Working with Communities in UNESCO Designated Sites: the Role of visitors Centres

The 3rd regional workshop on the Role of Visitor Centres in UNESCO Designated Sites was held in Ercolano, Italy, from 29 September to 2 October 2021. This year’s meeting brought together 23 professionals from different sites across Europe, to explore how to meaningfully engage with communities in UNESCO designated sites and how visitor centres can contribute to such a process, while supporting the broader management goals of World Heritage properties, Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks. The Role of Visitor Centres in UNESCO Designated Sites is an intersectoral and interdisciplinary initiative launched in 2018 by the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, which includes the organisation of thematic workshops aimed at promoting exchange, driving innovation, developing capacities and reinforcing networking cooperation in the region.

Building on the outcomes of the first (Bamberg, Germany; 2019) and second (Palermo, Italy; 2018) regional workshops, the third edition adopted a special focus on working with communities. It specifically paid attention to the relationship between information/visitor/interpretation centres and local communities, looking at how community engagement and community-oriented services can help promote local ownership, empower local actors and contribute to a more inclusive, participatory and integrated approach to site management. The 2030 Agenda recognises community engagement as a key tool to achieving sustainable development, and UNESCO is actively promoting it throughout the Organization’s focus areas.

The workshop adopted a new hybrid format, composed of an introductory webinar on 23 September and a face-to-face session in Ercolano, Italy, from 29 September to 2 October, the latter using Ercolano as a real case-study.

The Herculaneum Archaeological Park is located within a vibrant and complex urban context, concerning a wide array of stakeholders. The Roman town of Herculaneum was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997 as part of a serial property together with Pompeii and the Roman villas in Torre Annunziata. This territory is also part of the transition area of the Somma-Vesuvio and Miglio d’oro Biosphere Reserve, being a fascinating case study for the workshop.

The Herculaneum Archaeological Park and its surrounding area in the modern city of Ercolano, with its specific social, economic and environmental dynamics, were a vivid illustration of the challenges and opportunities for community engagement in heritage management. During the onsite workshop, participants engaged in site visits and meetings with local actors from managing authorities, civil society organisations and the private sector; in addition, they had the opportunity to share and discuss experiences at their respective sites through a poster session and group work.

The workshop allowed participants to develop their individual and collective understanding of the subject, and to provide applicable suggestions for working on a heritage-led urban regeneration process in which heritage assets become a catalyst for social inclusion and sustainable economic development. Special attention was paid to sharing experiences and advancing proposals on the role that visitor/information centres can play in this process, especially by enhancing their capacities to work with and for local community actors.

In particular, participants agreed that such centres should not only serve to communicate site values to visitors, but also play a proactive role in promoting and facilitating heritage ownership, stewardship and entrepreneurship at community level, bringing local actors closer to sites and vice versa. Such reinforced partnership requires specific information and understanding of community needs and potentialities, combined with adequate methodologies, capacities and awareness at all levels.

Strategies for better community involvement include: working with communities from a very early age; developing specific activities for families; intending and managing centres as community services, beyond a merely visitor-oriented approach; working on co-creation for community-based heritage interpretation; promoting social and economic benefits for locals that may derive from sustainable site uses; creating inclusive and participatory consultation platforms; and reinforcing stakeholder analysis in the form of broader territorial community assessments.

By stimulating the exchange of ideas and practices, the workshop also promoted regional networking across Europe and encouraged participants to evaluate the existing methods so that lessons learned can be applied more readily in future.

A questionnaire was distributed among the participants for a final workshop evaluation. The feedback, unnamed, fully confirmed the relevance and impact of the activity, as it is well captured by the following comments:

Ercolano is a perfect case study on how social and visual barriers can affect the community. I intend to apply this model of spatial approach to social problems as well as this honest, clear vision of a heritage-driven urban regeneration”.

I learned about different practices and approaches in raising community engagement within heritage management. Everything gave me a better understanding on how important it is to increase awareness and knowledge of our heritage in our local community”.

We will use different approaches such as projects, school programmes, workshops, events, lectures, projections, public tours and intergenerational discussions and we will try to establish an even stronger connection and cooperation with and between different organisations and individuals”.

The workshop in Ercolano was made possible thanks to the annual contribution of Italy to the UNESCO Regional Bureau. It was jointly organized by UNESCO, the Herculaneum Archaeological Park, and the Herculaneum Conservation Project, in cooperation with the City of Ercolano, the Herculaneum Virtual Archaeological Museum-MAV, the Cooperativa Sociale Giancarlo Siani, the Fondazione Ente Ville Vesuviane, the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Naples and MUSE, the Pompeii Archaeological Park, and the Vesuvius National Park.