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International Research Project Studies Social Significance of Health Resorts

№ 169/2019 from Jun 12, 2019

A team of researchers from the universities of Amsterdam and Lund, Queen Mary University in London, and Freie Universität Berlin is starting a research project on health resorts as a location of transnational encounter and debate. At Freie Universität Berlin the project is based at the Peter Szondi Institute of Comparative Literature. Entitled “The European Health Resort as a Transnational Public Space and Social Metaphor,” the project is being funded by the European research network HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area). Researchers Wiebke Kolbe, Henrike Schmidt Astrid Köhler, and Christian Noack are working together with practitioners from a wide range of European countries.

With a budget of 20 million euros, the research network HERA is currently supporting 20 research teams that are expected to gain new insights into the origin and function of public spaces as a prerequisite for social communication. The project on European health resorts is being funded with roughly one million euros. On the German side, the project is being supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Spas have always been places where political and social boundaries and norms were tested and overcome. Spas are catalysts of modern tourism, and they have contributed to the spread of a new consumer culture in Europe. They have also stimulated the exchange of new goods and ideas. Therapy, recreation, consumption, and social exchange merge and form a specific “spa culture.”

During the 19th century, spa stays evolved from being a privilege of aristocratic and bourgeois society into a mass phenomenon. The traditional spa with its mineral springs led to recent developments such as the seaside resorts or health resorts in health-conducive climates. The introduction of the welfare state, paid vacation, and a health insurance system all contribute to the growth of wellness industries.

The health resort is a temporary meeting place for people of different classes, nations, ethnic groups, and cultures whose paths would otherwise not be likely to cross. Thus, it can be viewed as a metaphor for Europe as a whole, praised by some as utopia and demonized by others as decadent. It has been popularized in novels and films as a contradictory place of longing by authors such as Thomas Mann, Anton Tschechow, Dubravka Ugrešić, or Milan Kundera and film directors such as Alain Resnais and Nikita Michalkov. In addition to historical sources, the researchers will also examine spa novels and films within this project.

The project aims to redefine spas and health resorts as a central concept and location of European debates. The researchers aim to investigate how the public space of spas, with characteristic institutions such as the spa park, sanatorium, grand hotels, and casinos developed as a stage for the negotiation of political, social, and cultural matters of European relevance. They will also look into when the institution of the spa as a transnational place changes or dissolves due to pressure from national and ideological divisions on the continent. Finally, the researchers will pose the question of how health spas today function as a form of cultural heritage, between nostalgia and a wellness boom.

Up to now, research on the subject has focused primarily on the historical development. To date, there has been no detailed empirical study devoted to the phenomenon in its pan-European character and related cultural practices. Christian Noack from the University of Amsterdam, the project leader, said that the HERA funding will help the researchers to overcome national and disciplinary boundaries and enable them to investigate the history of European spas with a genuinely transnational and interdisciplinary approach.

With its multidisciplinary approach, the project combines methods from history and literary studies with approaches from the digital humanities. The European bathing landscape will be mapped using data. The researchers will be working with sources in about a dozen European languages. The funding is for a three-year period.

The HERA funding line supports innovative formats of academic transfer. In addition to the traditional monograph, the researchers, in cooperation with participating spa museums, will design a “traveling exhibition” to be shown in Germany, England, Poland, and Croatia.

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