By Nina Luostarinen
Project manager of Lights on!, Humak University of Applied Sciences
Pull together to get the Lights on! – Discussions with project partners about cross-section between cultural networks and heritage
The Lights On! Project, active in 2015–2018, has been seeking to create a joint network of historical tourist attractions in Finland and Estonia. The aim of the project has been to shed new light on the enchanting shared past of the North-Eastern Baltic Sea. It hopes to encourage people to visit these fairly unknown ruins, fortresses, hill forts and parks in both countries, and improve their quality as tourist destinations. All the eight sites have been sites of might and power but are more or less forgotten nowadays. In order to find new friends to these sites the project partners were not only the owners of these sites but the leading cultural manager universities in both countries to make these sites get to use the cultural networks and the innovation potential of culture orientated students. As the project is soon reaching its closure it is time to evaluate. My gut feeling is that with multidisciplinary collaboration we have reached immense benefit compared with solitude working. In this article I am interviewing representatives of the project partners as well as students involved in this project. All interviews were done during April 2018.
Let me first introduce the people discussing here. Aino von Boehm, project manager of project´s Lead partner Metsähallitus Parks & Wildlife, Lagle Heinmaa planning specialist, project coordinator of RMK (Estonian State Forest Management Centre), Anett Männiste, project manager of the culture education department in Viljandi Culture Academy, the University of Tartu, Minna Hautio, Senior Lecturer, HUMAK University of Applied Sciences, organizing students to carry out their innovation projects on sites, Timo Parkkola, chairman of the steering group of the project, Innovation Director, Humak University of Applied Sciences, Paula Kostia and Kerttu Lehto, both students in Humak and interns in the project.
Widened networks to the other sectors
First, I wanted to know if it was only me, who had hugely extended my networks to other sectors during the project and gained new knowledge. At least for me this project has really been an eye-opener of the cross-sector possibilities. Let the representatives of the owners of the sites speak first. They have background in the horticulture, environment protection and forest management. Von Boehm states that the project has extended her networks to a lot of new sectors: cultural heritage management, creative business & industries, artists and professionals of light art and performing arts. Heinmaa continues by pointing out that as two of the project partners are educational institutions, she has had a new opportunity to cooperate with students and lecturers. Still, a bigger emphasis for her has been the collaboration with local entrepreneurs and interest groups.
What about those from a cultural background? Männiste starts by pointing out that Viljandi Culture Academy does a collaboration, as the name says, in the culture sector, but through this project, they have gained a number of new contacts with entrepreneurs, who they had never worked together before. The project has been, she thinks, also a true ice breaker. Hautio, who is an archaeologist by education and a museum educator by previous profession, tells how she had no previous knowledge of VR or AR games. For her, it has been hugely interesting to compose stories and visualizations together with those responsible for making the actual games. She believes that gamification is an upcoming trend in all kinds of education, from formal to non-formal. For her this was an adventure for connecting her both identities — the one of a lecturer at university and the one of a museum educator. Lehto continues: “The project extended my networks on multiple levels. Doing my last internship in Lights on! opened many doors to me. The networks I made in Lights on! encouraged me to start my own enterprise, Lounatar. As a community educator I’m used to working with people from different backgrounds and professions, but because of Lights on! my network goes all the way to VR-professionals, Metsähallitus, cultural managers from all around Finland and multiple NGOs. More importantly my internship lowered my threshold to fearlessly keep building my network and approaching new people. The interdisciplinary collaboration was very beneficial for me. In my line of expertise (larp, storytelling, community education) my whole working field is very interdisciplinary. Working closely with people from different professional backgrounds gave me the roots for the network I have built today and the professional self-confidence I needed.” Parkkola thinks that from the partner organizations’ point of view one of the most valuable contact from Lights on! is being connected to Aalto University and its Research Institute of Measuring and Modelling for Built Environment, which is now the strategic partner of Humak. He believes that this combines culture and hard-core engineering in a long perspective. Quite an unexpected result!
New friends and visitors for the sites
What about these poor, forgotten sites? Have they gained new friends and visitors during the project? Männiste says: “Definitely. One number comes from our students, who most of them have never been to most of the places. The other part is the local entrepreneurs and communities who also often know the place but have never used it for their services or products. The sites have become better known and have been for three years a part of many people’s daily lives.” Von Boehm agrees. “Yes, definitely. Project activities, such as new events, have made heritage sites more known to different target groups and stakeholders; public audience, municipalities, local operators, travel and marketing operators. New audiences such as artists and operators in different art fields have also familiarized with the sites during the project and they now see the potential of heritage sites as venues for events, exhibitions and other actions.” Kostia, who has been working both on financial management and cultural content production during her internship, underlines the fact she discovered while doing the eMS reports: a vast number of people have been in contact with this project by participating in some event or via social media.
At the core of the project, there has been the collaboration with local stakeholders. Locals have been encouraged and trained to create new products, events and services based on these heritage sites and myths, tales and folklore related to them. Lehto sums up that “this collaboration has built networks that will remain even after the project ends. This gives a possibility for continuity: events and life at the heritage sites is not dependent on the project.” As Kostia points out, it is often difficult to see the valuable thing near you. She believes that this project has opened up new points of view to local stakeholders. She also accurately suggests that this reduces prejudices toward new things (events, products, ideas) among the local public when some people they know are already participating in the project. Heinmaa also reminds, that cooperating with local interest groups and entrepreneurs can sometimes be quite a tough task. Quite often it requires a lot of work getting them interested. Nevertheless, in some cases, you can find really active and motivated entrepreneurs to cooperate with and they are worth the trouble. She suggests that you just have to realize from the very beginning that maybe 1 out of 10 wants to cooperate, but that 1 might be a real jackpot. Von Boehm proclaims that local experience hidden information (lore, traditions, expertise, new ideas and aspects) has been essential. She tells how the local stakeholders have been challenging some ideas in a good way and given alternative solutions. She tells that they have developed an event concepts with standpoints that rise from local expertise, traditions and passions. Männiste conforms by telling a practical example: “I think that without them a lot of the ideas wouldn’t be real. In Lõhavere we held an open-air performance and that came from a local activist, who was holding on to the idea for years. Without him and his idea, we wouldn’t have done what we did. People who feel connected to the place, who really care about its future also propose ideas that are the best for the place.” During the project, we also arranged several occasions for the local stakeholder to meet and network, both locally, nationally and internationally. Männiste thinks this has been beneficial for the sites, as the entrepreneurs can learn from each other and we have also connected them internationally. They can share their ideas and thoughts and develop their services and products. Heinmaa concludes that if we want these sites to be seen with a new light, they can only shine bright when they are worshipped by the locals – the ones who are the closest to enjoy the beauty of the sites themselves and who know the best values that can be shared with the visitors.
The innovation potential of the student groups
Throughout the project, the student groups from Humak University of Applied Sciences and from Viljandi Culture Academy have played an essential role. The students have generated new ideas for the sites in an international student camp and during their innovation studies and other courses like communication and marketing. The student groups have performed several pilots on each site in order to find out which of the ideas actually work and which ones are great only on paper, not in real life. For these sites, as Heinmaa points out, old people grow to value the heritage sites anyway. The difficult task is to get young people engaged. She thinks that the students definitely helped to build that bridge with their innovative approach and mindset. Von Boehm agrees and continues: “Students have realized various pilots such as little new events and they have brought crazy “out of the box” ideas with seeds that can be developed forward. Students with no previous experience of the sites see them differently and from “clean table” and therefore invent their ideas without limitations. Of course, part of the ideas are not suitable or are even impossible due to heritage protection status but even “bad” ideas can later lead to something that can be utilized. For example the Rapola candle workshop and lantern hike — student pilot — idea was developed forward and used in Rapola and Estonian sites in the 2017 events.”
Männiste sees the benefit for the local communities. She thinks the local communities have gotten a great number of resources in the form of students: “By resources, I mean ideas but also volunteers, who want to contribute to the site. For example in the coming events this year the students are designing 3 events with the local communities. The process has been lasting for a few months now and it is amazing to see how they connect and try to help the local people to fulfil their ideas.” Hautio tells that based on what she has noticed when discussing with students and following up their project’s heritage, sites can be interesting in many ways, not just as historical sites but as sites of many kinds of well-being; recreation, contemplation and personal growth. Their value stretches far beyond their obvious historical aspect and value. She sees that some clear results of the students’ projects have been the use of sites for minimalistic events which enable visitors to enjoy the silence and placidity of the place. This is clearly related to the growing trend of ‘slowing down’ from the hectic rhythm of everyday life. She believes, as also the students seem to do, that historical sites, especially those who are situated outside the hustle bustle of urban life, are ideally suited for purposes of this kind. The more they have been dismantled from their former glory, even to the state of being more a part of nature than part of a built environment, the better. She also tells about another interesting result of one of the students’ projects is the use of art-based media with an element of surprise and juxtaposition in promoting the sites: “This innovation bloomed in a group which consisted of different artistic talents, nationalities and languages. The group wanted to bring a remote historical site to people’s attention. Instead of trying to get it in the usual manner, spreading information about the site’s historical past, the group decided to expose people to the sense of the place and to do it in paradoxical contexts. First, they filmed the busy streets of the city of Turku and recorded it on a somewhat higher speed. Then they filmed the scenes of the historical site by walking through it while holding a free hand video camera and recording everything in slightly slow motion. They then swapped places (and moods) on two locations by projecting the films on “wrong locations” simultaneously. The slow-motion landscape was projected on the busiest shopping street in Turku and the busy street view was projected on the castle ruin which stood still in the darkness. This simple innovation gained a lot of attention and media coverage which further proves its usability in such contexts.”
From the student’s point of view, Lehto analyzes deeply: “As a student I was involved in the project only at the beginning. From my point of view, the project would have been very different without students. Student participated on many levels: As interns (such as me), and as a larger group for testing or simply to produce things (such as translating texts or producing events). The collaboration with students brought them to the heritage sites, and therefore informed them of the sites’ existence. A group of young adults was turned into a possible user group. However. Involving students in the making of the project means also that the quality of the work can’t always be guaranteed or consistent (“professional-standard”) and there needs to be more room for failure. On the other hand, involving students means a lot of useful ideas to choose from. Furthermore, it could also mean involving inspired, innovative, creative, motivated and hardworking individuals. I think the pros and cons of student work were well balanced in this project. From my point of view, all student work was monitored and well guided.
As a student I feel like my work was appreciated, valued and important for the whole project. I felt like an important individual and found my place in the community. I was very motivated and did my work carefully. As there are different people, there are different students, and I’m sure not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was. Nevertheless, I feel that I had a significant role in Lights on! and for that I’m grateful.”
The magic of the project group
As it sometimes happens, you come across someone you have never met before, but you immediately feel familiarity and a connection as if you had been friends for a long time. With this project, the magic happened with the project group. One representative from each partner organization, and from the very beginning we felt like a team. We all four have experience in various projects, and truly know that this is not the case every time. Nevertheless, here it happened, that the project group meetings did not only feel like hard work – which it was too – but like meeting your dear friends. International and interdisciplinary collaboration can be both beneficial and heartwarming. As Heinmaa says, it is always a good thing to have partners and supporters from different specialties – instead of inventing a bike, one can consult with somebody who is a specialist in the area. She also reminds us of the hard part of joint activities: cooperating overall with project partners can be difficult sometimes, because we rely on each other’s plans and if a certain plan of one partner suddenly cannot be realized, another partner must change the plan accordingly. Von Boehm agrees and continues by saying that collaboration has been a key to success within the project joint activities, especially events. Exchanging ideas, thoughts, expertise, experiences, challenges and solutions between project partners has given more than any of the partners could have done alone. Collaboration has also made good ideas multiply in several events. Männiste sums up by saying: “It’s amazing how much you can learn from each other. You think that Estonia and Finland are so close by and so similar, but the way we operate is sometimes completely different. However, this is good — the best practices of each other and applying them makes reaching the goals a lot easier.” From the steering groups’ point of view, Parkkola states that it has been intriguing to follow how cultural knowledge and networks and the “muscles” of big governmental organizations have been combined.
I could not agree more with Hautio, that we should incorporate many different stakeholders in discussions about their potential. Sites are not just about historical heritage but also about our present heritage which consists of the layers — visible or invisible, shared or personal — we manifest on the sites today. This does not, however, contest or undermine the historical value of the sites, which should be both preserved and conveyed in the contemporary context.
Because we have European wide challenges for finding both funding and friends for heritage sites, we definitely need some new forms of collaboration and innovation, which thrives on diversity. Even if innovations often seem to come accidentally or unexpectedly, they flourish more in the mixed and unusual combinations of people and out-of-the-ordinary settings.
Questions for further discussion
- What happens when this kind of project ends?
- Is the ending of a project a huge disappointment to local stakeholders?
Nina Luostarinen works as RDI-lecturer in Humak University of Applied Sciences. She has a background in performing arts and in new media content creation. She has been either producer or scenographer for more than 30 cultural events since 1995. She has been a designer and animator for interactive games and webpages, and an animator for the national TV broadcaster in Finland. In recent years, she has been working with several EU-funded projects seeking to network different forms of culture and combing these with other business fields. She is doing her doctoral studies at the University of Lapland about how place attachment can be enhanced by using art-based actions.
Header image: Rapola by Liro Kaukinen.
Author’s picture photo credit: Lights on! on Flickr.