A sculptural installation in a coastal bay setting, depicting a seated female figure swinging a child in mid-air.
'Venus and Cupid' sculpture by Shane Johnstone (2005). The setting of the installation is at Morecambe Bay with the Cumbrian hills beyond. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit Alun Bull. Image reference DP 174971.
'Venus and Cupid' sculpture by Shane Johnstone (2005). The setting of the installation is at Morecambe Bay with the Cumbrian hills beyond. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit Alun Bull. Image reference DP 174971.

A Wellbeing and Heritage Strategy for Historic England

Developing a Historic England strategy to ensure that everyone can experience the wellbeing benefits of heritage.

Historic England’s purpose, in its Future Strategy, is ‘To improve people’s lives by championing and protecting the historic environment’. Wellbeing is one important tool to help us achieve this.

Context

In December 2020 Sir Michael Marmot, past president of the World Medical Association, and author of Health Equity in England ten years on, stated that the nation must put health and wellbeing at the heart of strategy. COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated inequality and will lead to significant long-term issues for many communities.

At governmental level a small group of countries (Scotland, Iceland, New Zealand, Wales and Finland) are leading the way by developing wellbeing economies. However, recent conversations with our own staff have shown the strength of feeling about the benefits of having wellbeing as a primary driver for their work: for many it relates to personal ethics, that is, it is an issue of social justice (or put simply a ‘no-brainer’).

Strategy

Our organisational commitment to this is shown through the development of our Wellbeing and Heritage Strategy. Our vision is to ensure that everyone can experience the wellbeing benefits of heritage. We have three key strands of work on which we will focus:

  1. Our work (what difference can we make?), with aims of embedding wellbeing outcomes in our work and seeking out opportunities to learn from and collaborate with organisations that share our ambition to deliver improved wellbeing outcomes.
  2. Our people (what can our people do?), with aims of developing the knowledge and expertise of our people to ensure they can recognise opportunities and take forward initiatives to achieve positive wellbeing outcomes.
  3. Heritage potential (what can the heritage sector do?), with aims to be generous and share the knowledge we gain with other organisations working in heritage, to challenge and support them to embed wellbeing outcomes in what they do.

Change

Such an approach will help Historic England deliver goals in multiple areas of importance including inclusion, diversity and equality, levelling up and place-shaping.

It means that wellbeing should be at the centre of what we do, how we position ourselves, how we do things, and our corporate language; it can permeate our advice on historic places and the public realm, the way that we stage events and activities and how we do things, from archaeological projects to Heritage Action Zones; it can help us prioritise our work so that we maximise our public value at every opportunity; it can help us raise funds by showing funders that we care about making real difference to people’s lives.

Recently Mark Carney, ex-Governor of the Bank of England, stated that post-COVID-19 policy should be centred on health and social outcomes. If we don’t do this, we will fail to make a positive difference to individual and community wellbeing and thereby also not demonstrate our public value. It says something important about ‘who we are’.

Action

Rhetoric is easy, however, and such aspirations are not straightforward. There are multiple aspects to consider.

One is, how does the organisation work at the moment? In particular, how do we do what we do, what are the current benefits to society and are we missing anything? What are the most critical aspects of social need and how should we respond to them through a focus on our core functions? With these and other questions in mind we have been undertaking various work strands on wellbeing to work out what a strategic heritage and wellbeing approach looks like for us and to what extent do our existing core functions address them. These form a series of important steps in assessing our own working and working practices; whilst somewhat less exciting than the aspirations, they are crucial steps towards our goal. In particular, we have done or are doing the following:

  • Identifying and building on the strengths and good practice that already exist which contribute to good mental health both of staff within Historic England in the organisation and of society through heritage-based interventions.
  •  Identifying external support and understanding how we might best use, build relationships with, and influence what is available outside the organisation to support and train staff and to support project development.
  •  Consulting with stakeholders and working on co-creation and co-production of initiatives so that everyone feels committed to positive mental health and wellbeing outcomes and to ensure that mutual learning is an embedded part of project development.
  • Being aware of where our expertise ends and of the fact that external expertise is required to work collaboratively and most effectively.
  • Measuring the impact of what we do to promote and support mental health inside Historic England and externally for the wider community.

Balance

Strategic planning and mapping out a future in which wellbeing and heritage are, wherever possible, considered together also requires balance: balance between need and resources and balance between obligations and aspirations. In order to achieve this, we are suggesting a model against which to consider this balance in relation to our wellbeing outcomes. This is an in-house tool to help us with wellbeing goals only; our Future Strategy and our Corporate Plan set out the broader context of our work.

It is based on an idea that our work might reasonably be considered as not only responsive to threat and need (fixing things and assets) but also pro-active in working towards a more sustainable historic environment (research and advice). Wellbeing can be used as a delivery mechanism to respond to immediate social need and thereby be seen as responsive or reactive, or it can work with prevention and in anticipation of need.

This approach produces a simple two-by-two matrix, the purpose of which is to create a framework against which to map our existing work and see where we could do more and identify gaps. The matrix creates four domains:

  • Domain A will encapsulate all our work that is or has the potential to proactively support communities;
  • B will encapsulate all our work that is led by the needs of individual development and where it has the potential to be more therapeutically driven.
  • C is about promoting place and how the historic environment can support community life satisfaction through sustaining the historic environment and
  • D is about responding to the changing needs of places and includes our work on place-shaping and levelling up.

As a model this aims to help us see how wellbeing relates to aspects of our work, and inevitably in the real-world these areas overlap.

Priorities

We have established priority areas of concern in which we will aim to work: these are based on current known social needs as seen through government priorities and population health information. Through connecting with heritage, we will prioritise support for the following target groups:

  • People with mental health needs.
  • People who are lonely or socially isolated.
  • Older people, especially those who are coping with age-related challenges or reduction in their capacity to thrive.
  • Younger people, especially those who need support to counter disadvantage.

We are aware that these are not mutually exclusive groups, neither do they cover every element of health and wellbeing. Yet we believe this focus will help us to develop knowledge with partners to understand specific needs of particular communities.

In applying this approach we aim to provide a practical tool for ensuring that we and our partners have a range of means to address widely differing circumstances and needs. Always, however, our core functions will be directed towards establishing a balanced approach to heritage and wellbeing and towards delivering results through our people and place-based strategic initiatives.

Postscript

This article was originally published in February 2022, subsequently in May 2022 we released our full Wellbeing and Heritage strategy.

About the author

Dr Linda Monckton FSA

Head of Wellbeing and Inclusion Strategy, Historic England

Linda is an architectural historian with a special interest in the social impact and potential of the historic environment. She has worked in the heritage profession for 25 years as a researcher, analyst and strategist and is leading on Historic England’s strategic approach to delivering health and wellbeing outcomes through its work.

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