04 April 2022

Harnessing heritage stimulates creativity and aids mental health


    By Laura Drysdale - Director, The Restoration Trust

    Our participants fall into the gulf in mental health provision between GP services and hospital admission, so we engage people with heritage and creativity in co-created partnerships that support their mental health.

    Our projects are cross-sectoral collaborations and weaving these networks and groups into new communities has long-term impacts on people and places. Knowing more about where you live and feeling that you belong and matter is healthy. One member of our Burgh Castle Almanac project (where we spent two years exploring the historic landscape at Burgh Castle Roman Fort) said: “For a long time I didn’t feel connected to anything. This project has given my connection back.”

    We differ from other organisations because engaging with heritage and creativity like this is not particularly common, and the placements are sustained over a longer period of time. We are constantly examining barriers to inclusion and doing whatever we can to improve the situation. Digital poverty is a major barrier as far as many participants are concerned, so we have been giving people the resources they need to be able to join online sessions. Our work has been cited by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the National Archives as examples of good practice in inclusion and wellbeing.

    We know that creative projects, like exploring the compelling histories of patients in 19th century lunatic asylums, or sensory immersion in mysterious ancient landscapes, reignites people’s curiosity and love of life. We need to use these incredible assets for mental health directly with participants - and more widely - to challenge discrimination and exclusion. For instance, Human Henge, our project with English Heritage at Stonehenge and Avebury, directly helped 36 participants, and reached another 1.27 million people via a BBC Radio 4 programme called Stonehenge and Mental Health. In March 2021 we completed a hybrid version with a fabulous final gathering live streamed from inside the stone circle where we were joined by duduk player Arsen Petrosyan Zooming in from Armenia. We sent parcels to the 14 people taking part which were packed with surprises for the next session and refreshments; one person said: “It’s like getting a hug in the post”.

    Human Henge, a Restoration Trust project with English Heritage at Stonehenge and Avebury (Photograph by Mel Rogers).


    Our Change Minds project with Norfolk Record Office is growing into a national programme through the Archives for Wellbeing Network, funded by the National Archives. Group members learn how to read the records as they investigate the story of a patient they have selected from Norfolk County Asylum records, and then respond imaginatively through poetry, art and theatre. The interplay between heritage and creativity is integral to participation. One person who took part in a Change Minds online session at Bethlem Museum of the Mind said: “I was dubious initially about the creative aspect of the project. However, not only did I have the opportunity to try something totally outside of my comfort zone I realised that the “investigative” part of the process had left me with feelings and emotions that I was able to channel into the creative work.”

    Our recent Change Minds project, Dr Hills’ Casebook, generated a play that was performed by professional actors and then shared online and in local venues. Post-performance discussions reflected on mental health treatment in the late 19th century and today. Winning a 2020 Medical Humanities Award for Change Minds was wonderful validation for all our partners and project participants. Working with UEA has helped us evaluate and demonstrate the value of the project, and we look forward to developing this relationship through their medical humanities and wellbeing research

    We are currently working with UEA on ideas to boost wellbeing for students and health professionals. We’ve also received a National Heritage Lottery Grant for a project, Scaling Up Change Minds, that will see us work in partnership with Norfolk Record Office to support archives and mental health providers to run their own Change Minds courses utilising an online resource Hub to aid advocacy, training, session planning and delivery, and evaluation.

    Change Minds and Heritage Hero 2021 Richard Johnson with Gary Tuson
    Change Minds and Heritage Hero 2021 Richard Johnson with Gary Tuson, Norfolk County Archivist (Photograph by Julian Claxton).


    Building on the ‘Burgh Castle Almanac’ project, we’ve recently received a grant from Historic England to run a 2-year social prescribing and heritage pilot in Great Yarmouth and Waveney. The project aims to demonstrate heritage’s potential to contribute to meeting the wellbeing needs of local people through social prescribing, via appointment of a Heritage Link Worker.

    The impact of COVID-19 has changed things for many of us in the creative sector. We had always wanted to grow and build on our digital work, but the pandemic has really accelerated that. Face-to-face connection remains vital, but we have to be adaptable and fluid, able to move between different modes of communication. Whichever methods or channels we use, we are determined that our projects are really high-quality experiences, centred around the people we work with.

    You can find more information on the Restoration Trust website.

    This blog post was written by Laura Drysdale, Director at The Restoration Trust. Originally published as part of Visions of a Creative Future, a collection of essays and reflections by UEA researchers and our partners across the region. These pieces were written from mid-2020 to mid-2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their content and tone reflects this context.