Heritage-based projects are increasingly promoting therapeutic benefit for participants and the ‘well-being’ box now requires to be ticked for many fundraising opportunities.  For Soldier On!, a charity which has been working with vulnerable people for over 10 years and now delivers some of its established personal development coaching through the medium of archaeology, there exists a concern that heritage experts are being urged to deliver what are, in effect, medical interventions.  This concern is shared by many of the charity’s partner organisations from both health and heritage backgrounds, who say they are simply not trained to deal with issues such as complex mental health problems in the field.

Consequently, Soldier On! and Manchester Metropolitan University, in association with The National Lottery Heritage fund, (North West) and Liverpool John Moores University, yesterday hosted a one-day conference in Manchester to discuss this issue.  Opened by Dr Faye Sayer, whose research focuses on well-being in heritage,  a key note speech was delivered by Dr Matthew Kiernan, Professor of mental health studies, currently working at Northumbria University who said, “Yesterday, Soldier On! took the first step in opening a much needed national debate into the long-term therapeutic benefits of activity based interventions.”

Dr Matthew Kiernan

Over 40 guests, representing organisations from the worlds of academia, heritage, health and the third sector, contributed to sharing best-practice knowledge and experience regarding the following subjects.  Language – what words and phrases are acceptable to use? It was unanimously decided that ‘therapy’ is not a word we should be using unless project staff include clinical mental health professionals.  Safeguarding and Publicity  – the group agreed that project planners need to fully integrate safeguarding into the project designs and ensure participants’ personal details, including medical notes, are kept confidential.  The third group looked at what heritage can offer.  In terms of supporting vulnerable people, the sector can offer a ‘safe’ space, but this is not always the case and organisations must be honest about what can, or indeed cannot, be achieved. 

The group looking at evaluation and impact identified a need for research to be conducted to a high academic standard.  It must be ethically conducted and be a key pillar for any project.  It should not be seen as ‘nice to have’ or simply rely on post-project questionnaires.  The final group looked at mental health first aid and it was agreed that projects must develop fully integrated strategies, structures and policies. It was also agreed that being a ‘mental health first aider’ doesn’t mean you can deliver medical interventions. 

Nathan Lee, Head of Region, North West for the National Lottery Heritage Fund said, “This workshop was a useful reminder of the issues that need to be considered as heritage projects seek to widen the people they engage.  For projects that are specifically targeting their engagement to people with health needs the importance of clear objectives, a research base, having the right procedures and skills in place, and embedding evaluation were all strong messages.  This is timely as the National Lottery Heritage Fund has just launched its new funding approach that requires all projects that seek its funding to engage a wider range of people with heritage, and has an optional outcome of ‘well-being’ that projects can seek to meet.”

A session in mid-flow!

So what does the future look like? Having discussed many aspects connecting well-being and heritage, it was felt the heritage sector is falling behind other sectors.  A wealth of research and safeguarding frameworks exist in other voluntary disciplines.  It was agreed, by the majority of participants, that the time has come for organisations wishing to put ‘well-being’ at the heart of their heritage activities to ensure that this piece of the jigsaw is properly resourced, funded and becomes an integral part.  Furthermore, it was identified that staff should be given additional training to ensure they feel they have the capabilities to meet the challenges that working with people living within the margins of mainstream society can present.

We hope that, as a result of this conference, a network of interested parties will be established to continue to share knowledge and experience. Perhaps, in time, we will see the development of a code of practice for projects, to secure training for staff and finally, to develop a shared research approach to evaluate the benefit of these projects.

Dr Faye Sayer stated ‘This workshop highlighted that the value of heritage to personal and communal well-being should not be underestimated nor should it be overlooked.  It provided a timely reminder to the professionals that we need to collaborate, and work in a multi-disciplinary setting to provide more robust strategies to support wellbeing and at provide applicable evidence for heritage’s ‘real’ impact on well-being.’