Venice Summit shows heritage is aware of future challenges, but not sure how to deal with them

Lots to talk about during the European Cultural Heritage Summit 2023 in Venice. Including two EHYA on stage. Image: EHT

Last September, heritage professionals from around Europe made their way to the city of Venice for the European Cultural Heritage Summit. With a promising programme, such as the first European Heritage Hub event, European Heritage Awards ceremony, and the occasion of the 60th birthday of organiser Europa Nostra, there was lots to look forward to. Your editor-in-chief was there to witness it all and shares his thoughts.

If we are to sum up the summit, the word ‘change’ would describe it best. During several events, especially during the European Heritage Hub (EHH) forum and the Policy Agora the word was central to many contributions. Climate change was heralded as an important theme, obviously not only affecting heritage, but the entire planet. And the ‘City of Water’ (which is slowly sinking into the lagoon) was a fitting background to have a discussion on how heritage is affected by climate change, and how it can be part of the solution.

Culture and Climate Change

After the laureates of the awards were given the stage and time to present their projects during Excellence Day on Wednesday, the second day was marked by the EHH forum, which included the launch of a draft version of the ‘Venice Call to put culture at the heart of climate action.’ All participants were asked to support the call that should make culture and heritage an integral part of fighting climate change. 

A packed venue during Excellence Day. Image: Felix Q Media / Europa Nostra (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The aim is to have culture and heritage become part of policy making, by being discussed and adopting a so-called Work Decision on Culture and Climate Action during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28). This summit is due to be held at beginning of December in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The call is not just supported from the European sector. In a video message the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture & Youth of the UAE, Mubarak Al Nakhi, expressed his support for the idea of such a Work Decision. A message of support from UN Secretary-General António Guterres for the EHH forum, and its goals of building a broader movement for culture and climate change, was met with applause. 

Plenty of applause was there as well during the Awards ceremony at the end of day two. In the impressive Palazzo del Cinema five Grand Prix winners were chosen from the thirty laureates.

Again the word ‘change’ is a fitting description as the Royal Gardens of Venice (Italy, Conservation & Adaptive Reuse), the Deba Bridge (Spain, Conservation & Adaptive Reuse), ACTA VISTA (France, Education, Training & Skills), Museum of Literature (Ireland, Citizens’ Engagement & Awareness-raising) and the Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (Ukraine/International, Heritage Champions) projects showed how much people can change through heritage, or how heritage can change communities. An inspiring evening for all who attended no doubt.

The Award Ceremony was lead by Europa Nostra SG Sneška Quaedvlieg–Mihailović. Image: Josef Rabara / Europa Nostra (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Apart from the festive celebrations and bold credo ‘culture at the heart of climate change’, the question on ‘how’ to make sure this happens was not asked. There were simply very few opportunities to ask questions throughout the programme. Whether room for questions was not taken into account with the planning of the event or a conscious decision, many interesting and heartfelt contributions were left unexplored. Perhaps it also had something to do with the rather lengthy sessions, as more than once a panellist significantly exceeded their time limit.

For example, what steps can heritage professionals already take to put heritage at the heart of climate action? What does that phrase ‘at the heart’ mean in practice? Should we focus efforts on concrete actions plans, should heritage organisations focus on how to lower their own emissions?

While the Venice Call is more focused on influencing the policy side of the climate action, there was not a lot of attention for local, grass-roots initiatives and their role in fighting climate change and highlighting heritage in the process. With the 26 laureates of the European Heritage Awards present and four Heritage Champions (individuals or organisations that showed extraordinary passion and work to safeguard heritage), surely a couple of them could have contributed to broaden the discussion, or at least ask concrete question about how to ‘translate’ a heritage-centred climate action policy to the daily practice on the ground.

Adam Klupś (left) and Grace Emely. Image: EHT.

Youth Involvement

Another topic that concerns change in the heritage sector is of course the active involvement of youth. Last year set the bar high. Dozens of students and starting heritage professionals flocked to Prague to attend the Future is Heritage Summit (FISH) – organised simultaneously and in collaboration with the European Cultural Heritage Summit 2022. This year the youth involvement was considerably less active, given that there was no FISH event in Venice. Your editor-in-chief counted a group of about twenty young people amongst the attendees.

Nonetheless, the inclusion of two European Heritage Youth Ambassadors, Adam Klups and Grace Emely, in a panel on Heritage and the triple transformation of society (green, digital, social) was certainly a highlight and a step in the right direction. Similar things can be said for the inclusion of ESACH Vice-President Sorina Neacsu in a panel at the Policy Agora event, and the presentation of the Position Paper on Youth for the future of cultural heritage in Europe. Certainly the young participants of the summit watched with pride as their peers took the stage.

Sorina Neacsu (right) during the Policy Agora. Image: Europa Nostra (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Active Participation a Must

These things are small steps towards a further inclusion and integration of youth and should be celebrated and acknowledged. However, if the European heritage sector wants to adapt to deal with future changes, such as climate change, the green/social/digital transitions, youth involvement is a crucial pilar of that adaptation plan. And while there were a couple of young people in the room during the agora, the EHH forum and other events, active participation was often not on the cards.

Yes, youth is present in rooms, but not on the stage. And yes, we see that ambitious young professionals are beginning to break through barriers to be invited on stage and share their vision on how heritage should deal with upcoming challenges. But it is simply not enough if the sector wants to adapt to the future. The generation that must deal with problems of climate change in ten or twenty years (or even today) is not getting the room they need to have an impact on decision-making processes that shape future action.

In a reaction to the summit, FISH published an article with three concrete steps that could also be implemented in other heritage organisations. FISH argues for a Youth-Led Dialogue, with sessions made by and tailored to the interests and concerns of young professionals and students should be a core part of future summits. 

The inclusion of interactive workshops encourages hands-on participation. This could range from practical conservation techniques to discussions on leveraging technology for heritage preservation. And a call to action for attendees of summits: bring along a young person to help active representation. This not only offers invaluable experiences for young professionals, but also injects fresh energy and ideas into organisations. A proposition we wholeheartedly support.

The European Heritage Youth Ambassadors of 2023 were eager to participate. Image: EHT.

Change is coming

At the end of the day, many left the Venice Summit with the feeling that heritage across Europe and the world is facing a lot of challenges, changes and new opportunities in the upcoming years. From climate change to societal transitions, heritage can and should play a key role to help shape a better future for Europe. The sector agrees on that, and the Venice Call and EHH project are good examples that important steps are being taken.

However, to ensure the sector can adapt to these changes, that we as professionals are prepared and vigilant to deal with these challenges, the inclusion of youth must become more active. The young generation is eager and ready to burst onto the scene, with new ideas, fresh energy and lots of passion to tackle new challenges. So let’s give them a seat at the table. Not for the sake of inclusion, but for the sake of making the sector more vigilant and resilient to tackle future problems.

This article was made possible with the generous support of DutchCulture.