Heritage magistra vitae - The 3rd International HerMa Conferece in Elefsina, Greece


The 3rd IHC International Conference in Heritage Management (HerMa) took place in Elefsina, Attica, Greece, from the 30th of September to the 2nd of October. Organized by the Institute for Heritage Conservation, an NGO aiming to promote good practices in heritage management, the event was more than a conference, being part of the Aeschylea Festival, organized by the Municipality of Elefsina. The coexistence of the Festival with the conference combined with the fact that the city’s candidateship for European Cultural Capital of 2021 nomination was successful, transformed those three days to an inundation of diversified heritage practices.

The old olive factory with the conference logo (credit: Sophia Zakoura)

All those parameters provided a fertile ground for the development of the conference. Moreover, the broad topics covered by the various panels stimulated the interest of professionals in various disciplines and resulted to a diverse audience ranging from architects to managers, from archaeologists to education professionals and attorneys. 

The first session, dedicated to archaeological landscapes, was of particular interest. It combined concepts of archaeological theory and philosophy with case studies for the interpretation and management of such sites. The keynote speaker, prof. Ganiatsas of the National Technical University of Athens, initiated the series of presentations with a review of the different theoretical approaches towards landscape archaeology, ranging from the ‘quantitative’ processual approach to the ‘phenomenological’ aspect of post-processual archaeological theory. The aim was to evaluate different theoretical methodologies in order to suggest a best practice for the management and the enhancement of values of given sites. He reminded us of the value of phenomenological approaches throughout the history of archaeology, having challenged the positivist and mathematical models of interpretation of archaeological landscapes. Furthermore, he suggested researchers to empathize with the particularities of each case in order to interpret a site or to create the best suited management plan.


The old olive factory, view of the interior in plenary session (credit: Sophia Zakoura)

Overall, the conference demonstrated effectively the dialectic relations between heritage and its sub-disciplines through the evaluation of many good practices. The ideas of Mike Corbishley (UCL) on how to approach diverse audiences through education and make them experience heritage in the making were intriguing. Although, for many, indifference is a quality assigned mostly to scholars when it comes down to communicating knowledge, Corbishley suggested ways to cultivate public interest from simple urban projects to complex excavations. Amongst other contributions, the project at Gonies (Crete) which started as an archaeological investigation of three Minoan Peak Sanctuaries but evolved into a huge ethnographic fieldwork, revealed how a local community might participate in – and to an extent shape – a scientific investigation.

I feel that by neglecting the issues raised in the other sessions, I fail to communicate the values of the event to their full complexity, yet all sessions shared the same values of heritage, most notably its openness, stressing interdisciplinary communication. Based on this fact, I decided to paraphrase Cicero (de Oratore) who argued that historiae magistra vitae (est), suggesting that today heritage is the teacher of everything. In this conference thoughts and arguments were raised on how heritage, as a body embracing history, archaeology, ethnography, education, management, and other disciplines, can be used to provide an understanding of the world and reveal its aspects to the public and with the aid of the public. To this end, the discussion on the diffusion of scientific knowledge through open access journals was timely and well received.

I have chosen to paraphrase Cicero in the title in order to raise a concern regarding one aspect of the HerMa conference; the session on the return of cultural objects to their countries of origin. It seems to me that it contradicted the concept of open access to knowledge as, in contrast to the other panels, the participants demanded the session not to be filmed [1], due to legal issues. Moreover, Colonel Mathew Bogdanos begun his presentation on the topic thieves of Baghdad, from Al-Quaeda to ISIS claiming that he “will tell the truth about what he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan”. Although legal issues are a strong argument, since no one would like sensitive information to fall upon the wrong ears, the Colonel’s statement further suggests that the session communicated with a different language.

Heritage, or at least one of its aspects, having its roots in the humanities and social sciences, is based on the ability to argue for or against specific viewpoints. Nevertheless, this panel established two barriers between the authorities and the audience. The prohibition of filming or photographing followed by the eyewitness statement challenged the dialectic spirit in its most fundamental sense because no debate can be made possible through eyewitness narratives when the audience is neither authority in legislation nor eyewitness. Two subjective leaps are attached to this claim. One cannot oppose to a subjective viewpoint of events he was absent from and challenging the author’s viewpoint may be perceived as questioning his integrity, fact that doesn’t promote dialogue in most cases.

Truth be told, no one would object that the American Colonel and his men did everything in their power to collect back the looted artifacts taken from Baghdad’s museum and channeled into the illegal market. This assertion is widely accepted under the ontological claim that the Coalition Forces did absolute good in the Middle Eastern countries they invaded. Yet, if this ontological claim is challenged to another political understanding, which regards the Coalition Forces as pieces in the imperialistic and neo-colonial chessboard of the 21st century, then the political use of heritage and the efforts for its repatriation might be seen as a means to legitimize those invasive wars [2]. Under this theoretical framework, eyewitness testimonies lose substantial weight and reality appears to be more complex than the bipolar good versus bad argument, as it should have in a HerMa conference.

Reaching the conclusion, it is evident that in most of the cases the multidisciplinary approaches bound under the term heritage provide important tools in order to face the challenges that humanities are facing in the 21st century. Thus, heritage replacing history, in Cicero’s case brings forward two major considerations. The analytical tools used throughout the conference, from archaeological theory and philosophy, to education, digitalization and management are the obvious advantages in the quest of making knowledge accessible to wider audiences. On the other hand, heritage as a discipline has a long history through the centuries, especially if considered, amongst others, a by-product of history and archaeology. It possesses the central place in the discourse but its roots lie within the long dialectic and evolutionary processes of the humanities. Therefore, it cannot afford the luxury to remain unaffected by the earlier battles that archaeology and history, as scientific entities, gave in order to detach their colonial attitudes from themselves. Thus, I believe that heritage through the deep understanding of the humanities and social sciences should hold its wings away from militarized approaches, engaging the public with causal relations and dialectic means.

*The side events of the conference, visualized with pictures below, aimed at those very ends - the causal (and casual) relations and dialectic means according to which heritage operates. 


Re-used heritage

Re-used heritage: The abandoned industrial facilities of “Paleo Eleourgio” (Old Oil Factory) revive through their new use as cultural multi-space. The reuse concept is not limited to the material field, but incorporates its everyday objects with cultural and social values. Heritage furniture of immigrant families in Elefsina and nearby neighbourhoods are reused as material witnesses of an era. The user is encouraged to process the past, the present and the future not only of the object but also of its very existence through the awareness of the current values it bears. (Concept Credits: Theodosia Maroutsi, Foteini Giannoulidi, Association of Greeks from Asia Minor of Elefsina, Anthi tis Petras. Image copyright: Jeff Vanderpool).


(Re)discovering Eleusis

(Re)discovering Eleusis: This side event consisted of a photo exhibition, placed around the old oil factory and in the perimeter of the archaeological site of Eleusis. The exhibits are the product of a photography workshop undertaken by the students of the MA in Heritage Management organized by the Athens University of Economics and Business and the University of Kent, under the supervision of the photographers and curators Jeff Vanderpool and Stergios Karavatos. The subjects of this exhibition were related to all aspects of the heritage of Elefsina. From the issues of branding and marketing of cultural heritage to the more complicated industrial heritage and the reuse of those spaces to the theoretical challenges of intangible heritage and how to capture narrations through the lens of a camera. (Organized by Jeff Vanderpool and Stergios Karavatos. Image copyright: the author)


[1] A selection of presentations from the conference is uploaded in the following platform: http://www.blod.gr/lectures/Pages/viewevent.aspx?EventID=638
[2] I would like to remind the reader of the relevant WAC 2008 debate that led to the following resolution: http://savingantiquities.org/world-archaeological-congress-weighs-in-on-archaeologists-advising-war-planners/

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