Heritage collections and wellbeing: the future of the past?

Parallel Session

Why, when data and quantitative information is everywhere are people voting emotionally rather than rationally? The answer lies in the fact that we fail to understand or recognise the qualitative or emotional values associated with human activity. By way of an example, this lecture explores the emotional reaction to heritage collections by individuals and communities, and the importance of recognising the innate qualitative value they possess.

Several case studies will illustrate this point, such as the Ryde Social Heritage Group who sought funding to transcribe local cemetery gravestones that were being vandalised by local youths, placed the data online via their own website, and over the course of the next ten years stimulated a boom in ancestral tourism; ran a ‘graveyard classroom’ for the local schools; and undertook a community-wide series of user-generated archive projects.

Another project in Kent called ‘Touching the Past’ used objects and artefacts from the local library and museum to encourage members of the community who were disabled or marginalised to identify with a different form of heritage, and gain confidence to self-identify positively. Many went on to volunteer for follow-on projects. All projects demonstrated an intangible uplift in well-being that was hard to measure objectively but was reflected in the personal stories of those who took part, and suggests that we need to re-think how we measure impact and success by other means when evaluating the value of heritage collections or projects that use them.

The second half of the lecture then considers ways that heritage collections will shift in the future, a trend already being witnessed with the rise of community heritage and archive groups curating alternative collections to the state-funded archives that are under threat. Nowhere is this more important that in personal heritage, with digital content being created and disseminated on an unprecedented scale in human history via the internet, and social media platforms.

The lecture will look at how digital archiving tools not only enable people to create their own timelines and archive their lives, but suggests that emerging evidence indicates that the very act of curating one’s memories and digital content may stave off some forms of dementia. Disruptive technology such as AI and VR will increasingly play a role in how we access and interpret heritage content, be it personal or collected by an institution – further blurring the lines that have traditionally been drawn but allowing us to further measure the qualitative elements of wellbeing.


  • Dr Nick Barratt, Acting Librarian and Associate Director of Collections and Engagement, Senate House Library, University of London

This session is being delivered by Knowledge Quarter partner Senate House, University of London

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