Who owns cultural heritage?

In this article, my examples will focus only on Europe- anyway, I think that the principles described in the last two sections are universally applicable.

Recently, I was reading some articles about what I could define “a family feud”, as this has been a recurring item on newspapers in Italy.

Admittedly- during the Summer, and mainly in August, when newspapers needs something to fill their pages.

You probably already know that Italy has a significant number of listed historical buildings and locations, including over 40 sites on the UNESCO “World Heritage” list (and “sites” implies sometimes whole towns, such as Verona, and the historical centre of towns such as Rome).

As part of the “devolution”, i.e. the transfer of powers from the central government to regional entities, regional governments across the country are promoting their local cultural heritage, ranging from food to buildings.

This sometimes creates overlapping claims, e.g. on who has the right to manage the sizeable revenue generated by ticket sales and new sponsors.

Since late 1990s most developed countries joined the “e-government” bandwagon, the use of online channels to both streamline the management of shared resources and bring the State closer to its “shareholders”- the citizens.

In the early 2000s, a large project was launched, aiming to build a national portal with tourist information.

The significant budget was supposed to cover for both the portal- and helping all the local authorities to contribute and update the content.

The potential number of publishing partners? According to the site www.comuni-italiani.it: 20 regions, 110 counties (“province”), 8094 towns (“comuni”).

After a couple of governments and few millions, the site www.italia.it was re-launched with a different logic and approach, in partnership with the Italian Automobile Club (ACI).

As for the local authorities… some developed their own website, others just an “online postcard”, while others have no presence online.

But it is not just the online side that is missing: the management of buildings and historical sites in Italy ranges from the fully-commercialized to the complete surrender to the elements- mainly due to lack of funds.

Funding cultural heritage

The celebrations for 2011 (150 years since the unification of Italy) are just few months away.

And the scope and size of the celebrations will depend also on the mutual relationship between the various levels of government.

But it is still interesting to see how the infrastructure (website and physical site management), maintenance, and communication will be managed, as actually Italy could be a laboratory for other countries with a similar “dynamic” past.

And when discussing how to distribute power between the central government and the regions, the ownership of the cultural heritage is often part of the discussion.

There is an old joke going around the country: in Italy, poke an hole, and you will have an archeological site.

Because whenever a building site is opened, some new artifacts pop up- requiring inspection, review, assessment, measurement, and so on.

I will not venture into discussions about the “souvenirs” (or legal share) taken after archeological activities- or discuss other components of the cultural heritage, ranging from local produce to folklore.

If you just look at the local buildings- the original funding came from various non local sources, ranging from the spoils of military activities around Europe, Africa, Asia (for buildings in Ancient Rome), to the results of trade (i.e. how many statues in Italy were actually made in Greece, and then exported, two thousand years ago?).

A building is not a one-off investment: you have to keep financing its maintenance.

Until the XIX century, there was some “flexibility” in managing cultural heritage, e.g. “re-using” the marble and bronze from the Coliseum, or simply covering over or levelling remains.

Something that right now would be simply unacceptable.

But the alternative, maintaining the status quo, requires substantial investments.

Private-public initiatives

Few years ago, you could actually “rent” an historic villa in Northern Italy for a nominal amount- provided that you accepted to take over the maintenance costs and accept few other rules.

Since 1975 an organization called “Fondo Ambiente Italiano” follows an approach inspired by the National Trust in the UK.

They take over and restore a property, from a building to a park, and then allow the public to visit the property for a fee- or for free, if you are a member.

This approach is obviously case-by-case, as any other similar initiative: you have to select properties that could attract enough visitors or funding to keep the properties open.

Just in Italy, there are way too many properties representing not just the Italian cultural heritage, but also the gradual development of Europe.

The issue is simple: there is a limited number of sites that would satisfy the needs for a commercial development.

And this would still leave behind all the less commercially attractive ones- an issue similar to the “universal service” for utilities.

The enlargement of the European Union was preceded in the 1990s by programmes such as PHARE, and funding to promote integration through cultural activities.

But the stabilization extended to supporting the occupation of scientists previously kept busy by the Cold War.

And only recently Russia gave its notice period, withdrawing from a joint research facility in Russia- a sign that there are better and longer-term occupation possibilities.

Since the beginning of the intervention in Greece, there have been overlapping news showing that also the placid Mediterranean can occasionally have stormy weather.

Just to mention the last few weeks: the efforts of Brazil and Turkey on Iran on the nuclear issues, the recent contacts between Greece and Israel after the issues with Turkey in Gaza, the events in Northern Africa.

Private-public initiatives on the protection of our shared cultural heritage could actually generate longer-term integration, as the private sector works beyond the electoral cycle, while the political side can create the environment required to “seed” longer-term initiatives.

But the different timeframe has also a side-effect: the perception of the risk in any initiative is not necessarily shared by all the partners involved.

Shared risk ownership

In Europe, we are currently “cloning” the IMF into what might in the future begin its European equivalent, the EMF.

Post-WWII, shared financial and trade interests have been a catalyst to increase European cohesion.

Gradually, we moved from financial to political integration- and since the fall of the Berlin Wall there have been repeated initiatives focused on increasing the cultural ties- from the Atlantic to the Urals.

Since Spring 2005, the European Library started integrating access to the resources of National Libraries across Europe (48 libraries in 35 languages).

I know that this sounds as taking a page from the the old “Clash of Civilizations” theory of regional cohesion, but we saw some friction when European-wide cohesion was invoked for Greece, and eventually members states refused to join- including a member of the Euro.

On August 17th it was reported that Nordic and Baltic countries (including Norway, a non-member of EU) signed an agreement on financial stability.

A side-effect of the increased regional cohesion could be a re-definition of the balance of interests within the European Union, allowing smaller states to present unified positions when negotiating with the leading members.

And, by bridging with non-members (e.g. Greece talking with Israel, the Scandinavian and Baltics with Norway), could enhance their own influence, as “bridges”, in a EU that too often seems to be focused more on itself than on what is going on just beyond its borders.

Looking on shorter-term issues, the same pattern that has been adopted by the ECSC (I still prefer to use the acronym CECA) could be followed within these regional groupings, moving from financial/trade issues to political and cultural cohesion.

In Europe, we de facto assumed joint responsibility of issues affecting our long-term stability and viability as an economic power, from the stability of the financial industry, to the sustainability of the Euro.

But the financial support is not a grant- it comes with few strings attached, as you can read in any newspaper.

In few cases, the aid was converted into ownerships- but, usually, the trend has been toward privatization, with the States “seeding” investment, and the private sector investing after an initiative has been proved to be commercially viable.

Investment and ownership

Shifting from the financial to the cultural dimension of the European Union, the same approach could be used for our cultural heritage.

France and Germany built a high-speed railway networks as an investment on the future- and the same happened in other countries, including Italy.

Only after there was a viable market, the private sector jumped in- or the companies were privatized.

The private sector, answering to shareholders, invests in risk that is manageable- an infrastructural project that could or could not give a return in decades is not an investment: it is a political choice.

You can bet, when you are a tiny startup: risking at most few millions- but nobody would bet tens or hundred of billions- and, as shown in recent history, those who did actually bet, eventually were deemed to be “too big to fail”- turning to the taxpayer.

Now, just consider historical monuments such as Pompei or Coliseum in Rome, or the ancient Roman bridges and road across Europe.

If the Roman roads are still (more or less) standing, the reason is that their maintenance was a long-standing activity, with a significant continuous need for a specific set of skills.

In 1996, when the “La Fenice” theatre in Venice burned down, there were a couple of issues that were widely discussed on Italian newspapers: restoring the theatre to its original condition would be prohibitively expensive.

The cost of the intervention? Over 50 million (EUR).

And this is the interesting opportunity: by increasing cooperation on the management of our cultural heritage, we could actually generate a series of competence centres, whose skills we would then be able to export worldwide, as the the initiatives would not be “ad hoc”, but part of longer-term service and maintenance arrangements.

Provided that we can move beyond the “national borders” concept.

Rethinking ownership

Who “owns” a site that was developed by a country that ceased to exist long ago?

I think that Lorenzo Valla proved in the XV century already a simple statement: while a weaker institution needs to claim ownership by using a forgery like the “donation of Constantine”, or other (not necessarily fake) documentation, an established institution does not derive its authority just from a piece of paper (the Roman Catholic Church officially ignored for centuries Valla’s research).

In the end, cultural heritage is developed for future generations, not for the current, temporary owners.

If you consider the history of Europe since the weakening of the Roman Empire, our shared history is built on exchanges and mixing, not on “national” or “cultural” monolithic identities- despite what some politicians claim once in a while.

The Coliseum is in Rome and in Italy- but should it be considered part of the Italian or the European cultural heritage?

Sharing the ownership implies something more than sharing, say, the revenue and costs- implies also setting priorities across the region involved- and, probably, adapting common guidelines.

For the Roman roads, this means at least a cooperation with the Union for the Mediterranean, maybe with privately-funded projects for specific sites, e.g. to enable a sustainable development of the tourism industry, or other cultural initiatives.

Another example could be the Hanseatic League, from Lubeck to the trading posts of Bruges/Brugge and Novgorod.

Or, why not, all the walled towns- a constant reminder to a not-so-peaceful past.

Why do I refer to “institutional coverage” (the Union for the Mediterranean, the Hanseatic League, etc) for these private-public initiatives?

Because only institutional counterparts could be considered credible negotiating partners from other institutions, such as states.

And as shown by the management of foreign direct investment, there is still a significant cultural distance between the institutions and their private counterparts.

Only longer-term joint activities could allow both sides to develop the mutual knowledge and check-and-balances needed to avoid the same sometimes puzzling results.


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