The interconnectedness of critical heritage and wellbeing has recently emerged as an urgent, core agenda at the level of policy-making, professional training, public engagement, social impact and critical-academic research. A reason for this could be found in an aspect of the heritagization processes, namely their relation to health.
The UN World Health Organization defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Health is according to this definition a multidimensional phenomenon: both in the sense that it concerns a positive state – wellbeing – and not merely a negative – the absence of disease – but also in the sense of all the dimensions included in a state of wellbeing: the physical, the mental and the social. This means that health cannot be reduced to a question of biology (even though it certainly involves aspects of biology) but also concerns the individual’s experience of illness as well as the cultural representations of health and wellbeing. A challenge for future healthcare is, as some of the cluster’s scholars from UCL recently have argued in a major article in The Lancet on ‘Culture and Health’, that it is unproductive from a health perspective as well as reductive intellectually to divorce the medical from the cultural; ‘If the role of cultural systems of value in health is ignored, biological wellness can be focused on as the sole measure of wellbeing, and the potential for culture to become a key component in health maintenance and promotion can be eroded’. The interrelatedness of culture and health is increasingly recognized as an urgent field of research in the recent and rapid development of centers of ‘arts and health’ or ‘medical humanities’ in the US, UK, Scandinavia but also elsewhere. The aim of the research in these centers is, according to one suggestion, threefold: 1) to contribute to the therapeutic use of the arts in healthcare; 2) to humanize the horizons of medical education; 3) a critical reflection on health and medicine.
Although related to the third aim, the cluster Heritage and Wellbeing is unique in its focus on how heritage or the heritagization process relates to health. Not only is the general understanding of health – the social as well as the individual – negotiated through cultural systems of value, but the actual experience of health (most of all in its aspect of wellbeing) is constructed and constituted through artefacts, hopes, ideas, persons, places and stories inherited through these systems. The existential question ‘What makes life worth living?’ that ultimately defines what wellbeing is about, is seldom given a theoretical answer in society at large but rather a practical, through a relation to a particular cultural heritage. Even deeply ‘spiritual’ matters are, as can be seen from a critical heritage perspective, ‘materially’ mediated in relation to concrete heritage. This does not imply, in modern societies, a static relation to heritage, however, but rather a ‘making do’ or negotiation with what plural traditions provide. But there is no question that heritage is called upon to make sense of what constitutes wellbeing. The past is mobilized in the present for future wellbeing – the study of this heritagization process for purposes of wellbeing is the aim of this particular cluster.
A core point of view of this cluster, then, is that the understanding of wellbeing needs to be ‘culturalized’ as well as ‘materialized’. As a state of wellbeing is not a matter of the individual’s experience of her embodiment of state of mind in isolation, but rather in relation to artefacts, other persons and places, there is a need of a critical understanding how wellbeing is sought after as well as expressed ‘materially’ in actual artefacts and places. If wellbeing is experienced as ‘physical, mental and social’, the cultural negotiation of wellbeing is never only ‘ideal’. Critical heritage studies – with its tradition of looking at the material embodiment of cultural understandings – thus becomes essential to an analysis of the relation between culture and health that wants to understand how a lived notion of wellbeing comes about.