Building Bridges: Insights from the Athens Conference on Civil Society and Cultural Heritage

Representatives from 23 Civil Society Organisations from across South Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, gathered in Athens for the conference ‘Connecting Civil Society for Cultural Heritage’, held on 8 – 9 April 2024. The event was organised by the Europa Nostra Heritage Hub in Athens, under the leadership of Elliniki Etairia – Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage, as part of the EU-funded European Heritage Hub pilot project. 

Over two days participants engaged in interactive workshops aimed at strengthening cross-border cooperation across the Balkans, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Amalia Zepou, Project Manager of the Athens-based Europa Nostra Heritage Hub and moderator of the Conference, set the tone for the day welcoming the partners and participants before giving the floor to the first speakers. 

Sneška Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic, Secretary General of Europa Nostra, applauded the diverse participation of attendees from 11 countries and underscored the significance of Athens as the chosen host city, given its historical status as the presumed birthplace of democracy: “Democracy, currently the most threatened heritage in Europe, finds a symbolic refuge in Athens. As we approach the European elections in June, this gathering serves as a powerful reminder to European decision-makers of the vital role cultural heritage plays in preserving and fortifying democracy and human rights.

Lydia Carras, Founder of Elliniki Etairia, further emphasised the importance of having a common past to forge a bright shared future: “Let us share our common heritage and build on this. It is important to listen to each other.” 

The European Heritage Hub and regional Hubs across Europe, play a crucial role in creating this space for dialogue and common action. The objectives of both projects were presented by Manon Richard, Project Manager of the European Heritage Hub, and Stavroula Thravalou, Project Coordinator of  the Europa Nostra Heritage Hub in Athens. A recording of the morning session is available here.

Common challenges and course of action 

Following the inspiring introductory remarks, the focus over the remaining two days was on the 23 diverse civil society organisations from South Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean who attended the conference. Participants actively engaged in discussions, presenting ongoing initiatives, challenges, and priorities for heritage in their respective regions across four thematic areas: green, digital, social, and youth.

Common challenges identified by participants included difficulties in engaging local communities, lack of funding, the need for a multidisciplinary approach to cultural issues, and the imperative of digitalising information. In light of these considerations, the organisations also highlighted sector priorities, mainly stating the need for more training, stronger advocacy, greater European support, and enhanced digitalisation of the sector.

Discussions fed into cross-border project ideas developed over the course of the second day. Participants also collaborated on a strategic framework and action plan to foster more partnerships and bottom-up approaches in the heritage sector, which will be presented soon. For a comprehensive overview of the outcomes from each panel, refer to the follow-up report

Athens Conference: Connecting Civil Society for cultural Heritage

Connecting with Regional Authorities and EU Institutions

The Conference in Athens not only fostered connections within civil society but also established a vital link with the EU capital in Brussels. Stefan Zotti, Team Leader of DG Education and Culture of the European Commission, gave an encouraging speech: “We are missing examples of concrete actions on the ground. This is why we strongly rely on the approach and potential of the Regional and European Heritage Hubs.

Additionally, a live link was established with the European Commission’s Expert Group on Cultural Heritage, which convened simultaneously in Brussels. This provided an opportunity to showcase the active role of the regional Athens Hub and share the main outcomes from the Conference.

On-site, participants were warmly welcomed at a networking reception hosted by Haris Doukas, the Mayor of Athens, at the City Hall: “Civil society is our natural ally to create a new path for growth and sustainable development in cities.” 

During the reception, Europa Nostra, Elliniki Etairia and the Municipality of Athens renewed their cooperation for the operation and support of the Europa Nostra Heritage Hub in Athens. As demonstrated by the Athens Conference, such partnerships reinforcing the role of regional Hubs are essential to continue fostering sustainable development, community engagement, and the safeguarding of our shared cultural heritage. 

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