Since 2000, I have been the Secretary General of Europa Nostra - the largest pan-European federation of heritage organisations. As such, I am responsible for the strategic and policy leadership of the organisation. My role entails supervising, coordinating and providing strategic guidance to all activities implemented by Europa Nostra, as well as nurturing relations and partnerships with heritage organisations and institutions at all levels of governance. Let me add that this is much more than a job, this has become a true mission of my life. I see my task as building bridges and pulling down walls - visible and invisible - between countries, communities and citizens in Europe, through the cohesive power of our shared cultural heritage.
In the past decades, a lot has changed in the cultural heritage world. The two biggest - and most favourable - changes are: 1) a much wider understanding of the notion of cultural heritage, and 2) a greater public recognition of its value.
Towards a more inclusive understanding of cultural heritage
Regarding the first point, Europa Nostra was established in 1963 with the objective of ‘safeguarding monuments, sites and habitats of artistic, historic or natural interest’. Ever since, however, our activities have evolved and enlarged - and will continue doing so - keeping pace with the evolution of heritage knowledge and practice and to reflect an ever more inclusive understanding of cultural heritage. Today, Europa Nostra aims to be THE voice for cultural heritage in Europe, and our work covers cultural heritage in its broadest understanding: from natural to tangible, intangible or digital - in partnership with Europeana.
At Europa Nostra, we support the digitisation of cultural heritage in different ways, including by celebrating and promoting excellence in this field, notably through the European Heritage Awards / Europa Nostra Awards. An inspiring project that has received this prestigious Award is the digitisation of Naturalis Biodiversity Center’s collection in Leiden (the Netherlands), where nine million zoological, botanical and geological specimens from across the globe were digitised, facilitating further research and allowing the public to discover this collection. Another remarkable project is RomArchive, a digital archive created by Roma people themselves to make their culture and heritage visible. This is one of our most recent award winners and we shall celebrate it on 29 October at the special heritage evening at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.
We also support the digital transformation of Europe’s cultural heritage by building partnerships with key stakeholders. Earlier this year, Europa Nostra and ViMM (Virtual Multimodal Museum) signed a Joint Statement stressing the role of digital technologies for the future of cultural heritage. The statement was prepared as ViMM’s response to the Berlin Call to Action ‘Cultural Heritage for Future of Europe’, launched by Europa Nostra, the German Cultural Heritage Committee (DNK) and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) in 2018 on the occasion of the European Year of Cultural Heritage.
Of course, we have an excellent dialogue with Europeana (we both have our headquarters in The Hague!) both bilaterally and through Europeana’s active participation in the European Heritage Alliance 3.3. coordinated by Europa Nostra’s Brussels Office. Together with Europeana, we are also involved in the development of the Time Machine Project which will hopefully be implemented at the European level with the vital support of the European Union.
As all these examples show, our mission and ambition is to build bridges between different heritage disciplines, and between heritage and the wider world beyond the traditional heritage field.
Public recognition of cultural heritage as a strategic resource for Europe
Regarding the second important change, the last few years have seen significant progress in the public recognition of cultural heritage as a strategic resource for Europe, with the designation of 2018 as the European Year of Cultural Heritage being a real turning point. For Europa Nostra, as well as for other heritage organisations that have been, throughout these years, raising awareness and advocating for a more prominent role of cultural heritage in the political agenda, this feels like a true victory and a confirmation that our joint efforts can bear fruits! Indeed, ‘l’Union fait la force’!
The European Year was an historic accomplishment: it saw an unprecedented Europe-wide mobilisation of heritage stakeholders - both public and private - and encouraged the participation of citizens and communities across the continent. It also led to much larger engagement in heritage by all EU Institutions and a stronger awareness about the huge potential that cultural heritage has for the future of Europe, and this in many policy areas. As a result, cultural heritage was recognised as the ‘cross-cutting priority’ for Europe. I am proud to say that Europa Nostra’s work and advocacy efforts were instrumental for and during the EYCH, and it was a real pleasure to collaborate with so many stakeholders, including Europeana, to make this year a success.
The challenge of funding
One of the greatest challenges of the heritage sector remains finding the necessary and sustainable sources of funding, in particular for organisations working on a non-profit basis. For a long time, the heritage circles have heavily relied on the public sector. Although a stronger commitment of governmental institutions at all levels of governance remains indispensable, we must also involve the private sector as much as possible, and ensure closer cooperation between the two. There are many funding opportunities for heritage at EU level too, but not all organisations possess the human resources or knowledge required to access them. In particular, there is a deplorable gap when it comes to funding small-scale projects - with the potential of having a big impact! To tackle this issue, heritage stakeholders shall have to continue exploring untapped and innovative sources of income, such as corporate support, philanthropy and donations by foundations, crowdsourcing and corporate social responsibility programmes.
Connecting the dots of collective intelligence
Another great challenge of the sector is to capitalise on the immense collective intelligence that we have produced over the past years, and to connect all those infinite dots out there! We have achieved so much in terms of policy developments, successful projects and practices. So much that we should not try to ‘reinvent the wheel’ every time: instead, we should build on the foundations of what has already been achieved. We should share, as much as possible, information and good practice among practitioners to avoid duplication of effort. And we shall build as many partnerships as possible!
The advice to my younger self – and to every young heritage professional – is related to this last point: trust in the transformative power of partnerships - we are stronger together!