Keeping heritage alive for all

RHODES – What do Kenya’s towns of Lamu, Italy’s San Gimignano, Mexico’s Oaxaca and Lithuania’s Vilnius share? A rich cultural heritage but also the desire to manage and develop it. Finding new ways to achieve this aim was the subject of a symposium convened on Rhodes last week. «Keeping Heritage Alive,» the seventh International Symposium of the Organization of World Heritage Cities, was held in the city of Rhodes from September 24 to September 26 at the Sofitel Capsis Hotel and Marika Capsis Convention Center. Under the auspices of UNESCO, the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Cultural Olympiad, the three-day conference was divided into sessions for mayors and other decision-makers, a scientific symposium and a youth forum. Comprising 203 inhabited cities in which are located sites that are listed as cultural properties on the World Heritage List of UNESCO, the International Organization of World Heritage Cities is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. Principal issues raised at the conference included how heritage can play an integral role in the way cities develop socially and economically, as well as how to find practical solutions for their management and sound decision-making. Defining cultural heritage was also on the conference agenda. Officials from Vilnius, for instance, made a case for their city’s historic moments, rather than for its historical monuments. Mayors «It takes time to be proud of your city,» was one of the mottos in the mayors and decision-makers’ meetings. Officials noted that many tourists traveling to heritage cities do so in order to encounter a certain atmosphere and that if they don’t find it, they might not come back. (Research data showed, for instance, that about 20 percent of the tourists visiting Rhodes come to the island just to visit the Medieval City.) Some of the issues raised during the sessions included the need for soft strategies and hard strategies. Officials noted the rising problems in the tourist industry, like, for instance, visitors who don’t respect a city’s heritage. Officials also noted the need for bettering the quality of life to improve citizen participation as well as the need to develop new forms of local goverment. What was clear from the three days of meetings was that the issues facing the municipalities were of an inter-disciplinarity nature, with professions and specialties overlapping. During the conference, officials put forward a series of suggestions which included: the promotion of «city-to-city network» programs (not «twinning,» but rather a shared link for educational programs and the exchange of valuable information, for instance); the promotion of programs for cooperation between developed and less developed countries that could offer mutual benefits; recognizing the importance of the local community as a starting point for education; measures against natural disasters; the need for training on all levels, as well as emphasizing the role of research for the protection of cultural heritage and mobilizing funds to sustain it. The scientists At the scientific symposium, the City of Rhodes became one of the subjects, acting as a pilot city / open lab for research and education. Research was carried out focusing on the last 20 years of the Medieval part of the city – dramatically transformed from a rather neglected area to an integral and vibrant part of city life. Other presentations in the scientific section included the need for an urgent conservation strategy for the Casbah of Algiers; the impact of rising waters in Venice; the art of restoring; proposals for earthquake supports for residential constructions in Istanbul; the management of archaeological sites; and strategies for preserving and tourist promotion of Puebla’s (Mexico) historical center. Scientists at the symposium also discussed earthquake hazard assessment, the use of new technologies – such as virtual reality representation of historic monuments and how this could be a powerful tool for museum displays – as well as how to make use of historic centers. A group of young people met in the symposium’s Youth Forum to discuss the importance of heritage. All 21 participants presented their own projects: From Telford, Britain, for instance, came a project where students (16-19) teach the idea of heritage to primary school pupils. In Warsaw, students produced a documentary on the city’s old historical center. Many of the participants expressed a wish for the idea of heritage to come across as fun. They also noted the importance of feeling needed in one’s city. What kind of suggestions came from the younger generation? Ideas included making town halls more accessible to the young, the possibility of electing youth municipal councils as well as the idea of separate funding for youth programs in municipal budgets. The Youth Forum took place on the premises of the Marc de Montalembert Foundation, a restored Turkish summer house in the heart of the city of Rhodes. Founded in memory of Marc de Montalembert, the foundation established a grant for cultural exchange and research in 1994. Host city The city of Rhodes proved to be a warm and efficient host. Running parallel to the main events was an exhibition by World Heritage Cities as well as cultural events, including a concert by Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis, an evening with Evanthia Reboutsika and her band, as well as a dance presentation of Zouzou Nikoloudi’s «Chorika» production. Finally, the mayor of Rhodes, George Yiannopoulos, was elected by the Organization of World Heritage Cities’ general assembly as its new president, while the organization’s next symposium will take take place in Cuzco, Peru in 2005.