: Opinion pieces

Cultural heritage as a catalyst for peace: Empowering communities in peacebuilding efforts

While the international media often spotlights the cycles of war and violence plaguing Africa, the quieter, effective grassroots efforts aimed at overcoming trauma, restoring justice, and reconciling conflicting groups receive less attention, writes Paulin Regnard*

In various corners of the continent, traditional customs open paths diverging from conventional legal system formalities, sometimes in dramatic fashion. For instance, informal transitional justice mechanisms, like Rwanda’s gacaca courts and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, have effectively provided accessible and inclusive solutions. Rooted in traditions of reconciliation and communal healing, these practices bridge the justice gap, returning ownership and authenticity to the healing process. Despite their limits, these methods show that cultural heritage is more than a relic of the past — it’s a bridge to the future, even in the most difficult settings. 

In conflict-impacted countries, cultural heritage sustains continuity and identity. Initiatives that raise awareness, document cultural assets, and train heritage advocates are essential in empowering social groups, especially youths, to bridge ethno-political divides. My experience in UN peacekeeping, especially in South Sudan and he DRC, has taught me the effectiveness of community engagement, with locals keen to share their insights and solutions. I’ve also learnt that mobilizing communities, government institutions, and civil society to protect cultural sites and intangible heritage is no easy task. In fact, in areas impacted by armed violence, these issues often rank at the bottom of priorities whereas security and livelihoods are primary concerns.

Efforts to document local ecological knowledge have aimed to bolster indigenous and local community management of natural resources including within protected areas. However, these attempts are sporadic and limited to very specific geographical  contexts. As a rule, the value of cultural heritage is largely overlooked or underappreciated in humanitarian, peace, and development initiatives. It’s crucial for peacemaker, aid workers and their counterparts to acknowledge why heritage plays such a vital role in people’s identities and perceptions. Incorporating heritage into strategies for enhancing democratic governance, resolving conflicts, and stimulating economic growth can provide a good starting point, highlighting its importance to building peaceful and prosperous societies. Let’s explore these aspects further.

Firstly, restoring effective state authority is a top priority in fragile countries. Local and subnational governments (along with customary authorities) play a key role in delivering essential services amidst challenges like understaffing and inadequate infrastructure. Highlighting cultural assets into local development policies should help recognize their relevance to a region’s identity and potential. Collaboration between public institutions, civil society and implementers is essential to ensure projects are inclusive, sustainable, and support wider development objectives. Unfortunately, a post-crisis context is hardly favorable. Management capacities are often limited, skills gaps remain to be filled, and politicians do not always grasp the socio-economic benefits of heritage.

Furthermore, resolving communal disputes, particularly those rooted in identity and resource competition, is necessary for mending divisions and preventing further conflicts. As it embodies a shared history and traditions. cultural heritage can offer a neutral ground for discussion and cooperation, provided it isn’t exploited by conflicting parties. Also, heritage conservation activities can contribute to peace by involving all sectors of local society, government agencies and civil society organizations. Trained facilitators can help further demonstrate the value of heritage as a connector. 

Igniting local development and job creation is essential for economic revival. Cultural heritage, through avenues like cultural tourism, site management, and traditional crafts, offers significant potential for growth. However, securing adequate resources remains a substantial challenge in fragile contexts. With proper support, these areas can significantly boost economic recovery and community revitalization, underscoring cultural heritage’s role as a driver of development and job opportunities.

Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) can help restore and strengthen social cohesion and civic trust in places like South Sudan and the DRC, just to cite two places I am familiar with. These two young nations, characterized by decades of civil wars, non-state armed group activities, and inter-community conflicts, share the multicultural and multilingual traits common to many sub-Saharan African countries. In such contexts, ICH can bring communities together, showcasing its importance in the broader peacebuilding context.

A typical example is how traditional conflict resolution, an integral part of ICH, supports grassroots peacemaking. Engaging traditional chiefs, who embody their clans’ customs and wield authority to uphold peace agreements, has often proved effective. Unfortunately, good traditional practices are not recorded and fade in collective memories. in many areas of the DRC and South Sudan, decades of turmoil and institutional changes have weakened chiefs’ influence. Additionally, modern societal shifts lead to the neglect of traditional practices by younger generations. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that while cultural traditions merit respect, not all traditional methods and mechanisms are conducive to values of inclusiveness and gender equality.

Another ICH component, music and dance, central to social life in Africa, serve as outlets for communities. The Amani Festival in Goma, DRC, exemplifies this, achieving remarkable success. Since its launching by a community-based organization in 2014, the three-day event has been dedicated to fostering peace and reconciliation in the Great Lakes region, attracting national and international artists, along with thousands of spectators from the DRC and beyond. Offering more than just music, the festival includes workshops, debates, sports, and exhibitions. The next edition is scheduled for June 2024.

As a nation navigates the path towards peace and recovery, we must not overlook the plight of refugees and internally displaced people, who are particularly vulnerable to the loss of their cultural heritage in times of crisis. Their vulnerability underscores the importance of incorporating cultural heritage not only into peacebuilding strategies per se, but also in humanitarian aid. By doing so, we recognize heritage as a critical component alongside other cross-cutting themes like gender equality and human rights, thereby ensuring a more holistic approach to rebuilding and healing communities.

* Paulin Regnard is an experienced Peacebuilding & Democratic Governance Expert and former UN Field Manager

Enhancing Ethiopia’s Cultural Heritage: A Strategic Imperative

By Xanthippi Kontogianni*&  Mina Morou**

Ethiopia’s rich cultural diversity and heritage are cornerstones of its global identity, steeped in historical significance and natural wonders. However, preserving and managing this invaluable heritage necessitates meticulous planning and collaborative efforts at both national and regional levels.

In Ethiopia, a federal state divided into 14 regions, the responsibility for safeguarding this heritage lies with the Ethiopian Heritage Authority at the national level and the Culture and Tourism Bureaus distributed across the regional landscape. HERITΛGE, recognizing the pivotal role of regional involvement, embarked on a mission after its inaugural in-country workshop in July 2023 in Addis Ababa. This mission focused on augmenting the strategic planning capacities of Ethiopia’s Culture and Tourism Bureaus, fueled by HERITΛGE’s mapping results.

Led by Ethiopia’s Project Manager, Xanthippi Kontogianni, the HERITΛGE team has meticulously navigated Ethiopia’s heritage landscape since its inception in January 2023. Their dedicated efforts encompassed an exhaustive mapping exercise, identifying training needs and gaps in heritage management across the nation. This inclusive process, involving networking meetings, expert interviews, and a comprehensive online survey, unveiled Ethiopians’ deep pride in their regional cultural and natural heritage assets. Yet, it also highlighted critical challenges: deficient planning strategies, limited community awareness, and substantial gaps in documenting and preserving local heritage.

The workshop on “Strategic Planning for Heritage Managers” emerged as a pivotal response to these concerns. Conducted online from November 24 to 27, this engaging session drew participation from heads, directors, and experts representing regional bureaus of Tigray, Somali, Oromia, and Amhara. Despite connectivity challenges faced by potential attendees due to internet and electricity shortages, Mrs. Selamawit Getachew, Director of the Conservation Department of the Ethiopian Heritage Authority, played a key role in the workshop.

Over three days, the workshop provided comprehensive insights into strategic concepts, encouraging participants to reflect on their bureau’s mission and vision. Utilizing tools like SWOT and Porter’s analysis, they dissected micro and macro environments, identifying critical success factors for effective strategy development and implementation. The workshop concluded by inspiring participants to craft strategic business plans for their respective Culture and Tourism Bureaus, fostering collaboration among team members.

Dr. Atsbha Gebreegziabher, Head of Tigray’s Culture and Tourism Bureau, reflected on the workshop’s impact in the post-war period: “The workshop intensively encouraged me to be more critical in developing strategies, especially during our re-operational phase.” Mrs. Selamawit Getachew praised the participatory approach, acknowledging the instructor’s adeptness in facilitating discussions.

The workshop, spearheaded by Dr. Alexandros Papalexandris, an experienced strategist from the Athens University of Economics & Business, was a HERITΛGE initiative supported by the Humanities in Place Program of the Mellon Foundation.

In conclusion, this strategic intervention signifies HERITΛGE’s commitment to empowering regional bureaus and strengthening heritage management strategies across Ethiopia. Through collaborative efforts and strategic planning, HERITΛGE endeavors to preserve Ethiopia’s remarkable cultural legacy for generations to come. The workshop not only catalyzed strategic thinking but also ignited a shared vision among participants for a more robust future in heritage management. HERITΛGE remains steadfast in advancing strategic initiatives that safeguard and celebrate Ethiopia’s diverse cultural heritage.

*Xanthippi Kontogianni is HERITΛGE’s Ethiopian Programs Manager

**Mina Morou is HERITΛGE’s Africa Programs Manager

Europe’s Common Data Space for Cultural Heritage

By Rob Davies

The European Strategy for data focuses on putting people first in developing technology and defending and promoting European values and rights in the digital world. Data is seen as an essential resource for economic growth, competitiveness, innovation, job creation and societal progress in general. The aim is to create a single market for data that will ensure Europe’s global competitiveness and data sovereignty.

Common European data spaces will be developed and funded in key strategy sectors and areas of public interest, such as health, agriculture or manufacturing. They are intended to ensure that more data becomes available for use in the economy and society, while keeping the companies and individuals who generate the data in control. Data driven applications will benefit citizens and businesses in many ways such as improved health care, safer and cleaner transport systems, lower cost public services, improved sustainability and energy efficiency, more business innovation and by generating new products and services.

The plan is to adopt legislative measures on data governance, access and reuse, e.g. for business-to-government data sharing for the public interest. And to make data more widely available by opening up high value publicly held datasets across the EU and allowing their reuse for free. A big investment in data processing infrastructures, data sharing tools, architectures and governance mechanisms. Thriving data sharing and federated energy-efficient and trustworthy cloud infrastructures and related services.

Among the 14 data spaces initially envisaged, The European Commission has published a recommendation on a common European data space for cultural heritage. The aim is to accelerate the digitisation of cultural heritage assets like cultural heritage monuments and sites, objects and artefacts for future generations, to protect and preserve those at risk, and boost their reuse in domains such as education, sustainable tourism and cultural creative sectors.

Currently cultural tourism represents up to 40% of all tourism in Europe, cultural and creative industries contribute 3.95% of total EU value added (€477 billion) and more than 8 million people are employed within them, through 1.2 million firms – 99.9% of which are SMEs; Member States are encouraged to digitise by 2030 all monuments and sites that are at risk of degradation and half of those highly frequented by tourists. This will contribute to the objectives of the Digital Decade by fostering a secure and sustainable digital infrastructure, digital skills and uptake of technologies by businesses, in particular SMEs.

Europeana, the European digital cultural platform, will be at the basis for building the common data space for cultural heritage by allowing museums, galleries, libraries and archives across Europe to share and reuse the digitised cultural heritage images such as 3D models of historical sites and high quality scans of paintings. Europeana currently offers access to 52 million cultural heritage assets, 45% of which can be reused in various sectors. Images and text make up 97.5% of Europeana’s assets, with only 2.47% audiovisual content and 0.03% in 3D. The collection of 3D assets in particular should see a massive boost, thanks to this latest initiative.

It is envisaged that the common data space for cultural heritage will include a wider variety of data types than the current digital content of Europeana. While these are still to be fully defined, they might be about any aspect of tangible or intangible Cultural Heritage – its creation, description, storage, presentation/performance, transmission, access, preservation, reuse, rights etc.- or possibly even more widely drawn from across the whole spectrum of cultural activity, including data coming from scientific or other fields which eventually constitutes our heritage.

Alongside this, the European collaborative cloud on cultural heritage (ECCCH) is a European Union initiative for a digital infrastructure that will connect cultural heritage institutions and professionals across the EU. It is intended to help protect European cultural heritage while answering to the new requirements of a digitized world. In doing that, it will provide practical benefits to all cultural heritage professionals and museums, developing specific digital collaborative tools for the sector while removing barriers for smaller and remote institutions. The goal is to help cultural heritage institutions, research organisations and other professionals of all sizes and types work with their digital objects in a more visible, interconnected, harmonised, and informed way, allowing them to successfully cope with the challenges the digital transition poses to the sector.

The ECCCH, funded by Horizon Europe, will aim to add a new digital dimension to cultural heritage preservation, conservation, restoration and enhancement by providing cutting-edge technologies for digitising artefacts and researching artworks, paving the way for new transdisciplinary collaboration in the field of cultural heritage, bringing together specialists from a range of disciplines, including scholars, curators, archivists, and conservators.

This ambitious project for a new cutting-edge platform will work in tandem with other European initiatives, such as Europeana and the common European dataspace for cultural heritage, to add a new dimension to the way we approach, conserve and enhance our shared cultural heritage. As part of the ECCCH, two calls for proposals were open until September 2023 to fund. projects which will contribute to setting up the foundations of ECCCH. With an envisaged budget of €110 million until 2025 from Horizon Europe, the ECCCH will be a unique infrastructure that will enable unprecedented transdisciplinary and large-scale collaboration between specialists.

*Rob Davies is HERITΛGE’s Head of European Programs and Chair of the Management Board of the Europeana Network Association (ENA).
*HERITΛGE offers a number of training opportunities on Digital Tools for Cultural Heritage. These include a 3-day workshop, a summer field school, and a credit bearing Certificate in cooperation with HOGENT University.

Critical challenges in the way we experience heritage in the realm of museums


By Dr. George Margetis

The SHIFT project, funded by the European Commission’s Horizon Europe Program, comes to revitalize how we experience cultural heritage by matching innovation with tradition and creating multi-sensory heritage encounters that transcend boundaries and welcome everyone.

More specifically, SHIFT aims to unlock the past for everyone and is committed to accessibility and inclusivity, ensuring that cultural heritage becomes accessible to all, and allowing everyone to connect with their heritage regardless of background or ability. Emphasizing also that diversity matters, SHIFT pursues to empower people with disabilities to enrich their perspectives and foster their understanding.

SHIFT is addressing the critical challenges we encounter in the realm of museums. These are: 

Challenge 1: diverse heritage, diverse needs.
Our cultural heritage often excludes individuals of diverse backgrounds from fully engaging with it.

Challenge 2: physical barriers transform heritage exploration into a struggle for individuals with mobility challenges.
Limited access narrows their ability to engage with exhibits, diminishing their capacity to immerse themselves in their stories.

Challenge 3: language and cognitive barriers.
The language barrier and cognitive disabilities create a divide leaving visitors disconnected from heritage stories.

Challenge 4: exclusion of sensory diversity.
Many cultural experiences focus on sight and sound, excluding those who experience the world differently.

Challenge 5: theater of inclusivity.
Museums should prioritize inclusivity for all visitors but certain interactive elements and live performances may unintentionally exclude individuals with varying abilities.

The SHIFT project consortium that consists of 13 European partners, is tackling these challenges head-on, reimagining accessibility to cultural heritage through innovative and inclusive approaches.

By addressing these issues we pave the way to a more accessible and enriching cultural experience for all.

Dr. George Margetis, is a postdoctoral researcher with the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory of The Institute of Computer Science of FORTH. The HCI lab is leading SHIFT’s Work Package 3 implementation, catering to the accessibility of cultural heritage assets and improving the user experience of people with visual impairments. This opinion piece was originally part of a presentation for the webinar held to celebrate European Heritage Days 2023. You can watch the entire webinar that was hosted by HERITΛGE here.

Empowering Ethiopia’s Heritage Sector: HERITΛGE’s First In-Country Workshop

Preserving cultural heritage goes beyond the institutional practices of protecting ancient structures; it involves engaging communities, understanding shared heritage values , and building a future that respects local perceptions of the past. It is with this in mind that HERITΛGE held its inaugural workshop in Ethiopia in July, training 22 key heritage managers in Community Engagement in Heritage Management.

HERITΛGE Director, Dr. Evangelos Kyriakidis, and Xanthippi Kontogianni, Ethiopia Programs Manager, held the 3-day intensive workshop in Addis Ababa, welcoming heritage professionals representing a diverse range of stakeholders within Ethiopia’s cultural and creative industries. Among the participants were representatives from a diverse range of stakeholders including Jinka University, Madda Walabu University, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ethiopian Heritage Authority, the National Library, and various civil society organizations among them the Waku Gutu Foundation, Heritage Watch, and Save Heritage, History and Culture of Ethiopia.

The workshop is part of HERITΛGE’s program for Ethiopia, supported by the Mellon Foundation’s Humanities in Place program.

Nurturing Capacity for Community Engagement

At the heart of our Communities Engagement workshop lays a commitment to building capacity within heritage management. In an ever-evolving world, local communities are keepers of key information for the understanding of heritage while accountability for protecting their own history and values is indispensable and crucial for sustainable heritage preservation. HERITΛGE has structured the workshop to address these needs comprehensively.

Throughout the workshop discussion facilitated by Dr. Kyriakidis, participants shared examples and case studies from the Ethiopian context and explored the issues affecting the the management of cultural assets in the country, highlighting among others the challenges, needs and opportunities facing heritage managers.

Workshop Outcomes:

  • A Network of Collaborators: The workshop serves as a nexus for like-minded professionals to network, share experiences, and collectively envision a future where heritage management is a catalyst for positive change.
  • Diverse Perspectives: With participants from universities, government bodies, regional offices, and civil society organizations, the workshop brought together diverse viewpoints, sparking enriching discussions and cross-pollination of ideas.
  • Community-Centric Approach: HERITΛGE’s emphasis on community engagement resonated strongly, setting the tone for a future where heritage sites become integral to community development.
  • Concrete Strategies:Participants departed the workshop armed with practical strategies to enhance community involvement, integrate local narratives, and develop sustainable heritage management plans.

Preserving History Together: Our Cultural Heritage Assessment in Kahramanmaraş


By Çağla Parlak


We are thrilled to share our recent post-earthquake cultural heritage assessment field visit to Kahramanmaraş, Turkiye, conducted in cooperation with the Association for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. This meaningful initiative was made possible through the generous funding provided by the Aliph Foundation.

Between 23-29 July, our team of dedicated conservationists assessed 175 historic buildings in the city of Kahramanmaraş, which suffered significant damage from the February 2023 earthquakes, including awe-inspiring civil architecture and time-honored monuments, each carrying the weight of centuries of history.  The devastating earthquake had left its mark, reminding us of the vulnerability of our shared cultural heritage. The once-proud monuments, centuries-old buildings, and priceless artifacts bore the scars of nature’s fury, urging us to act swiftly to protect the region’s cultural treasures.

During our site visit, we focused on assessing the extent of the damage and devising restoration strategies. What touched us most was our engagement with the locals. They welcomed us with open hearts, sharing their concerns and hopes for the future of their historic houses.

  • 1
  • 2
Newsletter Sign-up