Heritage Without Borders – Helping heritage to survive. NiC’s interview with Dominica D’Arcangelo

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Learning sewing skills. Copyright Heritage without Borders

In June 2014 NiC introduced the work of Heritage without Borders (HWB) with an article on the work the organisation was carrying out in Kosovo (News in Conservation, Issue 43, 2014). Since then NiC has continued to follow the work of HWB closely and is pleased to include, as part of this special issue, an interview with Dominica D’Arcangelo, Co-founder, Co-director and Trustee of the organisation.

NiC - Can you give us an overview of your organisation’s structure?

Dominica D’Arcangelo - Heritage Without Borders is a UK registered charity. It has a Board of Trustees who ensure that it is accountable and being run in order to achieve our aims and objectives. I operate as the Chief Executive Officer. My responsibilities include fundraising, project managing our international work and strategically developing the charity. Fortunately, we do not have many overheads. The Institute of Archaeology, University College London provides us with an office space. All of our international work is executed by highly motivated volunteers. This ensures that our project budgets are spent as much as possible directly on projects and not on costly administrative overheads.

NiC - Dominica, on HWB website you list an impressive array of projects you have so far completed; can you take us through the process of selecting these locations?

Dominica D’Arcangelo - We do have a very exciting list of past projects in wonderful locations. Primarily our concerns for selecting a project are dependent on the local partners rather than location itself. The success of our projects relies heavily on collaboration and partnership working. We endeavour to make a real difference in the places that we work, and to do this we need to be confident that the local support is reliable. HWB does not dictate what ‘help and support people need, rather we respond to need by formulating a team with the most appropriate expertise. Fundamentally we work with people who want to work with us and our volunteers in a mutually beneficial way.

NiC - What are the main challenges when dealing with areas that have been affected by conflict?

Dominica D’Arcangelo - HWB can mobilise highly-skilled volunteers with the right, positive attitude to international work. We do not see ourselves as the ‘experts,’ but as collaborators in the field. When meeting people in places where conflict may have had a relatively recent impact, we are on a very steep learning curve. In general, HWB and our UK volunteers are a privileged bunch who have not been directly involved in wars or conflict in our lifetime. Our volunteers’ main challenge is to be active in their own listening and learning and to use their skills to collaborate with colleagues to help solve real problems that they face with regards to interpreting and accessing their cultural heritage.
As well as anticipating our volunteers’ challenges like language barriers and dealing with sensitive issues, I like to also ask myself and my volunteers the flip sides of your question: ‘What are the main challenges that our colleagues find when they work with UK volunteers?’ What can we contribute? How can we contribute efficiently and have the broadest impact? I openly acknowledge that the benefits of international working are mutual and 2-way. We get back as much as we give, if not more! Sometimes, our most valuable contribution is to give people the confidence to act on what they think is right.

NiC - Are some of the areas you have worked in considered dangerous?

Dominica D’Arcangelo - We are not able to work in locations and regions that are insecure. We have a duty of care towards our volunteers and we are not equipped to give the right level of training required when people work in zones which are in active conflict. Our international partners tend to have local knowledge that goes a long way to keeping our volunteers safe and secure. However, contexts can be unpredictable. During a project in Mitrovica, Kosovo in 2013, a bomb did go off in the city. Fortunately, no one was harmed.

NiC - What is HWB’s position with regard to the situation in the Middle East?

Dominica D’Arcangelo - We try to remain as neutral as possible with regards to politics. However, we do feel strongly about access to heritage being a human right. The destruction of heritage sites and objects is a tragedy for all humankind. Personally, I do strongly believe that the security of individuals is far more important than the security of artefacts or heritage objects. Furthermore, we all know that the context in the Middle East is not homogeneous.
I do know, from our experience of working with Middle East and North African curators to help broaden their public engagement skills, that collaborating closely with future leaders and those actually delivering programmes is an exciting privilege. The opportunity to engage in professional cultural exchanges delivers mutual understanding and improves the museum profession across continents. In our case, we found that fostering project participants (both from the UK and the Middle East/North Africa) resulted in continued collaboration and has ensured a legacy which follows on from an initial collaboration. Not only have our volunteers and project participants made new life-long friendships, but they have continued to build their skills and networks professionally as well.

NiC - Do you think there will be a time when HWB will be able to carry out projects in Syria or Libya? Is there any such plan on the horizon?

Dominica D’Arcangelo - There are absolutely no such plans on the horizon. We are not able to plan strategically very far into the future because of how our funding currently works. Also, we do not run rescue operations. This is not to say that we never will, but at the present time, we are running projects that train people to prevent long-term damage to collections. We are also doing a lot of work focusing on engagement with audiences – tasks such as interpretation and targeting specific audiences.
That said, the UK’s Government’s recently announced Cultural Protection Fund may help to facilitate organisations who aim to operate on ‘the front line’.

NiC - How well do you think international organisations are working in preventing illicit activities associated with the destruction of cultural heritage (trafficking, illegal digging)?
Dominica D’Arcangelo - Destruction of cultural heritage is a complex matter presenting significant challenges to those working in that field. I do not feel fully qualified to comment on other organisations doing this work. But I can say that destruction of cultural heritage, such as trafficking and illegal digging, are symptoms of wider inequalities and social issues. No one can expect that the wider problems can be successfully tackled in a ‘vacuum,’ ignoring the root causes. The political and social decisions that we make every day has broad impact globally.
Our HWB volunteers gain immense personal and professional insight when they work with us internationally. They have transformational experiences that demonstrate first-hand how fragile yet powerful cultural heritage can be. Our volunteers and project participants change as a result of their interaction with HWB; they have new ways of seeing their place in a wider network of cultural heritage professionals.

NiC - Does HWB actively collaborate with other international organisations?
Dominica D’Arcangelo - We absolutely do and it is a critical part of our work. We have collaborated with The British Council and their various regional offices, University College London, London and University College London, Qatar. We have worked with other successful non-governmental organisations like Cultural Heritage Without Borders. We are always looking for partners with a similar approach to international work.

Spotlights on a HWB current project

Albania has a wealth of cultural assets, and most of them are of outstanding value in the Balkan region. However, many artifacts in Albania are in urgent need of preservation, restoration and management through the use of appropriate techniques and materials.
In response to such a situation, HWB has partnered with Cultural Heritage Without Borders in Albania (http://chwb.org/albania/) and the Ethnographic Museum in Gjirokastra to initiate a project that aims to build capacity in textile conservation. There is also an interpretation dimension to the programme to help develop a well-rounded range of practical skills.
Albania has a rich heritage of textiles and traditional costumes. Many of these collections are at risk due to complex issues such as their problematic environment, a lack of resources and understanding of how to prevent damage.
With a generous grant from The Headley Trust and The Clothworkers, HWB has worked for two years in the Ethnographic Museum in the UNESCO world heritage site of Gjirokastra, Albania.
In 2016, HWB will continue to build regional skills in textile conservation in Albania through work at the Ethnographic Museum in Kruja.
In 2015, three HWB volunteers worked with 11 participants from Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were six museum professionals, comprising curators, ethnologists and conservators and five students at the end of a Masters Programme in Heritage Management from Tirana University.

The workshop delivered two strands of training: textile conservation and museum interpretation. Both were delivered in the same format, a combination of presentations and interactive sessions with demonstrations. Practical sessions and group projects followed to consolidate the learning and experience.
Practically, the volunteers lead a primary school session on site, which helped to demonstrate ways of engaging new audiences. Also, the display and storage conditions of the fragile textile collection was brought up to a higher standard.

HWB finds it difficult to quantify its impact, but the work we do aims to generate significant and mutually beneficial results. Through highly practical work on site in the Ethnographic Museum in Gjirokastra, for example, we have achieved the following:

- Made visible improvements to the Ethnographic Museum’s Collection on display and in long-term storage conditions.
- The next generation of heritage professionals gained an insight into textile conservation and the importance of object conservation.
- Produced brochures for both adult tourists and to engage school children.
- Helped create a new network of museum professionals and post-graduate students from Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina who would not have met without this project.

Heritage Without Borders could not carry out its projects without the willingness of highly skilled volunteers donating their time. We rely entirely on grants and donations to do our work.
If you are interested in learning more about HWB and would like to become a supporter visit: