Conference Review: 3rd IHC HerMA Conference
IHC International Conference in Heritage Management, 30th September – 2nd October 2016
HerMA as a concept is both a conference and a degree – it is the Masters in Heritage Management, delivered jointly by the University of Kent and the Athens University of Economics and Business, and it is an annual three-day conference that is both an intrinsic part of the degree course and an opportunity for international heritage management issues to be presented and discussed. The conference is held in Elefsina, an industrial town just west of Athens that will be a European Capital of Culture in 2021.
The 2016 meeting was the 3rd annual conference, with over 40 speakers presenting in a single series of sessions. This is an excellent format for a conference on this scale – with no parallel sessions, every delegate was able to hear every paper, and discussion opportunities were good and well-engaged with.
While the conference is tied in to the degree, and many current students and recent alumni were presenting, this was more than just a student conference. It represented a safe space for early-career professionals to develop their presentational skills (all the papers were in English, which was a second language for most presenters).
The conference was also accompanied by side events and workshops, making the most of Elefsina’s setting and urban weave to engage participants in provocative art experiences and walks, thinking about archaeology within the past and present environment and how the past and present environment shapes encounters with and experiences of archaeological remains – starting with the conference venue.
The HerMA conference is staged in Elefsina’s splendidly atmospheric Old Olive Oil Soap Factory, a celebration of elegant industrial decay in a building complex that was at its economic height in the first half of the twentieth century, but which now functions as a cultural event space.
Sat beside the harbour, this is one of a string of former industrial sites along the town’s shoreline, the abandonment of which combine to present Elefsina as a place that feels like its glory days may be past now – but industry is still present and real, as immediately next to the venue is a big, working cement factory and across the bay is one of Greece’s largest oil refineries.
And furthermore, industry is not what Elefsina has always been known for. Elefsina was once Eleusis, and the caves below the rocky hill in the centre of the town are where Hades snatched Persephone and abducted her into the underworld, trapped until she was duly rescued by her dutiful mother Demeter. With Demeter conveniently being the goddess of agriculture and fertility, the story nicely fits in with the annual agricultural cycle, as Persephone’s life of light and growth is followed by darkness and misery when she is confined in the underworld until she re-emerges to bring the first spring. The story was then appropriated into Roman myth – Persephone became Proserpina – and the visible archaeological site of Eleusis is now principally constituted of structures to service Roman pilgrims to the sanctuary. And when that era ended, with the Christianisation of Rome, Elefsina was reborn again, as the church that now sits on that sacred rocky hill continues to bluntly emphasise.
The conference was set out with five thematic sessions, each with a keynote speaker followed by five or six short papers, extending from landscape archaeology to community engagement by way of repatriation, education and 3D digital tools, before the conference concluded with a general session on managing heritage resources. Throughout, public archaeology – in all of its many guises – was a common theoretical reference point.
|Elena Papagiannopoulou & Jaime Almansa Sánchez starting off their presentation. (Image copyright: the author)|
If ever a conference had a star, this one did, and the star was Matthew Bogdanos. And he is all the more remarkable a star for an archaeological conference, as he is not an academic archaeologist; indeed, he wouldn’t call himself an archaeologist – he is an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan, a boxing champion, and is the US Marine Corps Colonel who was sent to secure the Iraq Museum in Baghdad after the city fell to the Americans in 2003 and the looters broke in.
Since then he has devoted both his military and legal capital to countering the trafficking of stolen, illicitly traded antiquities, and to telling the story of how and why this is done. As the author of The Thieves of Baghdad, his presentation updated the audience on the ways, and appalling scale, that antiquities from south-west Asia, Afghanistan and elsewhere have been stolen and sold in the last decade – with dramatic descriptions of events that he was part of, details of which he asked the audience not to repeat in publication. So all this reviewer can say is that the things Colonel Bogdanos talked about were revealing, important, and ultimately uplifting as we learned specifics of how the fight – and it is a fight - against illicit antiquities dealing can and does make a difference for the cultural heritage of the world.
The subtitle of the conference, “Developing Best Practices in Heritage Management”, could have been misinterpreted as suggesting that this would have been a string of worthy, but managerial, papers. But HerMA was much more than this; it was a conference that couldn’t easily be categorised, but can be considered as one of a range of contemporary academic workshop-events, like ICAHM Tampere, presenting novel ways to deliver academic engagement. Its openness felt in one part like TAG, its international-ness and academic intimacy - with a small group of global delegates hearing all the papers, and then discussion continuing around artistic side-events – felt like a WAC Inter-Congress. This contemporary model for conferences, where active participant engagement is fostered rather than passive receipt of ‘learning’ sets out a positive and valuable way forward for archaeological practice and academia to work and progress together.