The second field trip was for our heritage management course, and took us south to Naples, to visit some important sites of cultural heritage, and to talk with managers from both local and international projects about their approach to conserving and cultivating heritage within their communities.
As an introduction for those of you who aren’t familiar with the economic history of Italy, there is a large socioeconomic divide between the more industrialized northern cities, and the traditionally agriculture-driven southern regions. Funding tends to favor the richer provinces, bypassing the populations that lie south of Rome. If you look at a lot of Italian migration, particularly at the latter half of the 20th century, most of it has originated in the south.
In short, the region around the city of Naples is densely populated, but visibly impoverished. Buildings are in dire need of repair, streets are crowded and dirty, and issues of unemployment and truancy are manifest; at one point of our visit, we stopped to chat with some children playing happily in a park area developed as a community project. It was only on the train back to Milan that it occurred to me that they should have been in school that day.
In any case, the need for initiatives to support economies, provide jobs, and maintain a sense of community identity is massive. Cultural heritage is one of the potential ways in which to achieve this; ideally, it creates a tie between the community and its history, and draws in revenue to local businesses through tourism activities.
In our visit, we were able to witness two vastly different approaches to building cultural heritage within the communities around Naples. Both have their challenges, but both have the potential to make a significant impact.
San Gennaro Catacombs and Rione Sanità
The catacombs are run by a compact of local cooperatives, with a combination of paid and volunteer staff who take groups on guided tours through the site, and oversee restorations of the frescoes and mosaics, some of which date back before the 5th century AD. The site itself is owned by the Vatican, but the drive to make the place a cultural attraction has come from the community.
This is not to say that they are not facing challenges. Revenue is always an issue, and marketing to tourists who make a beeline for Pompeii or Capri is an ongoing challenge. And in any community project such as this, there is the risk of mission creep, trying to do too much and overstretching resources. However, the attitude and the effort that the managers are putting in, as well as the support they are getting from local residents and businesses (one of which incidentally does the best pizza in Naples, using locally grown ingredients such as tomatoes grown on the slopes of Vesuvius), means that they are moving in the right direction.
Herculaneum and Ercolano
However, the story of Ercolano, the town that surrounds the site, presents a history of neglect and abandon. Like Rione Sanità, Ercolano is also impoverished, and for decades was racked by criminal activity. Most guidebooks even recommended avoiding a visit altogether.
Part of this is due to the state-led management of the site that excluded local community participation, and let the archaeological site fall into disrepair. Even today, the museum that has been built on the site remains closed, and only a small portion of the excavations are open for visitors. The exclusion of the local community is made evident by a giant wall around the site (see photo above), which blocks the view into and from the mediaeval part of Ercolano. The town is also disconnected physically from the entrance; visitors make a beeline from the train station to the gate, bypassing the town centre and its shops and markets altogether. Most visitors wouldn’t know that some of the finest vintage clothes are sold just a street away from the site (for a fraction of the cost you would pay in Brooklyn or Melbourne). We passed shops bursting with gorgeous leather jackets and exquisite fur coats.
However, it is a slow and frustrating road. The state ownership and the attendant bureaucracy stifle progress in achieving community engagement. The funding structure is poorly designed, and money is not available to be spent on employing local staff to help run and maintain the site. A park built for the community on land owned by the site has been closed by the state on unspecified “safety” grounds, again cutting off local access and engagement. Nonetheless, there are enough people on the ground there committed to seeing change that hopefully it will happen. Certainly, compared to ten years ago the situation has improved massively, but it may take a long time to see even greater results.
Despite the two approaches (bottom-up and top-down), it is clear that for managing cultural heritage the key to success lies in engaging the local community. From a detached viewpoint, this seems perfectly logical; even if the heritage site comes from a different civilization entirely, it is the local people that have grown up around it, lived with it, and continue to live with it. Any intervention, regardless of its source, has to consider that fact and act accordingly.
It is not to say that this is an easy process, but often those processes that are necessary, aren’t. If we wish to preserve and propagate heritage in our society (and reap its social, cultural, and economic benefits), a sound approach to management that incorporates community engagement is a must.