Fotografas R. Ščerbauskas
© R. Ščerbauskas

Mike Robinson, who is the director of the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage as well as special advisor to the UNESCO World Heritage Sustainable Tourism Programme, says that Kaunas has a very interesting story that is worth to be told to the whole world. An interview with heritage specialist about the modern concept of cultural heritage, its impact on our everyday lives, and what can be done to make our city more interesting not only for us but also for the others.
How do you understand cultural heritage? What is its role in today’s world? What is the impact it has on our everyday lives?
The definition of cultural heritage is expanded a lot over the previous 20 years. When we talk about cultural heritage, you may think about a monument or a historic building, like a cathedral or a church. However, cultural heritage now includes, what I call, vernacular heritage, such as people’s houses, and intangible cultural heritage. So now, we’re not just talking about the built environment, we’re also talking about people’s memories, festivals, languages, crafts and skills that people have.
It’s role within today’s world is incredibly important in everybody’s lives, because that is how we come to know ourselves as a community. Heritage is our reference point for what went before and what might come after. Everybody has their own personal heritage, their own personal stories of where they came from. Everybody in their homes has an item of heritage that their grandmother or their father gave them. That’s heritage. It helps shaping people’s identity. Everybody talks about heritage every day, but sometimes they don’t think they are talking about it. I think we have to move the debate from just talking about old buildings to a much more inclusive definition of what cultural heritage is.
It is important to protect and properly assess not only the already existing heritage, but gradually develop contemporary heritage for future generations as well. Do you agree with this statement?
I agree with that statement all heartedly. Everything, that we see as heritage now, was once brand new and we forget that. Then you go to Venice, which is an example of the heritage city, you see an old place. But imagine that you go to Venice in the 15th century and you see brightly colored buildings, built on water that defines nature. Back then, Venice was modern. We have to take into account the passage of time. It’s important not just to protect what we have now, but to think of what we might want to protect in a future. I think sometimes it’s a very difficult thing for people to do, because they automatically think that heritage is old. Heritage will get old, but it may not be old at the moment.
What could be heritage’s concept in the future and what, do you think, we will leave behind us?
I believe it’s a question of what we want to leave behind us. I’ve been working at the cultural heritage field for long time now and one of the things that I realized is that people have different values. There are some things in the world that nobody cares about. We’re quite happy to pull some buildings down and nobody is concerned about it. There are other things for what we share values and what we want to leave for the future. So, what we should leave behind us, should be a democratic decision in terms what we think is valuable and we want to pass on the future generations.
How do you think heritage contributes to each of our identity formation? Do you think it helps us feel a part of the city that we are living in and create a stronger sense of community?
Heritage is very much connected to our identity and is a part of its formation process. Then we think about heritage in the city context, we think of those things that are familiar to us, such as the little shop that we went to as children to buy sweets. That’s part of personal heritage. And then somebody comes along and knock the sweet shop down, we feel upset about it. Heritage is how we find communality amongst the people and the city. We share these places, spaces and buildings.
We also share an intangible heritage and memories. I think it’s very important to create the sense of community. It challenges us sometimes, because we’re not sure if we need to preserve some building, such as, for example, a sweet shop, but if we destroy everything, then who are we? In that case we wouldn’t have no cultural reference points. Every society has always kept something from the past. That’s a way of building our identity through the bridges.
What kinds of heritage interest people most? To which groups of people cultural heritage is interesting and why is it interesting?
It is very difficult to say what kind of heritage interest people the most. A lot of people travel to see heritage sites, because they are intriguingly interested in the past. But also people travel to heritages sites, because they think it’s something they should do. Just take a look at Facebook and some blogs. There you can find lots of people thinking that they must visit the Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal or the Egyptian pyramids. And if you go to the pyramids, you see lots of people standing outside the pyramids and getting photographs taken so that they could say that they have been to the pyramids. They not necessarily need to learn about pharaonic Egypt or how the Great Pyramid was constructed.
People get different things from different types of heritage. If you’re an art historian or an archeologist, you want to really engage with heritage and the past. If you’re a tourist that is in Paris only for a week-end, you go to visit the Louvre for two hours, to see the Mona Lisa and then you go somewhere else to have a cup of coffee. It’s perfectly normal. People have preferences. Some people just like to look at pretty places and beautiful heritage. Other people like, what we call, dark heritage, who leads through holocaust, Soviet times, etc. There’s an interest in everything, so we have to be accommodating, because, back to my first point, cultural heritage has a very widen definition now.
How would you suggest to broaden the audiences of heritage that would become necessary either for each resident, either in political level?
You can’t make people like heritage. Some people like to think of the future rather than of the past. But if you want to talk about heritage and to share the idea of heritage with people, you need to involve them. You need to take them by the hand and show them how important it is to people, local residents or politicians.
I spend a lot of time taking politicians around world heritage sites and telling them how important it is and why. Heritage is important because of many reasons and one of them is that it’s a part of the economy. Politicians take notice of heritage and they understand that they might be able to make some money from it. That happens since the dawn of times and there is nothing wrong with it. It’s quite normal, that once outside palaces and medieval castles, people were selling souvenirs.
So to broaden the audience of heritage is first of all finding what part of heritage exits people, taking it to them and explaining it. I think there’s no real substitute for actually getting people together, taking them around the building, showing them what it means to local people, getting local residents to tell how proud they are of their heritage and their identity. That makes a difference.
It has been a while, that Kaunas is seeking for its interwar modernist architecture to be recognized as UNESCO World Heritage. What do you think of these ambitions of the city?
Kaunas joins, just as any other city in the world, in wanting world heritage status. What I can say, is that, World Heritage is an important label that you have to take seriously. Tourists and visitors also take it seriously. Besides it’s a long process. You have to go through a lot of stages to get world heritage status. Ironbridge has world heritage for forty years now and generally it has a good effect to the town. However, a lot of people, who come to Ironbridge, don’t know that it has the World Heritage label, but it doesn’t change their enjoyment and their opinion of the town. So having UNESCO World Heritage label may be the top accolade that you want, but it isn’t the only think. It is important that it would raise the awareness of heritage that you’ve gotten, amongst the community and the visitors.
Some places are successful in getting World Heritage recognition, some places are not. There are now 1052 World Heritage sites in the world, so it’s very competitive. There are more World Heritage sites in Europe than there are in any other continent. We should help the developing world with their heritage, because it’s probably more important for them to have world heritage status than for us. So there’s lots of other things we can do. I know, Kaunas has a European Heritage Label, which is an important accolade in European sense.
What could this recognition mean to Kaunas? Could it make a change in its daily life?
I don’t think it will change your daily life. Places like Venice, Rome and Taj Mahal were big tourist’s attractions before they became world heritage. They have always been popular places. Many places which have a World Heritage label, don’t have a massive increase in tourism because there’s lots of competition. Maybe in a longer period it may make a change but probably unlikely.
Having said that, you do get, what I call a “feel good factor” because it makes people proud and that’s a very important thing. It makes people more inspired to protect their heritage, to understand and to share it more. I think that’s wonderful and that’s part of the process. Besides, when you sign the World Heritage Convention, you don’t just sign to protect a particular element, you sign to protect all of your heritage. That’s important part of it as well.
I don’t believe it changes people’s daily lives, but hopefully, people will gradually become aware that the place they’re living in is important and that it speaks to a wider audience. But it takes time, nothing changes over night.
The main interest in your work lies on the connection between cultural heritage and tourism. Could you tell us a little more about your researches on the subject?
Wherever you get heritage, you find tourists. People have a natural curiosity to the past. So if we are to understand heritage, we need to understand why people visit it, what is the emotional experience that they have and what engagement do they have with different types of heritage. It might be a little problematic. Take a look at the palace of Versailles, just outside Paris, or the Tower of London, which gets an incredible number of tourists. However, we don’t really understand what people think of it. Lots of people go there, they walk around, take photographs and that’s it. We have to try to understand a little bit more about how people engage with heritage as a tourist.
If you ask people, what they did on their holidays, they would often say, that they’ve went to the museum. Now, did they go to their local museum recently? No, they became tourists and they went to somebody else’s museum. That’s why we need to look at these transcultural dimensions. Besides we now have a very big Chinese market. How somebody from China would make sense of European heritage? I’m interested in those big questions about how we communicate different pasts and different cultures, because heritage is a part of the wide cultural profile. How do we communicate it to tourists and how do tourists make sense of these things? Tourism is a global industry. Everybody is a tourist now, even if they’re tourists in their own country. Trying to understand the dynamics between heritage and tourism is really important. And I come back to the point, heritage and tourism are important economic drivers. So we have to understand them from that point of view as well as identity point of view.
Could the connection between heritage and tourism could be a bit tighter in Kaunas as well, if its architectural heritage was recognized by UNESCO?
I don’t know, if you would get significant increases of international tourists. Domestic tourists – maybe, but I really wouldn’t be concerned about that. I think, if you value and you want to preserve something that is interesting, you’re not just preserving it for tourists. You’re preserving it for future generations as well. Who knows anything about the future? Who knew that Prague, a historical capital, is going to be a massive international tourist’s destination forty years ago? It was a part of Europe, but it was closed for the rest of the world. We never know these things.
I think Kaunas clearly has a lot to offer, but it has to try make itself visible. UNESCO label would help but there are many other things you need to do as well. There are many important things, such as how do people get here. If you were a Chinese tourist who wants to experience Europe and who only has two weeks of a very hard worked for holidays, would you go to Kaunas or Paris? That’s a decision. That’s why Kaunas must think about the segment of the market it’s trying to attract and to be a little bit more focused. There are lots of things you can do around these things, to increase the profile. It doesn’t just rest on UNESCO status.
What do you think of Kaunas in general? Could this city be interesting for the foreigners and what for? Is it only the heritage that can attract people to visit our country or city?
I’ve visited Lithuania many times, but that’s my first visit in Kaunas and I would like to find out more about it because I know very little about it.
People don’t go to places just because of heritage. They go to places because there is an event, because they visit friends and relatives or simply because the scenery is nice. Kaunas is not what I would call a typical historic center. It’s not like Vilnius, Tallinn or Riga. Kaunas cannot compete with these towns, so you got to find something which is a little bit more extinctive. I think that the critical mass of interwar modernist architecture that you have here has a very good story to tell. I don’t know what that story is at the moment, but seeing all the buildings, I want to learn more about what the overall story is. Tourists are moved by stories and I’m sure that, like everyone else in the world, Kaunas has an important story to tell.

Video: Marius Paplauskas