Interview: Antonella Fresa on cultural heritage participatory approaches of the REACH project

We are delighted to interview Antonella Fresa about the REACH project. REACH is a three-year project started on November 1st 2017 and funded by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 Programme. Focused on the promotion of participatory approaches in Cultural Heritage (CH), it aims to establish a sustainable space for meeting, discussion and collaboration for all those with a stake in research and practice in the field of CH. This space is supported online by the digital platform.

Written by: European Heritage Youth Ambassadors Héctor Manuel Aliaga De Miguel and Klaudia Chzhu

Thank you Antonella Fresa for letting us interview you! First of all, let us introduce ourselves. We Héctor and Klaudia are European Heritage Youth Ambassadors from the programme launched in partnership between Europa Nostra, ESACH and European Heritage Tribune.

Our first question will be on the origin and first steps of REACH. We would like to hear how the story of the REACH Project began?

Hello! Yes, sure. The idea of REACH was to put together academics, cultural and memory institutions, and other cultural entities as well as the private sector and the policy level. The key moment was to cover a value chain and to explore how the transformation of society and the cultural heritage sector, in particular, can take advantage of participatory approaches. The scope of the project was to establish a social platform to run a range of pilots and to activate a network that is still alive and produce new activities.

Antonella Fresa | “Participatory approaches for creativity and entrepreneurship” workshop, Coventry 12 March 2019. Source: REACH

The abbreviation of REACH is RE-designing Access to Cultural Heritage for wider participation in preservation, (re-)use and management of European culture. In this connection, we would like to ask why we should have redesigned the access to CH?

Well, the concept of REACH is about transforming the role of culture and cultural heritage in society. We, participants of REACH, had agreed that the research of CH has a strong need of coordination because it involved many disciplines and sectors of society. It must be mentioned that there are many transformations and tensions that we need to take into account by cultural heritage professionals. These include the development of new skills, the creation of different management structures, innovative business and sustainability models, a closer relationship with citizens, etc.

From the beginning of the design of the REACH project until the conclusion of its EU funding period, we have understood and agreed that many actors in REACH need coordination of cultural heritage research. The second main outcome that has come from the experience of REACH is the necessity to run concrete practices, pilots. Several innovations need to be tested and, in this sense, 4 pilots that REACH runs have brought many lessons to the CH sector. Every activity is documented by REACH and is available on the website to download: examples of successful stories as well as lessons learned from the obstacles we have found.

Fuente de los Caños. Source: E. Aramburu and R. Corselli, REACH

Regarding all the experience achieved and evaluating the activity of REACH from 2017 to 2021: Could you share with us insights on what obstacles CH mainly has been facing?

The first fundamental obstacle we have found is to make sustainable, long-term participatory practices, and this is mostly because of 3 main factors: the first is the funding because participatory practices need to be supported through funding, not large amounts but to have a capacity to recruit passionate people and who can give continuity to the activity. Participatory activities of cultural heritage, from one side, are not exactly preservation, from another, they are not exactly traditional research, so it is quite challenging to attract funding.

The second obstacle is skills and mentality in the CH sector because the education and practices implemented in the CH sector have been developed through internal skills development. The capacity of professionals to reach people who do not belong to the CH sector professionally often become an obstacle. However the pandemic proved that it is useful and possible to open up the doors of the memory institutions even if, in terms of skills, there is still a lot to be improved.

And the third area of difficulty is administrative constraints because the administration of the CH sector is often not taking into account participatory practices so they become something new, being regulated by new guidelines, new laws concerning not only IP but also security issues.

Participants of a guided tour of the project “Multaka” in the Deutsches Historisches Museum. Source: Milena Schlösser, Staatliche Museen Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst, REACH

REACH creates a global community of concerned people about Cultural Heritage. Representing the voice of young professionals, we cannot miss this question! How can students and young professionals promote the project? For example, like us, members of ESACH, how can we contribute to your activity?

Well, when talking about enlarging the audience in cultural heritage, the key factor is to tell stories, to conceive cultural heritage as a part of everybody’s daily life. Not to create a barrier between what is heritage and what is not, we believe that everything is heritage and the experiences that developed during the pandemic have demonstrated that many important and large institutions have acknowledged this factor. During the latest year, we observed the role that social media played in the cultural sector, to activate new forms of participation.

The REACH project developed a range of pilots in four big thematic areas, gathered examples of good practices and made them available and searchable via a dedicated database. What process for REACH in selecting this or that Cultural Heritage practice as the good one?

You are right that the areas are very vast and selecting them was also a challenge for us. However, we developed a collection of good practices through which we express our concept on what we consider is good practices.

The first aspect is to look at how vulnerable communities can be part of cultural heritage. Because we believe that participatory approach is good as long as they are able to innovate the society and, in this sense, the role of the vulnerable communities is important. For this reason we developed the pilot of Roma communities and we have identified two examples that we think that can be a source of inspiration: Independent Theater and Roma Informal Educational Foundation.

The second aspect we have looked at is gender because we think that gender is often conceived as something fashionable but not a substance topic to be acknowledged as a part of our culture. And here we found a very interesting experience, called AWA, acknowledging women artists.

Next, the concept of authenticity in culture is not just a commodification, in this regard we found an interesting case of the La Ponte Ecomuseum in Spain, where the local community is open to be a part of the tourism development process.

Another criteria we take into account when selecting is the role of museums in a “new Europe” where migrants are not separated from Europeans, in this connection, the experience of Multaka in German is an example. Migrants communities develop new exhibitions of their culture to enable a discourse with young visitors. And we believe that the relationships with new Europeans are very important for renewing culture and opening new opportunities for participation. 

Antonella Fresa, could you summarize and identify the main lesson learned during the developing REACH project?

We always do not put enough effort into continuing the project we are implementing. The exploitation, the re-use, and continuation of the results is what we call a sustainable development of the project. The good lesson we learned is to think about the exploitation of the results from the very beginning.

About the authors

A PhD Candidate in Urbanism Resilience and Cultural Heritage (UPM, Spain), Héctor Manuel Aliaga De Miguel is passionate ​about Architecture and Cultural Heritage. Having lived in places such as Cambridge, Paris or São Paulo- languages, personal knowledge and contacts have been essential tools in his daily life for H2020 research projects, PhD activities and International Committees collaborations.

Klaudia Chzhu is an art and cultural manager from Russia. She studied History at the Moscow State University, specializing in Modern and Contemporary History of Europe and America. She obtained her masters’ degree in Arts & Cultural Management from Universidad Internacional de Cataluña (UIC Barcelona) with a major in Cultural Heritage Management. Together with her master’s colleague from Iran, Klaudia defended the masters’ final project (TFM) on Saving Cultural Heritage in a time of war. After her study, she founded Art & Culture Inside, an online platform covering Contemporary Art and Cultural Heritage.