In the past decade numerous studies have been published on how different forms of cultural and/or natural heritage impact on human well-being. For instance, it has been argued by many researchers of various disciplinary backgrounds that meaningful encounters with a wide range of different types of heritage can positively enhance a sense of individual and community well-being. On the other hand, damage to heritage can have a demoralizing effect, leading to diminished well-being. Well-being has been defined in many ways but essentially it is a sense of being content, comfortable and happy, something normally associated with physical, mental and emotional health as well as a standard of living that provides the resources to sustain such health, although the nature of this varies across cultures past and present. So how can heritage affect one’s sense of well-being? This is essentially what we seek to explore in this review essay by touching upon some of the key results presented in recent literature on heritage and well-being. In order to do this, we further define both heritage and well-being below, as well as the complex relationship between the two. We also review some of the challenges that heritage faces and argue that human well-being is best enhanced by viewing heritage as an essential part of the contemporary world rather than fragments of the past, and that the concept of “living heritage” is useful in this sense. Thus, the overarching thesis of this article is that all heritage is an important part of contemporary culture, and that threats to heritage impact on individual and community well-being in multiple ways. However, heritage is also contested and one of the biggest challenges is deciding what heritage should or should not be preserved for future generations as well as how this will be undertaken.
By offering a broad consideration and appraisal of recent scholarship, our intention in this article is to shift the focus of heritage discourse from one that is primarily specific place or topic driven to instead consider how heritage more generally is used to reinforce, negotiate or suppress contemporary relationships between people, places and identity. By engaging with these questions and issues through a consolidation of understandings presented across a wide-ranging array of literature, we offer insight into the contemporary significance and value of tangible and intangible heritage. This is important because in an increasingly changing political, environmental and cultural world, new and emerging threats to many different aspects of heritage will impact on human well-being.
Following the addition of 20 places from various parts of the world at the 42nd session to inscribe natural and cultural sites, held between 24 June and 4 July 2018, there were 1092 properties on UNESCO’S World Heritage List. But will this afford these newly listed sites better protection or bring new threats such as mismanaged, inaccurate or inappropriate tourism [56
]? And what of the future of heritage sites not on the list? For instance, across the globe, all heritage is threatened by increasingly frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, wild fires and more general climate change. As Harvey and Perry [58
] (p. i) note in the introduction to one of the few books devoted to the topic of the future of heritage in relation to climate change, ‘Climate change is a critical issue for heritage studies. Sites, objects and ways of life are all coming under threat, requiring alternative management or requiring specific climate change adaptation”. Also, sites and other forms of both tangible and intangible heritage are threatened by development including mining, new forms of terrorism and technological warfare, abandonment and neglect.
In a 2013 paper on the future of heritage, Högberg and Holtorf [59
] (p. 739) emphasize that “the heritage sector has failed to give sufficient attention to future issues” and argue that “this short-coming should be remedied as soon as possible”. They also state “that the heritage sector lacks a thorough engagement with questions concerning the future benefits of cultural heritage and thus concerning the appropriateness of present-day practices and policies in heritage management”. This is still very much true today [60
]. Cultural theorist Patricia Wise succinctly expressed this at the local level in communication with the authors in 2016 [61
To understand and work effectively with the intersections between heritage and well-being we need to begin with individuals and communities in local and regional settings. Personal attachments, community celebrations, private distress and public resistance have their origins in taken-for-granted relations that become intensities when they are threatened by change, development or neglect. Often it can be particularly difficult to anticipate where, when and how residents will take action. This unpredictability highlights how locals and visitors are too readily assumed to view heritage in terms of sites and practices of high and deep cultural value – historic, spiritual, aesthetic, architectural, environmental, and popular. Can we establish the heritage value of a surf break? A bush track? The view from the seventy-first floor? A corner store? How is heritage operating when what is at stake is people’s feeling that “the place just won’t be the same”? We can be as much attached to minor heritages – traces and accidents of nature and history – as to conventional repositories of shared meaning. What if we begin by identifying what people value about where they live? That is, let’s ask people how their region caters for their well-being. Their answers to that question will suggest how we might map regional heritage more productively.
The future of heritage, human well-being and healthy societies is something of increasing importance as the world undergoes unprecedented cultural and environmental change fueled by new digital technology, robotics, shrinking natural resources, human population growth, species extinctions, global warming and shifting political landscapes. Human well-being and healthy societies are threatened by a multitude of growing factors, and for many people the future seems more uncertain than ever before. The role of heritage in mitigating some of this change and how the loss of heritage compounds the effects of rapid change in terms of contemporary human well-being are important issues that are in need of better discussion. This is because their exploration may allow us to chart a different future, grounded in the past [62
], a future with heritage celebrated as a cornerstone of human identity, accomplishment, dignity and respect. In emphasizing the importance of heritage for the present and future, Meskell eloquently expresses the interconnections [63
] (pp. 1–2):
Whether for the social performance of memory, trauma, protest, or uplift, a material past is discursively assembled to serve as a physical conduit between past and present. Since sites and objects bear witness to particular pasts and have those histories woven into their very fabric, they physically embody and instantiate the past in the present in a way that no textual account can fully achieve. That being said, we have increasingly come to see what many indigenous communities have long realized and indeed practiced: that these physical landscapes, monuments, and objects cannot be separated from intangible beliefs and resonances. The artificial separation of these traits is itself a symbolic violence. And when the immaterial connection that people experience disappears, the significance of those same sites and objects may also decline in the public imaginary.
With heritage under threat from so many directions, and people’s well-being negatively impacted by the mismanagement, demise and destruction of heritage, the time to find ways to future-proof tangible and intangible heritage is now.
Digital Heritage as a Form of Preservation
One of the biggest changes in recent years for heritage in terms of preservation is the use of digital technologies [64
]. 3D modelling and scanning is now becoming commonplace, as is social media as a form of heritage preservation, contributing to conservation but with new problems [65
]. Indeed, it is becoming an integral tool for analysis and presentation of information for heritage preservation, as Pieraccini and colleagues [68
], Silberman [69
] and Lerma and colleagues [70
] have demonstrated. Silberman [69
] has also shown various other ways technology aids the preservation of heritage. Building on earlier photogrammetric recording with film cameras at rock art sites, digital 3D scanning and modelling of rock art began in the mid-2000s, including pioneering research in Australia and the UK [71
]. Varied forms of 3D recording are now becoming commonplace in rock art studies, especially in Europe [74
] and increasingly in Australia [78
]. Digital inventories of heritage are also becoming more common [79
] and many major national and international 3D heritage projects have commenced in the past decade [81
]. Furthermore, cross-platform mobile applications available to the general public are also aiding heritage conservation [82
] and the public’s involvement has well-being benefits.
However, to what extent do these forms of heritage preservation enhance well-being? Increasingly, there are arguments that there are negative or no effects [83
]. For instance, Thomas [86
] (p. 201) is of the opinion that “digital technologies reduce the past to a pattern of pixels, viewed on the screen of modern rationalism”, a form of projection, both figurative and literal, devoid of materiality and passed through a filter, consequently reducing meaning. Baker takes this further, arguing there is a digital danger [83
] (p. 2):
There is also a danger with working on cultural heritage with digital tools. The problem put simply is that the technology available to animators, designers, programmers and game designers is so powerful that it can take control and produce a past more “real” than the archaeological remains allow. The most extreme forms are some historically based computer games with CGI visuals, but the problem can also extend to many fly-through architectural reconstructions, which form a kind of hyperreal past that demonstrates very well the technical prowess of the designer and the software used, but goes well beyond the archaeological base upon which these reconstructions should be based. The problem is, who is the author of an exhibition or a video - the researcher or the designer? One is the expert for the data, the other for the software? To take sporting analogy is the archaeologist a player manager, a trainer or the referee? I would say the core function is one of referee. Someone who keeps an eye on the rules of academic research and looks out for fair play towards the powerless prehistoric creators of the material record.
Another digital danger for well-being is that digital recordings of heritage destruction can and have been used to maximise the negative impact on individual, community and cultural well-being such “that the use of digital technology and production techniques allows the iconoclasm to be globally disseminated and permanently stored in digital archives for posterity” [45
] (p. 667).
On the other hand, 2D digital recordings, digital video and 3D reality capture of heritage items are important because they are non-invasive methods that not only preserve and protect these items but also can create an accurate model of irreplaceable memories (good and bad), forever communicating the stories of past civilizations and events to future generations. 3D reconstructions also provide people who may not normally have the opportunity to experience an artefact, building, site or place a way to connect, albeit virtually. Galeazzi concludes [84
] (p. 278):
The discussion about the value of virtual reconstruction for the preservation and interpretation of cultural heritage has only just started. Should these virtual simulations be considered original digital representations of our cultural heritage or just virtual “fakes”? They can probably be considered subjective virtual interpretations (a relative “authentic”) that aim to get as close as possible to the absolute “authentic” thanks to the activation of a multisimulation process and the creation of “open” and “dynamic” ontologies. This kind of process can allow users to compare, virtually and in real time, different reconstructed worlds that result from diverse interpretations of the same cultural heritage and to then change them and create new interpretations. New digital methodologies can facilitate the preservation of our material memory and, at the same time, help to remove the barriers between past and present through innovative and open communication systems.
The pace of technological change, especially in terms of IT, digitization software and hardware, 3D, virtual reality and so forth, is such that soon there should be new ways to preserve and reconstruct important heritage. Whole virtual worlds may one day exist to give people incredibly realistic immersive heritage experiences that will educate, enrich and nurture well-being. Virtual time travel will be possible and heritage experiences currently articulated through science fiction could one day become commonplace. Great “Creativity Places” will be built where “visitors will encounter a convergence of art, science and technology” [87
] (p. 214). There will be a focus on our shared human heritage so Creativity Places are ”designed not just to display the incredible range of past and present achievements but also to inspire new creations, debate and reflection” [87
] (p. 216).
Inspiration, debate and reflection is always needed when addressing challenges to heritage and well-being. This is because, as Colwell and Joy [88
] (p. 122) state, “In practice, multiple compromises take place on all sides when considering the stewardship of cultural heritage”. One of the biggest challenges for the future is how to maintain heritages places as living places, as Ndoro and Wijesuriya summarize [89
] (p. 135):
A regional comparison of traditional heritage management reveals a shared principle of usable and living heritage. Heritage places such as Timbuktu, Aksum, Great Zimbabwe, and Kilwa, among others, were not left to decay, waiting for “discovery” by foreign heritage experts. Many archaeological sites and ruins, for example Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, Lumbini in Nepal, Bodhgaya in India, and many other sites, are still places of worship and pilgrimage and are considered sacred by millions of Buddhists. These places contain archaeological remains dating back to the third century BCE, but their sacredness adds a different set of values and conservation challenges. Most of these places still play major roles as part of a dynamic cultural landscape whose meaning is derived from its wider social and religious context.
The idea of living heritage resonates beyond the kinds of heritage places referred to by Ndoro and Wijesuriya. Research on the motivations of community heritage sector volunteers to continue their efforts to preserve material culture under challenging organizational circumstances, has demonstrated the importance placed on institutions to be “living archives” or “living museums” [23
]. While volunteers often used this terminology to compare their do-it-yourself approach to heritage management to what they perceived to be the “dusty” approach of more traditional heritage institutions, they also emphasized that community heritage organizations are “institutions for living”, that is, places that nurture the well-being of volunteers and visitors, but also the well-being of objects through the love and care volunteers hold for their collections. These living archives and museums are “dynamic holders of history and memory that enliven” communities and where “the past is folded into the present through collective memory-making and identity-building by those moving through and interacting within the space” [23
] (p. 77; see also pp. 78–79). Volunteering in the community heritage sector is “life-sustaining” for those who give their time to this activity and this, in turn, can be “life-sustaining for the institution” [23
] (p. 109).
Thus, we argue that it is critical for all heritage to be imagined as living heritage——as not being solely of the past, but equally about the present and future—and that this approach to heritage is what will better ensure it will be safeguarded in years to come. In the process, the well-being of participants will be enhanced. For instance, “While visiting meaningful places brings a whole host of benefits, these can be broadly grouped into three key areas – mental wellbeing, nostalgia and security and survival. Natural places in particular promote greater wellbeing, as well as places from the here and now” [90
] (p.40). In Australia, Aboriginal people contend rock art sites in natural-cultural landscapes are significant parts of contemporary living heritage and this is true for some Indigenous communities in Africa, the Americas and elsewhere [21
]. Because of this it has recently been argued by Agnew and colleagues that in order to best conserve rock art eight “Foundation Principles” need to be adhered to throughout the world [31
] (p. 4):
- Principle 1
Work actively to promote rock art as a valuable heritage for everyone, and allocate sufficient resources specifically to its future care
- Principle 2
Manage to protect all values
- Principle 3
Preserve and manage rock art as an inherent part of the landscape
- Principle 4
Safeguard cultural rights and practices
- Principle 5
Involve and empower Indigenous owners and local communities in decisions about rock art management and conservation
- Principle 6
Use recognised ethics, protocols and standards for documentation, conservation and interpretation as the basis for management practice
- Principle 7
Give priority to preventive and protective conservation
- Principle 8
Make effective communication and collaboration a central part of management
We strongly suggest that these principles should not just pertain to the world’s rock art heritage. Rather, they should be modified to underlie all heritage conservation. In this way we should be able to not only better address present and new heritage threats and challenges but also maximize the return for individual and community well-being in relation to heritage. Furthermore, as Monckton and Reilly [26
] (p. 11) argue “Wellbeing relates most closely to the neighbourhood, whether through local action, connecting with local people and groups or our local environment. By extension, therefore, wellbeing can be best linked with the heritage of the everyday”.
A recent National Trust (UK) study concluded 92% of people “would be upset if their meaningful place was lost” [90
] (p. 36). This was recently demonstrated in Paris with the tragic fire at Notre Dame cathedral and the outpouring of grief across Paris, France and the world more generally. Instantly a commitment to rebuild was made and billions of euros of funding donated. The new Notre Dame will be a mix of new and old materials, perhaps diminishing authenticity but maintaining the sense of wonder produced for its public [91
]. Heritage is destroyed all the time. Notre Dame has global value. Yet, there are lots of other examples that do not have mass appeal to broad international audiences, but which are equally effective at enhancing well-being while extant and negatively affect well-being when damaged or destroyed. It is also important to emphasise the ever-evolving space heritage and well-being has. For instance, recently there have been arguments for preserving ruins rather than restoring them. DeSilvey [92
] argues that for well-being, we also need to learn to let go rather than to adhere to (mainly Western) rules of preservation. Can we or should we save everything and have we already accumulated too much as DeSilvey, Harrison [93
] and some others suggest?
However, from our review of literature that touches on the heritage well-being nexus, we conclude that unless we take better measures to conserve and interpret natural and cultural heritage in contemporary contexts, the future psychological and even physical health of both individuals and societies will increasingly be at risk. Heritage is not a romantic, nostalgic component of fragmented pasts and memories but rather an essential part of who and what we are, where we have come from and where we are going. Heritage is something that is essential for contemporary and future well-being.
But where do we go from here? How can we reframe the debate about heritage futures and priorities? We believe one of the biggest challenges to the future of heritage is what do we do with all of this stuff? How do we best decide what to keep and what to abandon? Whose heritage takes priority and how can we better encourage respect for the heritage of other people and not just our own or what we think is important? How can heritage preservation be more egalitarian? And by declaring something as having high or exceptional heritage value, do we create new threats to that heritage in terms of people desiring access to it? Furthermore, given the multitude of recent studies showing the value of heritage to human well-being, how do we provide more meaningful and more frequent interactions with heritage? The concept of living heritage as referred to above is most useful in this sense. The conclusion to Poulios’ case study from Greece [94
] expresses this succinctly [94
A living heritage approach tends to radically redefine the existing concept of heritage and the principles of heritage conservation by challenging, for the first time in the history of conservation, very strong assumptions established over time in the field, which were developed along with a material-based approach and were maintained by a values-based approach… More specifically, according to a living heritage approach, first, the power in the conservation process is [no] longer in the hands of the conservation professionals, but passes on to the communities. Second, emphasis is no longer on the preservation of the (tangible) material but on the maintenance of the (intangible) connection of communities with heritage, even if the material might be harmed. Third, heritage is not considered a monument of the past that has to be protected from the present community, for the sake of future generations; heritage is now seen and protected as an inseparable part of the life of the present community. Thus, past and present-future are not separated (discontinuity), but unified into an ongoing present (continuity). Therefore, a living heritage approach attempts to mark the shift in heritage conservation from monuments to people, from the tangible fabric to intangible connections with heritage, and from discontinuity to continuity.
We see this as the biggest challenge of all in the heritage well-being relationship—shifting the longstanding Euro-American derived approach to heritage, that focuses on objects, monuments and the built environment as in the World Heritage concept, to a focus on living peoples living in and interacting with heritage as a meaningful part of the rest of their lives. In this way, all of the questions listed above can be better addressed with positive outcomes for both heritage and human well-being.