Exploring health through the Medical Humanities
Art, stories and drama yield new ways of understanding ourselves, our health and our wellbeing.
During this slice of living history – in which we are trying to learn lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic – we have an opportunity to radically rethink both the role of the humanities within healthcare, and the role of the humanities in helping us understand health and care. What is health? What does it mean to have time and space to care in the contemporary landscape of health? Who is deemed healthy, and who is able to access health? How, indeed, do cultural narratives about health, illness and disability shape this access?
By better understanding the intersections and dissonances between patients’ lived experiences of illness and wider cultural narratives of health, illness and disability we can work towards improved clinical outcomes, and policies and practices that put the patient at the centre.
Many of our academics are involved in the development of this emerging, exciting discipline. A new research group at UEA has been exploring our health experiences from social, cultural, historical, political and ethical perspectives and we have just launched an MA in the Medical and Health Humanities.
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Imagining Wellness: Helping Students to connect, create and collaborate in their own wellbeing
An interdisciplinary project led by Dr Georgia Walker Churchman, Interdisciplinary Institute for the Humanities, that built upon research on the therapeutic effects of participation with art and culture, exploring the extent to which creatively engaging with mental health heritage can improve wellbeing for students. The principles tested were that students benefited from the creative and collaborative experience and that engagement with mental health heritage allows them to reflect on their experiences, perceptions and wellbeing in a relaxed and safe environment. Researchers working in the fields of literature, film studies and psychology came together to design a short course in which undergraduate students at UEA explored films at the East Anglian Film Archive, literary texts dealing with mental health issues, and asylum archival records from the Norfolk Records Office. The students researched and produced short films which are now hosted online by the East Anglian Film Archive.
Scaling Up Change Minds
Psychology researcher Dr Victoria Scaife collaborated with Laura Drysdale of the Restoration Trust, a cultural therapy charity, as part of the 'Change Minds' community research project. Working with the Norfolk Records Office, the project invited participants to investigate records of local asylum patients in the 19th century, and respond through creative writing, exhibition, music and theatre. The Restoration Trust has now received a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant for an exciting heritage project, Scaling Up Change Minds.
The project is a partnership between the Norfolk Record Office and the Restoration Trust that builds on Change Minds using archives for mental wellbeing and social connection. It connects isolated people with local heritage assets, creativity and each other so that their mental health improves. Scaling Up Change Minds consists of an online resource hub and six Change Minds pilots involving around 80 people who live with mental health challenges. Wellbeing research will be led by the University of Dundee. The Hub will be a multi-media website managed by the Change Minds partnership of the Restoration Trust and Norfolk Record Office. It will contain advocacy, partnership formation, delivery and evaluation resources.
The Pastons were one of Norfolk’s most prominent families in the Middle Ages and Tudor periods and have a remarkable rags-to-riches story. Their story survives in the largest and earliest collection of family letters, including the world’s first Valentine letter. However, outside of academic circles, the story of the Paston family is largely undiscovered by the general public. Paston Footprints works with a variety of organisations and diverse groups of individuals to tell the story of the Pastons through performance, participatory events and digital resources. These are stories of nurturing and strife, experience of plague and sieges, anxieties in times of religious dissent and of political turmoil.
The project makes narrative links with contemporary wellbeing practices on 10 new heritage trails in Norfolk, meaning the stories can be explored in the landscape where they happened. Research into the concept of ‘heritage wellbeing’ - with its intangible benefits of building communities and sense of identity - as well as addressing how new creative activities can enable people with disabilities to claim their right to outdoor heritage, underpins this project. People with disabilities often have a unique lens to interpret spaces, through their embodied, sensory experiences and situated knowledge, that can offer a different way to engage with cultural heritage. Paston Footprints is led by Dr Karen Smyth (School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing) and is a cultural partnership programme between UEA, Paston Heritage Society, Norfolk Record Office, and over 60 Norfolk organisations and groups.
Ends of Knowledge and the Medical Humanities
Ends of Knowledge is a research network bringing working knowledges from the medical humanities into dialogue with critical university studies. It was founded by Dr James Rákóczi (Durham Institute for Medical Humanities) and Dr Harriet Cooper (Norwich Medical School). What does it mean to be a practitioner of the critical medical humanities in an era of geopolitical instability, entrenched inequality, and impending climate breakdown? What forms of knowledge can the critical medical humanities produce within a ‘university-system’ (Wilden 1972) structured by crisis managerialisms and uncaring metrics of evaluation? What kind of relationship to power is assumed through the invocation of critique (Cherniavsky, 2017), and what kinds of social and political agency do academics invested in the critical medical humanities have? The Ends of Knowledge network will bring together a community of practitioners loosely identified (or dis-identified) with the (critical) medical humanities, who are seeking to think-with, to remain alive to the possibilities of, and to retain agency within, the current conjuncture.
A Centenary of Caring
‘A Centenary of Caring’ was a unique collaboration between Norfolk and Waveney Health and Care Partnership, Norwich University of the Arts and UEA Health Sciences. Front line health and social care practitioners collaborated with staff and fine art students in online workshops to produce works that represent their experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on their wellbeing. The resulting exhibition was curated by Norwich University of the Arts.
Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project
The Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project aims to create inclusive opportunities for people to volunteer in archaeological research, whilst exploring how such research can have a positive effect on health and wellbeing. Norfolk possesses some of the country’s most famous prehistoric monuments - including the Early Bronze Age double timber circles at Holme next-the-Sea (dated to the summer of 2049 BCE) and the world-famous Late Neolithic flint mine at Grimes Graves - but many sites of interest have had minimal exploration. Remote sensing and aerial photography indicates that Norfolk’s past prehistoric landscapes were very rich and more recently aerial photographic mapping and LIDAR (laser scanning of the ground surface from an aeroplane) have provided the potential for transforming our understanding of these early hidden landscapes.
The Later Prehistoric Norfolk Project will explore a range of prehistoric monuments - from the Early Neolithic through to the end of the Iron Age in Norfolk - to better understand the dating of the county’s monuments. In addition, the project will compare the regional archaeology of Norfolk with archaeological landscapes in Japan, exploring archaeological themes that are mirrored across both these island nations, such as insularity and evidence for the exchange of ideas with their local continents; it coincides with the ‘Circles of Stone Exhibition’ at Stonehenge visitor centre which compares the stone circles of Britain and Japan. A primary aim of the project is to involve a wide range of people who have not taken part in archaeological research before and we are working with partners with the Restoration Trust to facilitate engagement.
Later Prehistoric Norfolk is a partnership between the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture, Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society (NNAS), University of East Anglia, Cambridge Archaeological Unit, Restoration Trust and Synergy Multi-Academy Trust.
Eastern Arc Medical Humanities Network
The Eastern Arc is an interdisciplinary research consortium that brings together the University of East Anglia, the University of Essex, and the University of Kent. The Eastern Arc Medical Humanities Network will act as a platform and a forum for the sharing of knowledge, training, ideas and research. It will include events funded by the consortium, as well as details of events hosted elsewhere but open to Eastern Arc members. In 2022/23 the Eastern Arc is funding a special series of events looking at articulation, experience and embodiment. Articulation / Experience / Embodiment will examine crucial questions around the relationship between experience and representation; different forms, means and contexts of articulating knowledge and health and illness; and the methods for narrativizing embodied experience that open out techniques and spaces for empathy, healing and change. The events are free and open to all.
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Discover‘What is the Intersection of Medicine and the Humanities’, the 2022 Lasdun Lecture, was hosted at The Royal Institution of Great Britain, London.
ReadIn a new essay, Dr Harriet Cooper, Prof Sally Hardy and Prof Christie Watson explore the interdisciplinary overlaps between health, medicine, the arts and humanities.