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Showcasing the arts and humanities as a route towards better health

The winners of the inaugural Health Humanities Medal were announced on Tuesday 11 September during a parliamentary reception to celebrate the achievements of the people, projects and organisations that are helping to improve health and wellbeing through the use of arts and humanities research.

Taking place against the backdrop of the River Thames, nearly 70 guests attended the event, including academic and healthcare experts, MPs and representatives from partner organisations, the judges and the nominees themselves – all of whom waited eagerly as Dame Judith Macgregor revealed the winners across the five award categories.

Professor Helen Chatterjee crowned overall winner

Professor Helen Chatterjee
Professor Helen Chatterjee

The overall Health Humanities Medal was awarded to Professor Helen Chatterjee from University College London in recognition of her leadership in pioneering research into how museums can be beneficial to health. Chatterjee was presented with the Medal by Vivienne Parry, UK Research and Innovation Board member, and Professor Paul Crawford, who established the Health Humanities discipline.

For Professor Chatterjee, the award was not just an honour for herself and her colleagues, but an important reminder for the health sector as a whole.

“What an honour to receive this award. It’s a special moment for not just me, but for our partners and collaborators too,” she said. “The Health Humanities Medal recognises that arts and humanities are making a genuine contribution to health and wellbeing – we know that they do, but this is important validation of that. Evidence based research has a huge impact on the health sector and I am pleased that this project is playing its part.”

Empowering policy-making

Invited guests were hosted in the Thames Pavilion, with views of St Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster Bridge and the London Eye. Host for the afternoon, Justin Tomlinson, MP for Swindon North and a minister at the Department of Work and Pensions, opened the event by remarking how proud he was to have UK Research and Innovation in his constituency, and highlighting how important this area of work is:

“While there is cross party support to do more, this is an area that we don’t have the solutions,” Tomlinson explained. “In many areas of government expenditure, we know if we spend ‘X’ amount we can get certain outcomes and then the battle is where to draw the line.

“In these areas, particularly the likes of mental health and obesity, we don’t have the solutions and can’t make informed decisions. As a minister, I often have to lobby the treasury for money and they always want evidence. Without evidence you can’t get support. So the work you’re doing will empower us as the decision makers which will filter through to make a tangible difference.”  

Chatterjee was nominated in two categories (best research and leadership), with the judges selecting her as winner of the leadership award before choosing her as the overall winner. The other category winners were:

  • Best Research – Professor Alastair Macdonald from Glasgow School of Art for his design-led research that looked at how to address the challenge of antimicrobial resistance
  • Best Doctoral or Early Career Research – Dr Daisy Fancourt from UCL for her research into music and psychoneuroimmunology
  • Inspiration Award – Professor Havi Carel from University of Bristol and Professor Jane Macnaughton from Durham University for ‘Life of Breath’ project which explores breathlessness from a health humanities perspective
  • Best International Research – Dr Ross White from the University of Liverpool for his work exploring the effects of trauma in relation to post-conflict situations
Health Humanities Medal winners
Health Humanities Medal winners. From left to right: Colin Kirkpatrick (representing Professor Alastair Macdonald), Professor Jane Macnaughton, Dr Daisy Fancourt, Dr Ross White, Professer Helen Chatterjee

Speaking after receiving the award for Best Doctoral or Early Career Research, Dr Daisy Fancourt spoke of her excitement to be recognised:

“Winning something like this early on in my career is a great thumbs up to what I have been doing in my research. As a fellow UCL academic, it was great to see Helen win the award and certainly gives me something to aspire to. This helps raise the profile of the work that we and others are doing at the university and bodes well for the future.”

Professor Paul Crawford leads the field of health humanities at the University of Nottingham,and was on hand to present the winner’s medal. He spoke passionately about what it means to him:

“I am particularly proud that 12 years ago I started health humanities as a field that grew out of medical humanities,” he said. “Since then it has become more expansive and inclusive, which is good for all of us. Without the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council we would never have achieved what we have.

“I see the arts and humanities as the shadow health and care service, and for many years our work in helping to improve the health of the nation has gone unrecognised. I would like politicians to be aware that if arts and humanities disappeared, we wouldn’t know what hit us.”

Tackling health and welfare concerns

Sir Mark Walport
Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation

The event was brought to a close by Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation. For Walport, it is vital that healthcare is not exclusively a scientific endeavour.

“Anyone who has the privilege of working in the health professions realises the best professional competence comes with the appreciation of the science and the art of care. UK Research and Innovation was created because the traditional disciplinary silos don’t really work if we are going to tackle the big research questions in the most comprehensive way.

“It’s about seeking out the best questions and using all the approaches from all the relevant disciplines to tackle it. The arts and humanities have something to offer in every domain.”

A high tea was served after the presentations providing a great opportunity for people to meet and discover more about the breadth of research which is currently taking place in this exciting and rapidly developing field.

The first award of its kind in the UK

This award calls attention to the many-sided collaborations going on right across the country between arts and humanities academics and health professionals, medical and scientific researchers, voluntary organisations, communities and importantly patients. The nominees have all demonstrated how they put arts and humanities research and methodology to important use, improving the health and quality of the life of everyone.

The Health Humanities Medal is the first award of its kind in the UK, and was launched this year by AHRC, in partnership with Wellcome Trust.

Simon Chaplin, Wellcome’s Director of Culture and Society, said: “Wellcome supports a wide-range of activities across humanities research and public engagement, as well as an exciting programme of exhibitions and events at Wellcome Collection. This is why we are pleased to support the Health Humanities Medal in association with the AHRC.  The different category winners reflect the diversity of our interests and we congratulate them on the work they do at the intersection of humanities, culture and health."

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