Heritage without Borders (HwB) started in 2010 as a unique social enterprise working in countries where resources and expertise are scarce or lacking. A UK registered charity since 2012, they work to build capacity in heritage skills and support heritage projects in situations of poverty and following conflict and disaster. HwB also provides valuable work experience for students and professionals from the heritage sector. The teams of volunteer’s support and work alongside local communities to understand, interpret, use and conserve their heritage.
In October of this year, I was lucky enough to be part of a team of 4 conservators working on behalf of HwB in Kosovo. Working in conjunction with one of their partner organisations, Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB), the HwB team were in Kosovo to deliver conservation and restoration training in the neighbouring cities of Mitrovica and Vushtrri.
The training course was being run as one of CHwB’s “Regional Restoration Camps”. CHwB, who coordinated the project, is a non-governmental organisation, which has been working in the Balkans for over 15 years.
Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. It is bordered by the Republic of Macedonia to the south, Albania to the west and Montenegro to the northwest. During the conflict of the late 1990’s, roughly a million ethnic Albanians fled or were forcefully driven from Kosovo. More than 11,000 people were killed and some 3,000 people are still missing. The city of Mitrovica became a major flashpoint in post-war Kosovo. It remains a divided city with the northern section mainly populated by Serbs and the southern section by ethnic Albanians. The river Ibar divides the two sides and an iconic bridge remains barricaded with rubble as a visual symbol that the city and its citizens remain divided and at conflict. There are two other bridges linking the town’s two sides. These can be crossed by vehicles and those that do, stop half way to swap over their Serbian or Republic of Kosovo licence plates under the watchful eye of the KFOR peace keeping and Kosovo force. Many citizens though have never crossed to the other side of the river since the end of the war in 1999.
Ethnicity, identity, conflict and resolution are all powerfully current issues in Kosovo. The recent wars have damaged and endangered the country´s heritage and deeply affected its peoples’ relation to it.
The Museum of Mitrovica was split between two sites (one on either side of the river) during the war. Almost all documentation for its objects was lost when the building that housed the museum on the north bank was burnt down. Objects in the museum in the south part of the city are not only mostly disassociated, but have been moved around, damaged and neglected as a result of the war and are in desperate need of conservation.
The town of Vushtrri is home to an important historic bridge dated to approximately the 14th century. Despite its historic importance, the bridge has lost most of its significance for the community because the river was redirected years ago.
Within the framework of the Restoration Camp, CHwB ran a module that focused on the surveying, recording, and interpretation of the Vushtrri Bridge.
Back at Mitrovica Museum, HwB took responsibility for the delivery of an object conservation module. The aims of this module were:
• To develop preventive conservations skills in the region.
• To promote cooperation and networking between heritage organisations, professionals and even students within the region.
• To complete basic conservation cleaning on a range of artefacts from the Mitrovica City Museum.
• To raise the profile of conservation within Balkan museum practice.
The participants to the camp came from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Backgrounds and previous experience in museum environments varied across the group, which included architectural and archaeological students, practicing conservators and museum staff from the Museum of Mitrovica.
HwB’s main focus for the course was to introduce preventive conservation concepts and practices, alongside building theoretical knowledge in material science, deterioration mechanisms and condition assessing. Practical activities were used to cement this theoretical knowledge. The course took the format of lectures, demonstrations and group-based practical work.
Participants split into material based groups at the start of the course. There was the interpretation group that would be working at Vushtrri Bridge and then four object conservation groups including metals, ceramics, textiles and organic materials. Each HwB conservator led a group based on their areas of expertise. Having previously spent two years working as a conservator for the Royal Armouries, I naturally fell into the role of leading the metals group along with a local conservator from Pristina working for CHwB.
The collection at Mitrovica museum is rich in many materials and we formed our material groups around the collection’s needs. There was a huge selection of metal objects including jewellery, coins and cookware but the metal objects in need of the most immediate attention was the weaponry.
The weapons collection is housed together in an area of the museum dedicated to the history of Kosovo. This space also displays clothing and personal effects of members of the Kosovo Liberation Army and civilians killed in the war. It is a room with a powerful atmosphere that can be overwhelming at times, even for the museum staff. This in itself made us very aware that our approach to teaching about conservation of the weapons would need to be very different to the more matter of fact approach that would be taken back home.
In the UK we view the majority of our arms and armour collections as historical and to an extent we treat them the same as any other museum object or material type. Here in Kosovo we were dealing not only with weapons that had been in active service very recently, but we were working with and teaching people that had been directly affected by the war within which they had been used. It was a sobering thought and one that made us question our working practices, I believe for the better.
We were keen to make sure that the weapons were treated with sensitivity and indeed the respect they deserved. It was decided that none of the modern weapons would be worked on during the camp but would be left for the museum staff to work on at their own pace. Instead the participants were taught the skills to deal with the problems that the objects had by practicing on sacrificial metal samples. Once they had learnt these skills the metals group worked on two historic swords as their final camp project. As a team, our approach for the whole course was to empower the participants with the knowledge and skills to be able to improve conditions for artefacts and to be able to implement successful collections care programmes for a variety of materials.
By the end of the camp it was really great to see the groups all working through these processes together, guiding each other through the techniques they’d learned and seeing them realize how everything we’d taught them fitted together.
Along with the skills that all the participants learnt, the Museum of Mitrovica now has a conservation plan set in place that they can begin to follow. Through our classes and group projects we were able to conserve their whole numismatic collection, numerous traditional textiles, archaeological ceramics, three pairs of traditional shoes and two swords. They now have the know-how to begin to document all of their objects and begin to build up their records again.
All information and data gathered about the museum through our teaching exercises was recorded appropriately with the specific needs of the museum in mind. This data, such as information about relative humidity, temperature and pest activity was passed onto the archivist as well as an additional CD containing templates to help them interpret all the data. They no longer have to watch helplessly as their objects deteriorate as they have the skills and confidence to carry out basic conservation cleaning techniques and to understand the environmental factors they can manipulate in order to protect their objects both on display and in storage.
The majority of the conservation materials we used on the camp were sourced in Kosovo and all remaining were left as the basis of the Museum’s new ‘conservation kit’. They have details of how and where everything required can be sourced and with thanks to our local conservator from Pristina they also now have contacts and easily accessible local conservation expertise.
Despite being in Kosovo to teach, I feel that I learnt just as much as the participants. I had the opportunity to meet some fabulous people, work with a great team and experience the generosity and culture of a truly fascinating country in a way that would never be possible by other means. My time in Kosovo was wonderful and having previously worked with other non-heritage focused charities in countries such as Uganda and Mexico I would be the first to encourage someone who has the opportunity to get involved in such a project to do so. It really is life changing.
If you want to read more about this camp or about a Weapons conservation course that HwB ran on behalf of CHwB in November in Tirana, read the blogs here: http://heritagewithoutborders.org/blog/
For more information about Heritage without Borders or Cultural Heritage without Borders and their projects, visit their websites http://heritagewithoutborders.org and http://www.chwb.org/