The European Heritage Label Bureau’s mission to build a community among the heritage label sites

In an exclusive interview with the European Heritage Tribune, Paulo Roquete Vitorino, project and community manager at the European Heritage Label Bureau, delves into the ambitious efforts to transform 60 European sites with the prestigious Heritage Label into a vibrant, collaborative community. Vitorino discusses the Bureau's role, achievements, and future plans since its establishment in 2023, underlining the Bureau's commitment to fostering a deeper connection among these culturally significant sites.

European Heritage Label Bureau

If you’ve visited heritage sites around Europe, you may have noticed this label. It’s intended to signify cultural sites of significant importance to European heritage values, differentiating it from other similar accolades such as those awared by UNESCO.

The EHL is the EU’s flagship initiative on Cultural Heritage. It is an important mechanism to advance EU values and perceptions of common identity. The first sites to attain this label were Camp Westerbork (NL), Peace Palace (The Hague, NL), Great Guild Hall (Tallinn, EE), and Archaeological Park Carnuntum (AT) back in 2013, but there are now 60 total sites displaying the label across Europe.

Last year, the European Union called for proposals to help operationalise the Label and to put in place a “community of practice”. The idea, it seems, was to make the Label more than just a decoration. To find out how this process is going, the European Heritage Tribune spoke with Paulo Roquete Vitorino of GOPA-PACE, who is helping to run the “European Heritage Label Bureau”.

EHT: What’s your role?

I’m project and community manager of the EHL Bureau, which stands for the European Heritage Label Bureau.

The EHL initiative has existed since 2013, but the Bureau is a more recent project (funded through the Creative Europe programme). What does the Bureau bring to the EHL?

The point is to say that the EHL has existed as a European action or initiative since 2013, but before it was a member state led initiative. So it was an intergovernmental initiative between 18 participating countries with a similar aim to award European heritage sites, although at that moment they were not called sites.

[Paulo notes that they use “sites” as a very broad term that encompasses different types of heritage from documents to monuments through to immaterial heritage]

Indeed, now we have 60 sites, and what happened in these 10 years is a collection or a list of sites, but the community aspect of this label worked as it should. There was never this space to create this sense of community and to not just have the sites as a list of heritage. […] The goal of the EU is to have a community, and that’s where in comes the EHL Bureau as an EU funded project to actually provide the support to create and to nourish this community.

We do the day to day community management, we answer to needs, we pass on information, we create activities with the sites. That’s the general idea behind it.

Is it still considered an EU initiative, or is it all under the Bureau now?

No, it’s still an EU initiative. It’s managed by the European Commission. The selection process – every 2 years when new sites are selected – the EHL Bureau does not participate in any of this political decision making. […] Each country can propose 2 sites, there is an external panel of experts that select the sites, and all this is confirmed by the college of commissioners from the European Commission, and the EHL Bureau does not participate in this at all.

Our role is really the supporting role and the community management role as contractors through the European project and the EU.

The Bureau has been initialised for nearly a year now-

Almost a year, yes. The contract was awarded in March, but work began on April 1st.

In that time, what has the Bureau achieved?

So we came into it with not little knowledge of the EHL, but little content knowledge about all these sites. You say 60 sites, but there are 60 organisations at least… Many sites are different. You have the smaller ones, you have the bigger ones. The EHL also has transnational sites, which are sites in different countries. And also some sites – I have one example in Germany – where one site is composed of 40 different locations. It’s a very complex environment, and it took some time to understand it.

Our focus in the first months was really to meet site managers, organisations, and national coordinators, as much as possible. We have met, offline and online, 43 sites out of the 60. We’ve met almost all national coordinators, mostly staff members from ministries of culture. We’ve held online information sessions on topics of interest for the community like digitalisation, storytelling and youth engagement. We have also participated in some public events, and conferences, where we presented the project. […] We’ve now visited 11 sites in person, which is of course very good for us, and for the sites to feel that there is a project to support in constructing the EHL and their activities.

Since April…
Met with 43 sites in total
Visited 11 sites in person (across 6 countries)
Hosted 3 online information sharing sessions aimed at facilitating knowledge exchange
Actively participated in 4 events, presenting the EHL Bureau project and advocating for the EHL Initiative
Engaged in meetings with 23 National Coordinators and Contact Points

We’ve also started the monthly newsletter, the social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin), and we are now almost launching the website. That’s what we’ve done in the last 9 months.

What does success look like for the Bureau and the project?

When we designed the project, the main catchphrase of the call for proposals was to transform the network into a “community of practice”. A network is understood as having a selection of sites.  They are there, but they almost never meet, but they know they belong to something.

And [the EHL Bureau] is transforming it into a community where there is really this sense of “community”. That is the long term impact objective that we are aiming for in the end of the project and beyond. To have a community of sites that know each other, that talk with each other, that work together, and actually create new activities, projects, and initiatives for the EHL. That is the final, end goal, let’s say.

Of course, for us, we are happy that we met so many sites already. We would like to meet them all, but the circumstances don’t always allow it. We were very happy that all the people that we met were very happy to have this project and to have the EU giving this additional support. Because the project is not only to have the EHL Bureau team there to support the sites and to create new activities, but there is also substantial direct financial support to the sites through EU funding, which is a great new addition in these 10 years of the European Heritage Label.

In terms of communication, we are happy to launch dedicated pages, and the social media as I said. Also, for the website, we wanted to give a website where there’s more space for information than on the official Commission website. Each site has a dedicated page with information that they drafted themselves, and I think there’s more information on events and activities and all that, which is good.

Is there a model or a template that this “community of practice” is based on?

Community of practice is a term – I don’t know who invented it! – but it means “group of people that meet in a semi-structured way around a topic of interest”. To build it, we are following a handbook written by the Joint Research Centre of the EU – the Communities of Practice Playbook. […] We cannot follow it 100%, because we are a different community; most of these communities of practice are in defence or technology… those types of topics. But there are 7 or 8 steps to follow in terms of setting the objectives, in setting the vision, setting the core groups of organisations. […] This is the world of the EHL Bureau.

Then there is the question of governance, how these sites and the members of this community will meet … how they will work …  with what tools … what are the goals… It’s all very interesting. Especially at a personal level, it’s been a very interesting project and process to work on.

What’s really important is that this community of practice is semi-structured. As a project we provide the structure, the meeting spaces (online and offline), the tools… But the sites are still autonomous, they can choose to participate or not. […] No-one is obliged to, or excluded from participating in the project and its activities. I think that it’s a good approach that we’re implementing here.

Having met people from the sites over the past few months, is it easy to get people on-board with this idea of “European heritage”?

Well, we’ve met the people at the sites that were already selected, so they already applied for the European Heritage Label. […] That’s the good part of the EHL approach, is that it’s bottom up. It’s not the countries looking for heritage sites to label. It’s organisations, associations, NGOs, public entities that are applying to their ministries to receive the EHL.

In terms of ownership, it’s a very valid initiative, because it’s people that are very motivated to work around European values and European common heritage. All the people we’ve met are very interested in these topics. For us at the project, it’s very motivating that everyone is very motivated to work together and with us.

You have to think that for many of these organisations, the EHL is just an add-on to their project and their normal life and work, they’re part of UNESCO or other types of networks, labels, and all these other things. They’re motivated to work and they are very welcome to the project.

It’s mentioned on your social media that there are hopes of increasing the number of labelled sites from 60 to 90. What’s the selection and application process like?

Yes, there’s a selection process every two years and this follows a legal basis of the European Heritage Label as agreed by EU institutions. Every two years, new sites can apply. […] They have to design a project, send it to the ministries, and the ministries will send it to the European Commission. There are a lot of meetings with a panel of experts that select the sites. That will also happen this year, so in 2024 there’ll be an extension, so there’ll be more.

We don’t know if we’ll reach 90, or 100, or 70 in the end by June 2026. It depends on the applications and who is successful or rejected.

European Heritage Label Bureau
The EHL Bureau project was developed to contribute to the coordination and upskilling of the European Heritage Label initiative and of its stakeholders. The main objective is to turn the EHL network into a community of practice.

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