, such initiatives as described above involved a great deal of time and effort to achieve and I am aware that for many Heritage Open Days organisers, similar endeavours would not be feasible. However, it is a simple task to consider what your venue already has in terms of objects and memories that can affect the health and wellbeing of a visitor. Do you have objects that can make people think about their own circumstances differently? Does your venue have the potential to unlock stories from living memory? Could you create a trail around your grounds to incorporate an active aspect in to a visit?

Sarah Stewart-Brown, Professor of Public Health at the University of Warwick defines mental wellbeing on the NHS’ website as encapsulating ‘feelings of contentment, enjoyment, confidence and engagement with the world.’ The adjectives she mentions can also be applied to people who get involved with Heritage Open Days, both as a visitor and an organiser. Therefore, don’t assume that you have to go to great lengths to meet the health needs of your visitors in an obvious manner. Simply by participating in Heritage Open Days and promoting its core values, you are placing the wellbeing of your local community top of the agenda.

I leave you with a quote from the Department of Health and Arts Council England, A Prospectus for Arts and Health (2007) that pretty much sums everything up: ‘Arts and health is not a new, untested or fringe activity. It has long been delivering robust improvements to our health services.’ Heritage Open Days allows us all to continue to do this and make a positive difference.