By Emilia Sánchez González
M.A. World Heritage Studies. Brandenburg University of Technology
Lessons from planning hands-on heritage training programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Case analysis of European Heritage Volunteers
The reach and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic took the entire world by surprise. Every individual and every organization had to find fast solutions to adapt to a new restricted living situation. While some managed to thrive amid chaos, the rollercoaster of conditions did not make this easy for anyone.
Unfortunately, this challenging situation is not over. There is still uncertainty about the upcoming challenges we must face in 2021. The new vaccines have given us all hope but it is too soon to chant victory and throw caution to the wind. We will need to keep adapting our way of working, socializing, and living.
COVID and the Cultural Heritage Sector
The pandemic had a powerful impact on the cultural sector, often struggling with reduced funds and highly dependent on social interactions. Museums, libraries, and archives closed their doors, and cultural events, conferences, and training courses were postponed or canceled. Since contact was reduced to the digital space, there was a sudden urgency to accelerate the digitalization of culture. Many saw this as the only option.
Presenting the case study of European Heritage Volunteers, I will analyze the crossroads faced by this organization when they decided to proceed with their offer for cultural heritage training programs during 2020. The challenges faced by the administration, the partners, the coordinators, and the volunteers themselves will help shed light on the complexities undergone during this fateful past year. I will further reflect on digital alternatives or complements and explore the conception of hybrid models for this type of non-formal cultural heritage education.
Case Study: European Heritage Volunteers
European Heritage Volunteers is an organization dedicated to providing heritage conservation projects and training courses for young people around Europe. It has been operating for more than twenty years offering hands-on educational activities for volunteers interested in conservation, restoration, and revitalization of heritage. It aims to draw the public’s attention to undervalued heritage sites and to foster a deeper understanding of heritage and volunteering.
The pandemic impacted this organization severely because the projects revolve around physical contact with the site and traveling. The projects are organized in partnership with local institutions and organizations across Europe, which meant that the decision to continue with the projects depended on the varying conditions of stakeholders. When questioning how to proceed with the projects planned for the summer of 2020, the organization knew they were taking a great risk but they also felt they had few other choices.
Juan Carlos Barrientos, coordinator of programs at European Heritage Volunteers, explains the difficult decision they were facing when they decided to move forward. He mentions that in some cases, approaching their past partners to continue the projects was met with demoralizing responses since some were unable to cooperate despite wishing to. In other cases, the locals and the partners, who desired some semblance of normalcy at their sites or were even already relying on the projects to help impulse their bids for external funding were the drivers to keep the projects functioning. In these cases, they were willing to take the risk and face the upcoming challenges together.
“It was a very tough decision which was taken after much reflection and only with the agreement of all those who would be responsible for carrying out the season of projects. We implemented our projects only where we could count on absolute support from the local hosts. We all knew this was a gamble of our future. One single positive case could endanger everything, and we felt the responsibility for each participant’s safety.” – Juan Carlos Barrientos, European Heritage Volunteers
The challenges came from different fronts and Juan Carlos recalls that navigating uncertainty was probably the biggest one. Official regulations were constantly changing and there was always the high probability that within a matter of days or hours, the panorama regarding restrictions or permits for operating projects would change. The summer of 2020 saw improvements in the numbers of cases in many European countries and restrictions relaxed. However, the consistency of these decisions was very difficult to monitor, and surprise travel bans were a huge threat. Even if the project was allowed to continue, what would happen if a large number of participants could not get there? Or if group coordinators or key partners were unable to take part? Which measures could be taken to ensure everyone would be safe? What more could the organization do to sustain itself financially?
Communication was key in dealing with these questions, having sincere conversations about the dangers, developing prevention and contingency plans. It was crucial to develop a sense of trust with the partners and this could only be achieved by a clear day-to-day logistics plan, a well-researched narrative, and careful consideration of all the people who would be involved. With all these aspects taken into consideration, unlikely projects managed to successfully take place, but the particularities of every project had to be addressed individually and some of them had to inevitably be canceled. In the end, little over half of the projects were able to take place. Of the 24 projects initially planned, 15 were carried out. Juan Carlos recalls the struggle to keep projects alive and the emotional blow it was for the whole team each time a cancellation was deemed definitive.
Juan Carlos explained that one of the most contested spots was the finances. The organization is partially funded by the house rental activities of the mother organization ‘Open Houses e.V. and without the possibility to rent their leisure houses and conference halls, they were running out of funds. Logistics involve time and money, and continuing the planning of projects was risky business. It is necessary here to recognize the key role of community engagement. When it came to interceding for the interest of projects before the local authorities and applying for local funding, committed partners made all the difference. Nevertheless, in some cases, the decisions were out of their hands, corresponding to regional or national restrictions and processes.
“There was a lot of stress. The Director and our accountant spent countless hours moving around assets, juggling the whole apparatus of the organization to make the projects happen with the funding available from our depleted coffers.” – Juan Carlos Barrientos, European Heritage Volunteers
Moreover, the challenges did not disappear for the projects that were allowed to continue. After receiving training from the administration and experienced former coordinators, the team of group coordinators at the 2020 projects had the difficult task of ensuring the safety of everyone involved and, at the same time, keeping the “interactive” spirit of Heritage Volunteering alive. In this regard, the reduced number of participants was an advantage. One coordinator expressed, “it was only because we had a reduced number of participants that we were able to control the measures and keep the quality of the experience.” Another coordinator mentioned, “I think the corona measures added to the stress of being a coordinator. There were many things that we had to consider for the first time and more organizing to do before the participants even arrived. It could also sometimes be difficult to balance enforcing pandemic-related restrictions with encouraging participants to hang out and get to know each other.”
The organization and all stakeholders will be happy to know that their efforts were well received. Not only were the projects carried out completely free of COVID cases, but the participants conveyed a satisfying experience that did not diminish in quality for those who had the experience in previous years. Moreover, the young public is grateful for having had the opportunity to participate in the summer programs and expressed how they completely separate the difficulties experienced because of COVID restrictions. The setting of the projects themselves, which allowed for many activities to be carried out outside played an important role in the experience of the participants. As an enthusiastic participant expressed it “ being outside instead of in front of my screen, on-site instead of a webinar, it delivers a powerful learning experience.”
Digital Alternatives and Hybrid Models
Initially, we saw the pandemic drove the cultural field to increase and improve their online offer. Now, having analyzed the case of the completely non-digital type of cultural offer, we can explore the possibility of meeting these two approaches. Could digital alternatives have been just as successful? Would heritage conservation projects benefit from digital complements? Would it make sense to conceive hybrid models for this type of hands-on cultural heritage education? Would the standards be able to be reproduced? And how could these alternatives be communicated attractively?
When prompted to reflect on digital alternatives, Juan Carlos said he does not foresee this changing dramatically in the near future of European Heritage Volunteers. He mentioned European Heritage Volunteers is considering Webinars or online conferences within their educational offer but the essence of the organization lies in learning-by-doing and hands-on experiences. Group coordinators and participants’ interviews were likewise interested and skeptical, considering the experience less attractive and concerned about the quality that could be delivered. One coordinator mentioned “digital learning is great because it is so accessible, but so much of the current programming is based on getting to know the place of the project and the people and communities that you are working with, which is considerably more difficult from a distance, and a lot of the value would be lost that way”, another that she did not believe digital gives a true sense of the restoration/conservation experience. In the case of the participants, the connection to heritage or the work itself is only one of the reasons to apply for this kind of project, at times coming in second to the intercultural interaction with the other volunteers. Volunteers mentioned, “it would be better to do the covid test several times, rather than doing it digitally”, and “the essence of a project is an encounter with heritage physically and virtually”.
While a completely digital project was met with skepticism, there seems to be a consensus that a hybrid complement might be attractive, and allow for the desired physical experience as well as embracing the benefits of technological advances. Participants and coordinators alike were curious to find out how such a program would work. At the moment, the organization does not have any plans for hybrid projects to take place but we must not forget the key factor of uncertainty, which could still turn plans around at any moment.
After this fateful year of lessons, the organization is confident in its planning for the summer of 2021, which will begin with the exhibition “Volunteering for European Cultural Heritage” this June in Weimar, followed by the group coordinators training seminar in July and projects until the end of October.
When it comes to digital transformation, international organizations such as ICCROM and Europeana have sought to provide digital education options that have attracted many participants. Historic England is another example of an organization that provided digital heritage conservation courses last year. However, their constitution differs greatly from a volunteering project, where the educational component needs to be supported by the physical connection to the site, aimed at kinesthetic learners and providing the satisfaction of immediate results. Moreover, the educational offers are one among many activities within these bigger institutions and their management cannot be compared to an organization that specializes uniquely in the development of hands-on projects. It is not possible to say at this stage, if the heritage volunteering sector will ultimately join the hybrid and digital cultural offers out of interest or necessity, or maybe not at all. What we do know, is that if that day should come, we will all be better prepared for it.
I invite you to engage in a conversation about the future of our non-formal heritage education, the possibilities of using technological advances to benefit the existing offer, the need for out-of-the-classroom experiences, the need for risk-preparedness plans, and the place of volunteering as a legitimate learning experience that deserves to be better supported.
Questions for further discussion
- Which lessons can we learn from the European Heritage Volunteers case?
- How would heritage conservation volunteering projects benefit from digital complements?
- Would the standards of the on-site projects be able to be reproduced for a digital or hybrid version?
- How could these digital alternatives be communicated attractively?
More information about European Heritage Volunteers project can be found at https://www.heritagevolunteers.eu/index.php?lang=de
Emilia Sánchez González is an emerging cultural heritage professional with the mission to communicate the value of culture as a medium for interdisciplinary learning, peacebuilding, and sustainability. She has a bachelor in tourism management with a focus on communication and languages from the University of Guadalajara, Mexico and a master in World Heritage Studies from the Brandenburg University of Technology, Germany.
Her experience lies in the planning and development of cultural events and educational activities, community management, and research. Her main topics of interest include intangible heritage, transcultural practices and identities, decolonial studies, heritage interpretation, museum education, and Asia-Latin America relations.
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TOFFLER, A. (1970) Future Shock. New York: Random House.
· Book chapters:
WALSH, P. (2007) Rise and Fall of the Post-Photographic Museum: Technology and the Transformation of Art. In Cameron, F. and Kenderdine, S. (eds.) Theorizing digital cultural heritage: a critical discourse (pp. 19–34). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
· Journal articles:
DEL BARRIO, M. J.; DEVESA, M. and HERRERO, L. C. (2012) Evaluating intangible cultural heritage: The case of cultural festivals. City, Culture and Society, 3 (4), 235-244.
 Extract taken from an interview with J.C. Barrientos García by Emilia Sánchez González (14 April, 2021) Weimar, Germany.
 Extract taken from an interview with J.C. Barrientos García by Emilia Sánchez González (14 April, 2021) Weimar, Germany.