Wellbeing and heritage research in times of closure

By Amy Luck and Dr. Faye Sayer, Department of History, Politics and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University

The current devastating outbreak of COVID-19, lockdown and social distancing measures have undoubtedly had a substantial impact on the heritage sector. Most museums, archaeology and heritage sites around the world are currently closed. Many heritage professionals have been furloughed. Fundraising and/or admission income has been affected. The prospect of attempting to adapt to reopening in a way that complies with constantly changing public health guidance means the immediate future is looking very unclear for the heritage sector and those researching and working in public history and heritage.

Dr Faye Sayer and I are no exception to this; our research focuses on assessing the impact of engaging with heritage on individual’s wellbeing. Heritage provides a role in helping people form connections, bringing together communities and creates feelings of shared identity. Heritage can help to rebuild communities and support both individual, community and societal wellbeing. Previous research by Dr Sayer has shown that taking part in archaeological excavations positively impacts individual’s wellbeing; participants were more interested, connected, happier and satisfied after taking part. We are currently expanding upon this research through multiple projects; my AHRC funded PhD research investigates whether visiting heritage sites impacts visitor wellbeing and Dr Sayer’s British Academy funded ‘Heritage and Well-being: Creating Healthier Societies Through Heritage’ international project looks to understand and compare how diverse heritage activities, including museums, heritage sites and community archaeological excavations in a range of cultural contexts shape individual and communal wellbeing.

The ‘Creating Healthier Societies Through Heritage’ project will comparatively analyse quantitative data from public participants from nine diverse public heritage projects from developing and developed countries around the world (UK, USA and India) to access the impact of participation in heritage on well-being and the link to social, cultural, economic and political factors. The project’s research methodology, developed and piloted in the UK and USA, employs quantitative wellbeing measures such as the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and Modified Visual Analogue Scale (MVAS), to identify the role heritage plays in enhancing well-being.

Our current research activities would look very different if it not for COVID-19; we would be liaising with heritage professionals, planning research visits to the USA and India, and conducting research on-site at archaeological excavations, museums and heritage sites in the UK. These activities are not currently possible, and we currently do not know when they might be possible again. Heritage sites are unlikely to reopen in the immediate future and when they do, they are likely to be operating differently due to measures such as social distancing and introducing timed ticketed entry to ensure control of visitor numbers.[i]

However, despite these obstacles, heritage research is still very much possible. The pandemic has even inspired new research which will complement existing ongoing research projects such as our Virtual Heritage and Wellbeing project.

COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of the UK population; life satisfaction is lower, and stress and anxiety levels are higher than usual reported averages.[ii] At the same time, heritage organisations have had to close and move activities online where possible. A survey of 650 museums in 41 countries conducted in April 2020 by the Network of European Museum Organisations indicated that more than 60% of museums have increased their online presence since closing due to social distancing and 40% have experienced a large upsurge in online visits.[iii]

With virtual heritage becoming the main way to engage with, learn about and connect with the past, it is important to understand the impact this has on users. As a result, we have launched the ‘Virtual Heritage and Wellbeing’ project.

Using the same methodology as the ‘Creating Healthier Societies Through Heritage’ project and adding a qualitative element (free comment space on surveys), this research will seek to:

  • Evaluate how engagement with virtual heritage sites can impact visitor wellbeing.
  • Understand how different types of virtual heritage sites and diverse demographics of visitors positively and/or negatively impact on subjective wellbeing.
  • Identify what elements of virtual heritage provide the greatest positive change to wellbeing.
  • Compare the impact of virtual heritage to that of in-person heritage experiences on wellbeing.

We hope that the findings of this research will allow both heritage and wellbeing organisations to ascertain the impact of a variety of online heritage on wellbeing, both during and after a pandemic and compare differences on wellbeing on virtual and physical visits. This could be used to ascertain the cost-effectiveness of future programmes and activities.

We are actively seeking participants to take part in this project. If you are interested in taking part, please visit: https://mcphh.org/2020/06/01/virtual-heritage-and-wellbeing/.

We hope that our research will demonstrate that engagement with heritage is as important as ever. Whilst the global pandemic has undoubtedly impacted all our lives over recent months, we have and will continue to adapt. This holds true for the heritage sector too and as the way people are accessing heritage changes, we academics and researchers need to adapt also.

[i] Jim Richardson, ‘How Might Museums Look Different When They Reopen After Coronavirus?’, https://www.museumnext.com/article/how-might-museums-look-different-when-they-reopen-after-coronavirus/ [accessed 18.6.20]

[ii] UCL COVID-19 Social Study, ‘Results’, https://www.covidsocialstudy.org/results [accessed 18.6.20]

[iii] Network of European Museum Organisations, ‘Survey on the impact of the COVID-19 situation on museums in Europe’, https://www.ne-mo.org/fileadmin/Dateien/public/NEMO_documents/NEMO_Corona_Survey_Results_6_4_20.pdf [accessed 18.6.20]

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