Cultural rights for the 21st century

Throughout 2018 we’re celebrating a range of 70th anniversaries with huge national and international significance for our experiences of democracy and equality today.

These anniversaries include the arrival of HMS Empire Windrush, bringing British citizens from the West Indies and migrant workers to Tilbury Dock in June 1948[1], the founding of the National Health Service [2] in July and later in December, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)[3].

Many of these anniversaries are inter-related in their significance, including the vital contributions of British Caribbean women and men working within all areas of the NHS, past and present. At a time of UK peak inequality[4], it is inspirational to remember the historical context which framed the UDHR. I believe this rights-based approach to culture can inform the strong cultural and health partnerships, alliances, policies and practice emerging within the UK and internationally.

Following the end of World War Two, international efforts led to the UDHR asserting the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” with rights including health (Article 25), education (Article 26) and culture (Article 27): “Everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Dignity and equality for everyone continues to inform the best cultural practice. In my work at Heritage Lottery Fund I’m encouraged by the straightforward clarity articulating cultural rights in Article 27. Participating in cultural life is not a ‘nice to have’, a luxury or a charitable gift, it’s a right.

Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing[5] last year’s report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing demonstrates the difference high quality cultural engagement makes in improving health equity across our lives. Recommendations include the strategic, coordinated role of cultural and health partnerships and the need for long term research into the impacts of cultural engagement. The evidence from this research, by Arts Council England and many others, is that high quality cultural engagement has the greatest impact on people with the poorest levels of wellbeing at the outset. This has implications for all of us involved in cultural partnerships delivering sustainable change.

Pic 3 (1) (1)

Two brief examples here demonstrate the outcomes and impact of high quality culture and health partnerships involving people too often underrepresented in cultural participation, for example, through long term mental ill health, disability or unemployment.

Human Henge[6] was led by the Restoration Trust in partnership with the Richmond Fellowship, National Trust, English Heritage and Bournemouth University and involved people with mental health conditions in 2017-18 exploring archaeology and creativity at Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage site. As promised by the project, the photos here demonstrate the adventurous, enjoyable opportunities taken by 36 people in exploring South West landscapes for healing and inspiration. Work to measure the sustained impact of these experiences for participants, including one year on from the project experience, is underway, with all the challenges involved in what is, at the moment, a small cohort. Evidence so far shows participants have valued opportunities to explore these extraordinary sites in safe, creative ways, building confidence and social connections through accessing cultural rights.

Partnerships across museums, job centres and with people experiencing long-term unemployment informed IF Inspiring Futures: Volunteering for Wellbeing. The project provided volunteering opportunities at museums and other cultural sites in Manchester and North West England for over 230 people with long term experiences of unemployment, poor health or disability. Taking place between 2014 and 2017 and partly funded by HLF, strong outcomes included improved and maintained wellbeing for those involved in volunteering. The project delivered a strong social return on investment[7].

For both Human Henge and Inspiring Futures, measuring the long term impact of cultural engagement, whether through creative activities or volunteering opportunities, and continuing to grow the necessary cross-sector partnerships are major considerations in planned work ahead. Building knowledge and scale while sharing the learning from these high quality ambitious projects is crucial for us all in ensuring the realisation of cultural rights.

In this anniversary year, I’m suggesting we revisit the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in framing our work across health and cultural sectors and partnerships, now and in our work together ahead.

Liz EllisLiz Ellis

Policy Adviser, Communities and Diversity, Heritage Lottery Fund, HLF

The views expressed here are those of the author within a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent those held by the Heritage Lottery Fund


[4] Academic and author Danny Dorling coined this term


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