A large three storey country house built of stone and brick, viewed from its grounds. Image ID: B8YXW5.
The south front of Mottisfont Abbey near Romsey, Hampshire. © The National Trust Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo
The south front of Mottisfont Abbey near Romsey, Hampshire. © The National Trust Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

Places of Joy: the Role of Heritage During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Historic England is working with researchers at University of Southampton, University of Cambridge and University of Surrey to examine the ways that people are using heritage sites to support their wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heritage in time of crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented scale of public wellbeing need. Provision of non-clinical solutions to support mental health using existing resources is therefore vital.

The Places of Joy project, supported by Historic England and The Heritage Alliance, investigates whether heritage appears as a joyful space at a time of national crisis, and if so, how and why.

The work aims to understand the roles and characteristics of heritage sites in contributing to wellbeing. Its findings are revealing the importance of visits to heritage sites in promoting positive subjective wellbeing, as well as satisfying deeper psychological and socio-cultural needs.

The research took place in the unique period following the release of the first lockdown in England (June–October 2020), when access to heritage was regained after a period of deprivation, to explore the potentials of heritage by examining:

  • What are the wellbeing benefits of visits to heritage sites during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What motivates people to visit heritage sites after lockdown? What needs do access to heritage sites satisfy?
  • What are the affordances (qualities) of heritage sites that may enhance public wellbeing?
  • What impacts do visits have on people and how might this affect attitudes and visits to heritage sites going forward?

Crucially, during the period of research, visits to sites were framed by an explicit awareness of what was being regained and why such visits took place. This extraordinary context lends visitor responses from this time particular interest. In the rawness of routines and access having been disrupted and then regained, recognition of the use-value of heritage sites was intensified, casting unique light on some of their essential characteristics and potentials. As one visitor put it:

Lockdown made me realise just how important these national treasures are to our wellbeing.

(Questionnaire: Corfe Castle, 02.08.20)

Methodology and data gathering

Mixed methods research including 780 questionnaires, 328 interviews, participant observation and ethnography was conducted in-person and online at seven case study heritage destination sites, along a spectrum from primarily green space to the built environment and interiors, thereby providing a variety of heritage engagement opportunities and experiences. Sites included both free and pay-to-enter locations, visited at intervals throughout the study period.

In contrast to many previous studies of the wellbeing potential of heritage, the research focused on unmediated visits rather than on large scale surveys or targeted interventions. It thus examined encounters with heritage of the type experienced by the majority of visitors. Data was collected on pre- and post-visit subjective wellbeing, visit history, motivations for visiting, emotional effects and perceived benefits of the visit (including specific wellbeing and restorative state effects), the affordances of sites including the perceived importance of the historic environment and green space to the visit, and demographic information, as well as opportunities for open-ended responses to the experience and how lockdown affected respondents’ attitudes to visiting heritage sites.

Findings

The results show that single visits to heritage sites have clear subjective wellbeing effects in increasing happiness and reducing anxiety.

Visits may be particularly effective for people with low to moderate levels of subjective wellbeing prior to the visit. Importantly, it is not necessary to be a ‘heritage afficionado’ in order to feel these effects: there appears to be no difference in the subjective wellbeing benefits experienced by visitors who explicitly value the historic environment and those who do not.

The research demonstrates that heritage sites fulfil a broad range of uses and important societal functions far beyond aesthetic appreciation, learning about history, or visiting collections and exhibitions. This insight offers heritage providers opportunities to reach new audiences who might otherwise assume that visits to sites are not for them.

For example, during the pandemic sites are taking on an important role as social spaces where people feel safe. Before lockdown, 42.4 % of visitors in a national survey said that they visited heritage sites to spend time with friends and family (DCMS Taking Part Survey 2019), whilst in our post-lockdown sample the proportion of visitors who chose that reason was 83.5% . 41 % of people in our sample said that a reason for visiting heritage sites was because they are a ‘managed safe space’: visits to heritage sites gave people confidence to leave their homes.

We were afraid to go out for the first time and to come here but [the visit] has given us confidence in going out.

(Questionnaire: Mottisfont Abbey, 15.08.20)

The strong subjective wellbeing effects that people report following a visit to a heritage site can be explained by the unusual combination of hedonic and eudaimonic experiences that such places afford. Hedonic wellbeing refers to feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and relaxation. Deeper psychological needs, however, are fulfilled through eudaimonic experiences, including those promoting autonomy and control, a sense of efficacy and accomplishment, relatedness, caring about and contributing to something larger than oneself, and a sense of reflection, purposefulness and meaning. At a time when people’s lives were destabilised, access to heritage sites reinstated a sense of normality and control over their actions.

We find that responses to heritage include relaxing and stress-reducing effects, emotional safety and life purpose effects.

Although there was sometimes a gap in visitors’ recognition of the role of the historic environment in stimulating wellbeing effects, the time depth that is a unique feature of heritage sites nonetheless facilitated a distinct experience. It provides people with a sense of ontological security (that is to say stability in the sense of self and one’s place in the world) that is fundamental to wellbeing and reducing susceptibility to anxiety.

At a time of crisis when ways of living that are normally taken for granted are thrown into question, heritage offers a special quality of contemplation that can enable individuals to situate themselves in long-term history, reflect on mortality, ‘time travel’ to periods before the pandemic, and find meaning in the continuity between past and present. By promoting feelings of ontological security, visits to heritage sites can provide people with a buffer against stresses and strains in life which are particularly acute during the pandemic. In our data, the opportunity to situate the self in deep time enabled some visitors to experience a sense of comfort and hope in reflecting that people in the past had been through and overcome various forms of crisis, creating a sense of perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic: the more temporally distant the site, the greater the perceived sense of stability and permanence, and the greater this effect.

The stones speak to me. They give me a sense of belonging in a way that I don’t feel if I look at a piece of porcelain [in a museum]. It’s about a sense of mortality. That there’s a continuum and I am part of a bigger picture. It makes me feel better.

(Questionnaire: Avebury, 30.7.20).

Conclusion

Heritage sites are complex environments. Their richness offers visitors subjective wellbeing effects via a wide range of hedonic and eudaimonic benefits. Our data indicate that heritage sites are more important to visitors than they were before the pandemic: unmediated visits to heritage sites provide healthy and meaningful experiences, positioning heritage next to other publicly accessible wellbeing resources like the green environment and the arts.

Our research demonstrates the potential of heritage sites as useful assets in public health mitigation strategies associated with the pandemic and beyond.

Future detailed understanding of the ways in which visits to heritage sites can contribute to wellbeing may allow the matching of visitor needs to the specificities of site affordances. This will maximise wellbeing outcomes and develop the medium to long term effectiveness of such visits in enhancing wellbeing.

About the authors

Joanna Sofaer (FSA, PFHEA)

Professor of Archaeology at University of Southampton

Joanna is Professor of Archaeology at University of Southampton, Co-Director of the Southampton Institute for Arts and Humanities, and Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fellow for the Public Spaces programme. She leads Places of Joy and has directed and partnered on several high-profile international research projects, bridging academic and non-academic worlds. She is particularly interested in the relationship between wellbeing and historic environments.

Eirini Gallou is a Senior Social Analyst (secondment) at Historic England,

Eirini works within the Policy and Evidence group at Historic England to support data analysis and informed decision making. Eirini holds a PhD from UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage (ISH), on sustainable heritage management in historic landscapes looking into the social impact of cultural engagement for rural communities. Eirini worked as a teaching assistant at UCL ISH and has been awarded the Associate Fellowship by the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). She holds an MSc From TU Delft, Netherlands in Architecture, Urbanism and Building Sciences with a specialisation in Restoration.

Further information

Joanna Sofaer, Eirini Gallou & Ben Davenport (in submission) Heritage Blindness? Wellbeing and Motivations to Visit Heritage Sites During the COVID-19 Pandemic in England

Joanna Sofaer, Ben Davenport, Marie Louise Stig Sørensen, Eirini Gallou & David Uzzell (2021): 'Heritage Sites, Value and Wellbeing: learning from the COVID-19 Pandemic in England', International Journal of Heritage Studies, 27:11,1117-1132, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2021.1955729

Download as PDF Magazine Format

You can download this article along with others in Issue 20 as a PDF magazine.