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Heritage sites and people power: what’s the best approach?

a group of people in an archaeological site
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Amphitheatres and temples, statues and mosaics — historical sites form a crucial part of cultural life and identity. But looking after them can be an expensive and complex task. In this blog post, we are making a case for unlocking the potential of citizen oversight in heritage management.

ActionAid Italy is currently monitoring two major heritage conservation projects in the ancient city of Sybaris in the region of Calabria, southern Italy. We are doing so through a so-called “integrity pact” — an agreement we signed with local authorities and private companies where they have committed to openness throughout the entire process. Together with a network of dedicated volunteer citizen monitors, we are working to make sure public money is spent well in the €2-million project.

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Curious to learn about other groups’ experiences in participatory governance of heritage sites, ActionAid Italy went to a conference organised by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands last October. The event brought together policymakers, heritage professionals and civil society from across Europe.

We walked out from the conference with new ideas and inspiration; see this blog post in Italian for some initial reflections. This time around, we would like to share three key lessons that stood out to us as particularly valuable.

1. Storytelling

Narratives that connect with people’s lives can be a great way of motivating citizens. Storytelling is about giving people an opportunity to imagine a better future and how they might go about building it.

Language is key. Communicating in a straightforward way is vital if we want non-experts to get a sense of what is at stake. It is essential that those overseeing cultural heritage are able to share their knowledge with citizens in a way that allows them to relate to these sites.

Choosing the right words not only boosts understanding but also stimulates emotions and imaginations. Emotional connection, in turn, is a powerful driver for citizen engagement.

2. An active role for citizens

Just coming along for the ride is not enough.

Participatory governance of heritage calls for far more than awareness-raising. If you succeeded at storytelling, you may have sparked interest, but motivation will wane if members of the public do not have a clear role to play.

In the case of our Sybaris project, we worked hard to come up with the tools to guide the citizen monitoring process. We prepared forms and checklists for citizens who go on monitoring visits to the archaeological site and developed a report template that gives monitors guidance on what to focus and report on.

By providing both tools and a basic outline of possible approaches, we encourage people to be active drivers of the oversight process rather than just passengers on the journey.

3. Sharing responsibility

But even when all the right information and tools are there, participatory governance will fail unless citizens feel autonomous in the oversight process. By sharing responsibility, citizens can feel ownership and bring ideas that will move the work forward. And once the results start to become visible, it is also important to acknowledge volunteers’ efforts and contribution.

integrity pacts paper folder

At ActionAid Italy, we are big believers in the power of citizen oversight. Even at times when it seems like hard work, we are convinced that finding new approaches to empower citizens is the way to go. We have had many proud moments, including recently when our citizen monitors in Sybaris made first visits to the archaeological sites as construction works began. Together, we are making sure that Italy’s cultural heritage is managed in the most transparent way possible.

In the toe of Italy, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage is undertaking two major science and tourism projects at one of the most important archaeological sites in southern Italy. Worth a combined €2 million, the first project involves the modernisation of the Sybaris Museum, set on the ruins of a 2,800-year-old city; the second project will allow visitors access to a Roman-era religious temple which was discovered by archaeologists during recent excavations. ActionAid Italy is monitoring these public works through Integrity Pacts in partnership with Monithon and Gruppo Abele.

Would you like to get involved? Find out how you can do that.

The Integrity Pacts project is coordinated by Transparency International and 15 partners in 11 EU countries, with funding from the European Commission.