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Review: Young Members Roundtable discussion with World Monuments Fund Director John Darlington

On Wednesday 24th February, sixteen Europa Nostra UK young members held a discussion with John Darlington, Executive Director of the World Monuments Fund Britain (WMF). World Monuments Fund Britain is a UK charity dedicated to the conservation of exceptional works of architecture and monuments for people. It could be any type of building; a church or power station, sculpture or ancient rock carving, cultural landscape or historic garden, but it will be special.

John Darlington joined World Monuments Fund Britain in June 2015 from the National Trust where he was Regional Director in the North West of England. An archaeologist by training, John is an author and conservation professional with over 30 years of practical experience in protecting heritage for the benefit of all. Since joining the World Monuments Fund family, John has led on a range of partnership projects in the UK and abroad.

@World Monuments Fund Angkor Wat

John opened the roundtable with a brief overview of the kind of sites that the WMF have been engaged with in over 100 different countries across the world. From the Imperial Palace in China to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the charity has been engaged with lots of very high-profile sites. The WMF also help to save lesser known sites and monuments, of equal importance. John brought attention to the World Monuments Watch, which is a key tool that WMF use to identify sites that require assistance. The bi-annual scheme selects 25 sites across the world which would benefit from the WMF’s input. The primary objective of the World Monuments Watch is to bring together local organisations and communities to ensure the long-term survival of significant monuments at risk. John encouraged the young members to identify any monuments at risk which could benefit from the support that the World Monuments Watch provides.

Following an overview of the worldwide sites that the WMF look after, John explained in detail the conservation work which the organisation have been supporting in Yemen at the National Museum. The Ottoman palace was severely damaged by the impacts of civil unrest in the area, and the WMF carried out the repairs to the structure successfully. John outlined the problems that are faced carrying out conservation work in areas such as Yemen, which face civil war.

@World Monuments Fund UK

Another project carried out by the WMF is in Aleppo, Syria where there has been a severe impact on the built environment as a result of bombings and civil unrest. Many of the structures in the city are made of stone, and are a valuable heritage asset. The WMF have been working for three years to educate experts so that they are able to work locally to repair and rebuild structures suitably after the war ends. By educating locals, WMF are ensuring the long-term survival of monuments whose repair will not rely on external aid and professionals.

They are also providing long-term employment for refugees.

Europa Nostra Young member, Lydia, asked what the main cultural barriers and challenges are when working with International Heritage, and how John and the WMF UK team has overcome them? John responded that typically, the issues are practical rather than cultural. However, the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic have been the biggest barrier that they have ever faced when trying to carry out their work.

Rachel, who is nominating a site for the WMF Watch, has experienced similar issues with the physical challenges and asked how John proposed the training scheme when devising the project, and how the WMF found experts who were willing to travel to these areas to provide training. John suggested that Rachel make the training proposal the core aspect of the application, as building capacity internationally is a key priority for the WMF. The WMF have a great network of experts, who are previous trainers and trainees, and John explained that this is grown over time.

@WMF Moseley Road Baths

Another attendee, Shaheera, is also planning to nominate a site for the Watch, and asked about the process of getting local groups engaged in the nomination process. John advocated for local involvement and engagement, to demonstrate interest early on, and suggested an objective should be to get locals more involved. Shaheera has faced issues with getting locals in Pakistan interested in protecting their heritage, and often has found they are reluctant to prioritise heritage protection over the introduction of modern infrastructure. John gave a really useful example of similar issues and suggested finding a partner organisation to assist with the nomination in order to encourage the local government to get engaged with the project.

Yvonne asked a series of questions relating to her own work creating a museum in an Italian hill town. Particularly, Yvonne was interested in knowing how John addressed issues related to dialogue with locals as the perception of what a museum is varies greatly across the world. Yvonne stated that “In Anglo American models, we think of Community development and museums as educational centres and places of questioning and destabilizing norms. Whereas, in places like Yemen and provincial Italy, a museum might be seen as a hierarchical space, whose primary mission is to conserve collections. What models are you appealing to and how do you begin to breach divides that might be unspoken between the interpretation of the museum’s purpose?” John responded that the training in Yemen is not just about the physical restoration of the space and the site, but also about teaching the locals about museology, and how to utilise the space, engage with locals and successfully present cultural heritage. The usefulness of partnerships was highlighted, as John explained the Yemen project involved the assistance of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon.

A follow up question from Yvonne asked “what advice do you have about the first steps towards a career in International Heritage Management?” This is a question which is often asked in our Roundtables, as the path into various areas of the Cultural Heritage sector can be elusive for young people in their early careers. John advised all the attendees that the most important thing is to demonstrate your love for Cultural Heritage. The international heritage sector is incredibly competitive, and often you are competing with others who are equally qualified. To John, as an employer, it is a candidate’s passion which makes them the most desirable addition to their team. Skills which are also useful when working in the international heritage sector are stamina, drive, adaptability and resilience. The nature of international relations can be varied and tumultuous, so being resilient and flexible is key.

One of the delegates felt that it is often expected of those working in Cultural Heritage to have a background in architecture or engineering. John explained that he is an archaeologist, and felt that this expectation was not necessarily the reality. Employers really value those employees who come from a different sector, as their unique expertise and insight is a valuable resource.

John summarised that the best advice for young people is to get their foot in the door however possible, either through employment or volunteering. John encouraged all the attendees to seize any opportunities to make connections with the organizations they admire or that they would like to be a part of. He encouraged the members to not be afraid of reaching out to organisations and having conversations with potential employers to demonstrate your passion and make you an admirable candidate for employment. John concluded the session by wishing all the young members the best of luck with their future careers.

Our March Roundtable is on ‘Partnerships and World Heritage Management’ with Jane Masters, Head of Heritage & Development for New Lanark Trust. You can read the summary of the discussions here.

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