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Europa Nostra UK's AGM and seminar in Edinburgh, December 2019

For 2019, the Europa Nostra Annual General Meeting and associated events was held in the historically rich World Heritage city of Edinburgh. The programme featured numerous interesting events, alongside an AGM in an incredibly interesting and unique building. Over the three days, enthusiasts of European cultural heritage were able to engage with intriguing topics, give their opinion on the running of the organisation in the UK, and have the opportunity to interact with other enthusiastic individuals.

As a young member in the UK, I was lucky enough to benefit from a travel bursary that assisted me with the costs of travelling to Edinburgh. I found the opportunity to apply for this travel grant incredibly inviting, as it encouraged me to attend the event knowing that my presence as a young person was welcome. I am very thankful to Europa Nostra for the opportunity to attend and for the assistance with travel.

The events began with a warming reception in the New Town of the city at the home of a Europa Nostra member. The opportunity to experience a drinks reception in the formal reception rooms of a Georgian New Town house was incredible. During my studies in Edinburgh, I often marvelled over what the interior of the New Town houses might look like, so to have the chance to explore one and learn all about the owner’s lovely collection of artwork was an experience I am grateful for. The opportunity to be able to socialise with other members of the organisation in an informal and comfortable setting was lovely. I met some very interesting individuals who provided me with some great advice about careers in Heritage.

The following morning, we were offered a tour of Trinity House in Leith, led by Historic Environment Scotland employee Adam Gorysz. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this event due to other commitments. However, from hearing about the tour from other members, it sounded like a thoroughly interesting and engaging event that allowed access to otherwise private parts of the Category A listed, 1816 house.

At midday the official Annual General Meeting of Europa Nostra in the UK began. The scene was set perfectly in the Library Room of Riddle’s Court, a 16th century building which was restored in recent years by Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. Hearing about the history and wonderful tales of the building was lovely and helped us guests to appreciate why ENUK had selected the venue to host their AGM. One only had to glance into the accessible toilets to see a miraculous discovery- a immense hearth, which was recorded to have been the place that a feast for King George VI was prepared. The echo of the buildings past can also be seen through a ride in the clear glass elevator that pierces through a narrow channel in the building. A ride into the past was simply unavoidable!

During the AGM, we heard about the fantastic activities that Europa Nostra UK and the wider organisation had been up to throughout the year. It was great to see the new members of the committee and have a say in who they were. The presence of other young members was also great. I look forward to keeping up with the ongoing events of the UK outpost of Europa Nostra in the following year through their newsletter and website.

Following the AGM was the public seminar focused on engagement with European cultural heritage. The line-up was certainly enticing, with speakers from a variety of areas. These included Dr Jamie Davies from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Gabriella Laing and Neil Ogilvy from Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, Dr Dan Atkinson Director of Wessex Archaeology. We were able to learn more about the financial and application processes of heritage research projects, partake in an agree versus disagree question session centred on questions such as ‘Should Heritage Mirror Society?’ The activity posed some very interesting questions that received mixed responses from the audience. We also heard about the Samphire Project from Dr Dan Atkinson, a unique project that won a European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Award in 2017.

David Harkin from Historic Environment Scotland, a climate scientist working within the Conservation Directorate, gave an interesting talk that highlighted several pertinent issues surrounding climate change and the heritage sector. His outlook was based upon data which he expertly explained, giving relational examples that captured the truth of the crisis we are currently facing surrounding our climate. The AGM finished with the opportunity for an open discussion. I feel as though David’s talk had quite a rousing impact on the audience members, as a debate ensued concerning the question: How do you tackle the issue of sustainability in the face of increased heritage tourism?

In my view, this question is particularly prevalent in the current cultural heritage sector. For the majority of projects that I see in my role at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the primary source of income is through public use, be that through venue hire or tourism. How then are buildings, sites, environments and monuments that hold significance for our cultural heritage to be preserved if they rely on income through methods that inevitably cause them harm? The irony is enhanced when one considers that often repair and maintenance is only afforded for these sites through the income generated by such activities. A member of Europa Nostra who attended the previous AGM in Oxford last year reminded the audience of the debate surrounding whether Oxford should be made a World Heritage Site or not. The response to this proposal was declared as undesirable as the status of World Heritage Site would bring more tourists and thus a ripple effect of decay and harm would ensue. My interest in this issue was certainly piqued, and thankfully we were given the perfect opportunity to explore this topic further in the walking tour of Edinburgh the following morning, led by Adam Wilkinson, the director of Edinburgh World Heritage.

Adam’s experience as director of the trust that oversees the World Heritage site was inspiring to hear. As we walked through the closes and wynds of the Old Town surrounding the Edinburgh World Heritage offices in Bakehouse Close, Adam pointed out several of the projects that the Trust were involved with. His perception of managing a ‘living’ World Heritage site in the unique setting of Edinburgh was fascinating to hear. Not only was he faced with the geographically challenging site of Edinburgh, with its three central hills, but he was also facing the challenge of dealing with the increasing influx of tourists. The popularity of the Fringe festival in August and the Christmas market in December cause a steep ebb and flow of visitors to the city, totalling over 3 million a year. That is a huge number of people for the infrastructure to support, and there are several impacts on the heritage fabric of the city that are affected by these huge numbers. Adam and his team at Edinburgh World Heritage are doing an incredible job at attempting to reduce the harm caused by intense tourist periods.

Overall, the AGM and associated events was an incredibly interesting and educational few days. I look forward to attending more ENUK events in the future and learning more about different areas of the UK’s cultural heritage, in addition to meeting new people.

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