Heritage is a verb. The results of the CHOICE project were summarized in Minsk (Photos and video)

Yauheniya Burshtyn, EuroBelarus Information Service

Does Belarus need a “Public Ministry of Culture” and “Ašmiany Charter” to deal with the historical and cultural sites?

Minsk hosted a panel discussion on the topic: “Cultural heritage and modernity: is there formation of a new subjectivity?” The presentation of the historical and cultural heritage studies, which were made within the framework of the project CHOICE: Cultural Heritage — Opportunity for Civic Engagement for the last two years became the occasion for the dispute. Particular attention was paid to the possibility of forming a new civil subjectivity to address common professional issues of heritage protection and interpretation. EuroBelarus Information Service livestreamed the discussion.

Tatiana Poshevalava, CHOICE Coordinator recalled that with the assistance of the EU, CHOICE program was developed for four countries: Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia and Moldova. The expert covered the purposes and forms of work within the project, including supporting non-governmental cultural organizations and professional communities in the implementation of innovative projects for the relevant cultural heritage protection and interpretation.

Tatiana Poshevalava

Andrei Yahorau, political scientist, director of the Center for European Transformation summed up the situation with the preservation of cultural heritage in his report and made some proposals for civil society regarding the work in this area.

According to Andrei Yahorau, any research in the field of culture in Belarus suffers a lack of statistical data, there is no special analytics.

If we consider the situation in the context of cultural heritage and economy, the inclusion of heritage in the economic turnover (purchase and sale of sites, creating jobs, heritage as a factor of development of regions and territories as well as tourism) is crucial. However there are two problems. Firstly, there are many rules in this field related to the special attitude to heritage sites. The expert finds it generally beneficial, but at the same time it is holding back investors from investing in these sites. Secondly, revaluation of the importance of tourism is the key as all the economic activities that involve cultural sites are narrowed down to their touristic potential, which significantly limits the possible economic use of cultural heritage.

Aksana Shelest, Andrei Yahorau, Stsiapan Stureika, Uladzimir Matskevich

Cultural heritage always sparks conflicts over possession and use, different values and interests in usage of sites. We often face ethical disputes about what the correct way of reconstruction is; as various communities see particular sites in different use conflicts of social priorities emerge. There are arguments associated with the techniques and methods of work at the sites. Andrei Yahorau believes it happens due to the underdeveloped institute of mediation and conflict resolution in Belarus. Parties cannot agree with each other, which results in the state arbitrating disputes in administrative manner.

In addition to the lack of mechanisms for political dialogue, we are paying little attention to the international historical and cultural policy.

“In particular, it is a mistake for Belarus not to work enough with the legacy of GDL and not to defend its cultural brands that are increasingly being assigned to Lithuania, Ukraine and other countries,” stated the director of CET.

Another peculiarity is weak interaction between various parties in the formulation and implementation of cultural policy in Belarus under the dominance of the expert-oriented approach to solving the issues of cultural heritage. Our law largely sees the cultural policy as a management of a special type of production. At the same time there is no strategy of cultural development of cities and regions. The state frequently draws attention to the jewels of cultural heritage mentioned in the State Register, ignoring the rest of the sites.

Such a situation leads to a reduction in the ​​cultural policy. Andrei Yahorau suggested establishing a “Public Ministry of Culture”. It would primarily be concerned not with an official body but with the way of thinking and the formation of a public administration aspect of the cultural heritage in addition to the state administration aspect. Moreover, any activity should lead to sustainable use in real-world conditions.

The main goal of the “Public Ministry of Culture” would be activities oriented at developing the views of general public at the cultural heritage sites and work with its social and cultural component. Another task is supplement and development of social and cultural heritage documents, including the international ones, such as the charter “On the principles of social and cultural activities in the field of historical and cultural heritage.” Why not create our own “Ašmiany” or “Babrujsk Charter”?..

Uladzimir Matskevich, Ihar Charniauski

Uladzimir Matskevich, philosopher and methodologist has been engaged in what is defined as “Cultural Policy program” for many years. But for him culture is something that must be overcome.

“To go beyond the known into the unknown, from what have been created to the uncreated. I believe the main element of cultural policy is innovation, creativity. Heritage is not only what has remained, but what we have special attitude towards: heritage is what we may take with us to the future, or leave in the past. This is what will make a part of the future,” argued the expert.

On the other hand, the expert continues, heritage is something that belongs to nobody yet something we all claim for our own. This paradox is a source of conflict.

“If we understood that we are subjects, nation, people, we would not have any conflicts. But we do not understand, we create opposition between the society and the state, and each of us from their own position says that heritage belongs to us. We don’t communicate with others; we lack the ability to take someone else's side. These are the reasons for the current state of affairs in our country both with the material side of culture and its spiritual component. It is not about the monuments, but about what we can or cannot do with our minds. Before we start reconstruction of the sites, we must clear our heads.”

Ihar Rakhanski, renovator, the head of the project bureau of the ICOMOS Belarusan committee focused on the suggestion of Andrei Yahorau to create our own “charter”.

“The document, which would primarily express ethical system of attitude to the heritage is worth creating. But the charter, as well as the heritage, is not a noun, it is a verb. By creating a charter, we hope that the charter will create us,” Ihar Rakhanski shared.

Ihar Charniauski, Anton Astapovich, Ihar Rakhanski

But Anton Astapovich, chairman of the Belarusan Voluntary Society for Protection of Monuments of History and Culture questioned the need to create a “Public Ministry of Culture”.

“We can make a lot of structures, but will they work? We need to cooperate more closely with the organizations that are already there. Firstly, the Ministry of Culture will not do anything until local and regional authorities are working properly. We must not wait until we give birth to a charter, public organizations should create specific proposals for changes and additions to the law and technical standards. Local community fails even at the stage of popularization. The fact that the sites are not protected by the state is not the fault of the state only, a great responsibility lies with the society. Any private individual or legal entity has the right to propose giving a site the status of historical and cultural value. No “Public Ministry of Culture” will help until we have leveled the gap between Minsk and regions,” assures Anton Astapovich.

“As for the the society and cultural heritage, what are we paying attention to? This would be wrong renovation, Kurapaty, intangible heritage, both listed and unlisted. How do we distinguish the reality from the chatter on Facebook?” questions the audience Stsiapan Stureika, cultural anthropologist. “I propose to see the heritage as a process. It occurs when some union of people claims for their own something tangible or intangible, and undertakes certain activities. There is no heritage without an owner. Any activity is a constant contestation of ownership, other forms of appropriation. The cultural policy of the state is reduced to administration, ideology, control, but in fact it does not exist — and it is fine.”

Andrei Yahorau, Stsiapan Stureika, Uladzimir Matskevich

Ihar Charniauski, the ex-head of the department for Historical and Cultural Heritage Protection of the Ministry of Culture of Belarus outlined two global issues: funding and the professional level of the participants of heritage protection process. He also highlighted that there is almost no high-quality professional restoration in Belarus, which not only affects the level of preservation of cultural heritage, but also drives away the investors. According to Ihar Charniauski, we have quite enough of non-governmental organizations involved in the protection of heritage sites, but there is no authority that would coordinate their work.

Outside the panel discussion many questions and suggestions remain. The reflection on the results of work within the framework of CHOICE project is in the future, but it is already clear that civil society should be more actively involved in the process of preserving cultural heritage.

EuroBelarus Information Service:

The international project CHOICE — Cultural Heritage: Opportunity for Improving Civic Engagement is implemented by the European Association for Local Democracy ALDA (France) in collaboration with the International Consortium “EuroBelarus” (Lithuania).

The project takes place in Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Armenia within the framework of the EU Eastern Partnership program with the information and consulting support of partner organizations:

  • The Center for Cultural Management (Lviv, Ukraine);
  • ICOM National Committee (Chisinau, Moldova);
  • Millennium Foundation for Education and Research (Yerevan, Armenia);
  • Public Association “Center for Social Innovation” (Minsk, Belarus).

The Belarusan part of the project — CHOICE — Belarus: heritage and modernity — is based on the value of cultural heritage as a resource for strengthening and development of the modern Belarusan identity and European civilizational choice of Belarus. Organizers of the project want to enable expansion of a variety of innovative approaches and initiatives to introduce the cultural heritage of Belarus to the contemporary cultural life of the Belarusan society.

Video (in Russian and Belarusan):