From Peterborough to Tbilisi – A European Heritage Days Exchange

Did you know that almost every European country has a version of Heritage Open Days? Well, in 1991 the Council of Europe and the European Commission set up European Heritage Days (EHD) to raise appreciation for Europe’s rich and diverse cultural assets and their need for care and protection. Fast forward almost 30 years and it’s flourished into a fantastic festival here in England – but what about in other European countries? With the support of the Council of Europe myself and my Georgian counterpart, Salome, embarked on a fact-finding exchange to share experiences, tips and tricks between two EHD programmes that are over 2,200 miles apart! Here’s what happened…

Salome taking a photo of the incinerator at Peterborough Energy Recovery Facility © ChrisLacey

A roadtrip with a difference…Salome’s experience in England

My trip to England was a whirlwind tour where I travelled through Gloucestershire, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Staffordshire, visiting multiple events along the way. I accompanied Andy and HODs photographer, Chris Lacey, as they captured the people and places taking part in the festival with the aim of producing images that could be used in future promotion.

My experience of EHD in England was that their programme offers huge diversity in terms of the nature of the events and the activities and places to discover. People have the opportunity to visit and explore both natural and cultural heritage, finding out what these places are preserving for future generations. The experiences on offer vary greatly, from pure relaxation through to education and entertainment. Something that surprised me on my visit was the chance to explore the heritage of tomorrow. Peterborough Energy Recovery Facility was one of these sites, where I attended a guided tour. It was one of the most fascinating and exciting places I have ever visited.

However, the highlights of my experiences in England were not just the places and sites that I saw, but meeting enthusiastic volunteers, whose passion and dedication is admirable and gave me such positive energy.

3 cities in 3 days…Andy’s experience in Georgia

Although the Georgian EHD programme is far smaller than ours, what it lacks in quantity, it certainly makes up for in quality. I visited several events during my time in Georgia, the first an outdoor screening of a silent film from 1927 in Tbilisi, which was accompanied by a live performance of a new electronic soundtrack. The following day we drove out to the East of the country, to visit Telavi Museum. Here they held multiple events, including painting classes, a special exhibition on European art, a panel discussion and a series of traditional songs and dances. On my final day, we visited the city of Kutaisi to the West of the country, where several special exhibitions were complemented by hands-on crafts and musical performances. 

The interior of a church at the monastic complex of Gelati near Kutaisi - founded in 1106 and now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site

What was noticeable within these events was the number and variety of different groups (musicians, academics, food producers, dancers, artists and more) brought together to make them a success. In turn these different groups each attracted different types of audiences, leading to an impressive diversity of visitors attending the events. We’ve seen some fantastic collaborations in our own HODs programme over the years but visiting Georgia has certainly given me food for thought about how going forwards we can more actively facilitate and support partnership building amongst our organisers.

The other thing that struck me from my visit was the emphasis that the Georgian EHD programme places on heritage that goes beyond bricks and mortar - song, dance, poetry, costume, food etc. At each of the events I discovered more about the unique identities and traditions of the different regions of the country, which for the most part, appear to be common knowledge among Georgians. However, I’m slightly embarrassed to say that when asked about the regional costumes, dances, songs and food of England, my answers could not stretch much beyond Morris dancers and jellied eels (I grew up near the East End of London). HODs does a great job of celebrating local places, but is there more that we can do both at a national and local level to highlight (and even bring back) some of our less tangible regional traditions and heritage?

Georgia is a fantastic country packed full of incredible sites, wonderful food (and wine!), and some of the warmest, kindest people I’ve ever met. It’s somewhere I would never have previously considered visiting, but I’m very glad that I did and would recommend others to do the same. My experiences there have given me loads of ideas and inspiration for our own HODs programme – it’s a good thing there’s almost a whole year to make them happen!