Heritage Exchange 2014 – What does it mean for Rosia Montana?

Written by Joe Zammit-Lucia

The UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) recently ran a conference, Heritage Exchange 2014, in London. It marks what may be a very significant and welcome shift in mindset around how and why we want to conserve our heritage. Core to the new approach is a call for heritage preservation to engage more closely with social need and to view its function as having a social impact not just the preservation of bricks and mortar.

This notion is very welcome and fairly radical in the world of heritage preservation. While in the UK, much of the attention focuses on how we get value for money in heritage preservation, in other countries, especially less wealthy ones, the stakes may be much higher. The issue is often framed as a conflict between heritage preservation and the desire to push forward the development agenda. In this context, the re-focusing of heritage preservation onto social impact rather than the mere preservation of buildings and other artefacts to be admired in awe, is to be welcomed. It offers the opportunity to abandon the language of conflict and create a collaborative effort between development and heritage preservation.

This is an issue that my colleague Natarajan Ishwaran and I recently addressed regarding the potential impact on local heritage of a proposed mining project in the Romanian town of Rosia Montana. In a short paper we argued that the starting point for discussion should not be the preservation of artifacts but rather a focus on what sort of future the community of Rosia Montana wants for itself, how best to get there and how to balance the various opportunities that are available to build a better future.

Rosia Montana, a remote town in the Apuseni Mountains, has a rich mining heritage, some of which dates back to Roman times. The preservation of ancient mining galleries is the focus of the heritage preservation groups. However, the preservation of these galleries cannot be conveniently dissociated from the local social and cultural issues. The local population is burdened with high levels of unemployment, poor infrastructure and the legacy of abandoned communist era mining sites that includes the local river running red with polluting chemicals still leaching out of the abandoned mining sites.

Rosia Montana Waters

For the local community, mining is part of their social heritage. They realise full well that the resumption of mining activity using safe, modern methods is their only route to a better future which can deliver jobs, an improved quality of life and the funds necessary not only for the huge clean up operation required but, also for the preservation and restoration of the majority of their local heritage sites. It is for these reasons that the local communities have consistently been in favour of the resumption of mining activity in the area.

Yet, none of this seems to cut any ice with a heritage preservation community focused exclusively on bricks and mortar. As Jonathan Ruffer, Chair of the Auckland Castle project in the UK, put it in a recent article, as a result of such an attitude “one is often left with the impression that it is the architraves and the authentic paint colours of yesteryear that drive [heritage preservation], and a changed society is merely an addendum.”

The heritage community’s claim that the galleries can form the basis of a new tourism industry is simply not credible in the case of Rosia Montana – a remote town that, absent significant investment which will not be forthcoming from any source other than the resumption of mining activity, is difficult to get to and has no infrastructure to support a sustainable tourism industry. Yet, even if such a claim were to be believed, it would only result in what Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive at the RSA complained about in his submission to the HLF conference – that all too often heritage “becomes part of a tourism offer and an outward-facing brand, ever-more removed from its local roots.”

At the HLF Conference, Dr Mike Clark, CEO at the RSPB asked: “Is heritage simply about preserving the past or is it about contributing to a better future? What is the future we want to create?” It is in such a context that we argued in our paper that, in the case of Rosia Montana, “we do not perceive heritage preservation and active mining to be in conflict. Rather they are both essential pillars to the successful combination of heritage and cultural preservation with community well-being and sustainable development of the wider economy.”

The recent HLF conference made clear that those who persist in defining heritage preservation as the mere preservation and restoration of buildings and artefacts are pursuing an outdated agenda that will harm societies as well as the long term future of societal support for heritage preservation itself. As they pursue their narrow and culturally obsolete agenda above all else and create conflict where none should exist, they should examine their consciences. As they sit in their comfortable offices with access to all modern amenities, they should ask themselves – what future are they truly offering the communities whose legitimate development opportunities they continue to thwart? How long will they persist in pursuing their own narrow interests at the expense of the quality of life of thousands of local people and the Romanian economy as a whole?

As the Heritage Lottery Fund conference made amply clear, it is time to move on to a more progressive view of heritage preservation – one that places it firmly in a social context and measures the performance of heritage preservation bodies in terms of their overall social impact rather than merely “the authentic paint colours of yesteryear.”