Living Heritage in the spotlight during European Heritage Days 2023

Heritage crafts such as basket weaving are in the spotlight during the EHD. Image: cocoparisienne/Canva

September is often a month of special importance for many working in or with European heritage as many countries celebrate the European Heritage Days (EHD). Millions of people delve into their shared history, by visiting open monuments or attending events that highlight ancient traditions or show local heritage crafts. This year’s theme Living Heritage has shown the diversity and uniformity of European heritage still practiced and appreciated today.

Traditionally, the EHD are organized in September, but activities start as early as August in some countries. For those wondering why their country hasn’t organized anything, EHD events might still be around the corner in October. You can find out here.

‘Open Doors Day’

Having access to monuments or events celebrating heritage might be a given for some, but that certainly wasn’t always the case. At least not at this scale, as the EHD covers thousands of local, regional and even national events.

The concept originated in France in 1984 when the French Ministry of Culture organized the first ‘Journée Portes Ouvertes’ (Open Doors Day) to encourage public access to historic monuments and sites that are usually closed to the public. This initiative was met with a lot of enthusiasm, prompting other European countries to adopt a similar approach. For example, the Netherlands kicked off their popular ‘Open Monumentendag’ (Open Monument Day) in 1987, attracting around 1,3 million visitors last year.

In 1991 these events were united as European Heritage Days at the initiative of the Council of Europe, supported by the EU. By 2010, fifty signatory states of the European Cultural Convention had joined the EHDs. Nowadays, millions of people visit an EHD event in their area to learn about local heritage and have a peek inside buildings that are not accessible for the rest of the year.

Glimmingehus in Sweden organised events focused around traditional, universal heritage crafts such as forging, clay lining walls and baking bread.

Common Theme

To tie all these local events together, every year the EHD are bound by a common theme: in 2023 this is ‘Living Heritage’. One of the reasons to pick living heritage is the 20th anniversary of the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Intangible or living heritage includes for example traditional arts and how communities pass on knowledge through collective memory, as well as the relationship people have with their sense of place and understanding of the natural world.

Traditional Šokac wedding clothes, on display Ethnographical Museum Budapest Image: Kotomi_/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The theme is visible as quite a few events organised this year focus on all sorts of applications of heritage crafts. The main course is often visiting a building, which normally is closed to the public, or under restoration. In The Hague, a group of lucky heritage enthusiasts were able to join a guided tour across the ‘Binnenhof’ – the seat of the Dutch parliament and senate – currently undergoing restoration. They were joined by conservators, craftspeople and archaeologists who answered all their questions about restoring a building of national importance.

Other ‘living’ crafts were on display in Sweden, where visitors could learn about traditional, universal skills in the castle of Glimmingehus. Crafts such as forging, clay lining of walls, and baking in a 17th-century oven were demonstrated. For those with an appetite for local heritage, the village of Beli Manastir in Croatia is the place to be at the end of October. There schoolchildren and others interested can follow a workshop on the skill of making Baranja Šokac embroideries, a specific craft with deep regional roots.

Diverse Programme

But there’s always the visitor who’s not too keen on crafts or old buildings or simply wants to visit something different. No need to worry: an interesting example of a less traditional event was held in Germany, Münster. There visitors got a tour of the Gasometer, an iconic modern landmark of the city. Afterwards, there was also a discussion on how the building can be reused for a new purpose and what obstacles there are.

And in Valetta (Malta), people can still look forward the joining the Queer Walking Tour through the city. It highlights a whole new type of heritage that is very much alive and kicking and puts the city in a whole new perspective.

Long story short, there was (and still is!) lots of heritage to explore in Europe during the EHD. And if you don’t have the time or funds to travel around, check out the video reports from the last few years to get an idea of how EHD are celebrated across Europe.

Sofia and Manthos visit a small museum in Athens during the 2022 EHD. They attend a workshop, in line with that year’s theme ‘Sustainable Heritage’, on how to reuse museum materials.
Irina joins a couple of EHD 2022 events in Lviv, Ukraine, where she learns about restoring old furniture and reusing materials.
Antigoni joins a walking tour in Cyprus, where the guide shows and tells visitors stories and histories that often remain unheard.