Healing From The Balkan Wars Through Cultural Heritage

Updated on January 3, 2024 by Meg Pier

The Balkan Wars of the 1990s tore apart the region, with conflicts between its diverse ethnicities. This interview with Ing-Marie Munktell, the retired chairman of the board of the Swedish foundation Cultural Heritage Without Borders (CHwB), examines how cultural heritage was used as a tool for re-building peace in Bosnia and Albania.

Ing-Marie Munktell is a medieval historian with 30 years of experience in museum work in senior positions. CHwB was founded in 1995 as an independent non-governmental organization to work in the spirit of the 1954 Hague Conventions for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflicts, natural catastrophes, neglect, poverty or political and social conflicts. CHwB sees its work as a vital contribution to building democracy and supporting human rights.

As former director of the Museum Gustavianum/Uppsala University Museum, Ing-Marie has participated in several international networks of university museums. She is a senior adviser at Uppsala University and is working on a book project about university museums. She is also Chairman of Fredens Hus or 'Peace House' in Uppsala, a position she has held since 2014.

CHwB is neutral when it comes to conflicting parties, but not to the rights of all people to cultural heritage – now and in the future. Let Ing-Marie tell you more about how CHwB works with cultural heritage to help vulnerable groups recover their sense of dignity and empowerment, which in turn can increase the possibilities for reconciliation and fight against poverty.

What Were the Balkan Wars?

Meg: Cultural Heritage without Borders was founded in 1995 as a reaction to the acute and massive aid that was needed due to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. You joined the board in 1999, just a few years later. Can you describe your first visit to the region, and share your impressions?

Ing-Marie: The Balkan Wars took place from April 1992-November 1995, and was the result of the collapse of Communism and the break up of the former Yugoslavia. The Balkan Wars were about political and economic crises, growing nationalism and mistrust among different ethnic groups.

My first visit to the Balkans was in the spring of 2000; I went to Sarajevo with some museum colleagues. As we went from the airport into the city, the unimaginable became a reality. The burned out shells of apartment buildings stand with gaping black windows, like giant monsters. Every other building we passed had bullet holes in the facades. In spite of this, the hillsides around the town were a lush green. In the distance were beautiful mountain slopes with snow-capped peaks, which were mined and, for foreseeable future, not accessible. We were told to keep off grassy areas and just walk on stone pavements in the city; I understood why when during the night I heard explosions very close to the hotel. The reception staff said that many dogs and cats were hit by un-exploded mines.

A devastated Sarajevo after the Balkan Wars
A devastated Sarajevo after the Balkan Wars. Photo: LT. STACEY WYZKOWSKI, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Resurrecting the National Museum, Bosnia

Our mission was to meet colleagues at the National Museum, Zemaljski Muzej, and discuss the future of the Museum, how we could best help our Bosnian colleagues. Cultural Heritage without Borders was already in place at that time and participated in the restoration of the buildings. We sat in a room with no heat, with our outdoor clothes on, and listened to the Director Mrs. Buturovic, who told the long story of the museum's more than a hundred years of existence, and how it had survived three Balkan wars. The former Director was shot and killed while on the roof, as he tried to look over damage to the buildings, which was substantial. The botanical garden was completely destroyed. The collections had been brought somewhere for safe storage. Later during our visit, we heard the heartbreaking story from the librarian Andrea, who during the Balkan Wars carried nearly 200,000 volumes on her back down into the basement, only to bring them up again when the war was over.

After hours of presentations we realized that our meeting had functioned as a sort of debriefing from the difficult Balkan wars years. We also understood that the interest, from the management side, to use the collections in a popular or public manner is not very strong. The Director has the single fax machine in her room and cooperation between the three different departments (archaeological, ethnological and natural history) and among the 60 employees was almost non-existent.

Our first steps were to offer support of technical equipment, heat, and educational equipment. Several loads of surplus equipment was sent to Sarajevo from Swedish museums, an effort that was orchestrated by my colleague Per Kåks.

Kulla Building Kosovo during the Balkan Wars
Kulla building, Kosovo. Photo: Cultural Heritage without Borders (CHwB)

The next step was to provide English language courses to be able to develop our plan for the museum in the areas of communication, education, leadership training and additional training of staff. Field trips to other museums was highly desired, after many years of isolation. To “warm up” our frozen colleagues I made a performance as “Viking Mother.” The idea was to take us on a “time journey” acting as if we were all Vikings. I asked “Where are your horses? I just saw carriages outside, maybe the horses are inside? And what strange clothes you have, not as comfortable as my dress…”The purpose was twofold, firstly that the dissemination of knowledge can and should be enjoyable, and secondly that to show that even a museum director must sometimes step down from the “Ivory Tower” and become part of the team. There would be many visits to Sarajevo over the coming years and together with our colleagues we sometimes took several steps forward, sometimes several steps back.

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Cultural Heritage as a Vehicle for Upholding Human Rights

Meg: Cultural Heritage without Borders is dedicated to rescuing and preserving cultural heritage affected by conflict, neglect or human and natural disasters, and considers its work as a vital contribution to building democracy and supporting human rights. Can you elaborate on that mandate?

Ing-Marie: My own and CHwB´s experience and core belief is that cultural heritage is of decisive importance in ensuring that the respect for human rights is upheld and integrated into peaceful democratic societies. CHwB was the first organization to not only work with restoring buildings and preserve the historical values, but to also realized the impact and importance of memories and identity as a tool for reconciliation.

Private building restored for
Private building restored for "bed and breakfast", Velika Hoca. Photo: CHwB

One of the best examples is the “Kulla” project in Kosovo, which was hit hard in its efforts for independence from Serbia during the Balkan Wars. Civilians were targeted and villages were shelled. NATO carried out air strikes in 1999 which stopped the Serbian forces and some 750,000 refugees came home and about 100,000 Serbs--roughly half of the Serb population in Kosovo--fled in fear for reprisals.

Museums As Platform For Peace and Reconciliation

Meg: You have been member of the CHwB Board since 1999 and served as chair since 2013. I understand that you consider your focus to be using museums as platform for peace and reconciliation. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Ing-Marie: Museums exists for people and can be powerful actors for democracy, promoting diversity and human rights. This is my true belief, but as historian I know very well that museums from medieval ages up to nineteenth and twentieth century mostly existed for educated and rich people. Museums were often exclusive, elitist places that kept people out and collections served to create conflict among people. CHwB has chosen to focus on the “Hague Convention 1954” saying that the World's Heritage belongs to all of us.

Today museums, at their very best, help us to understand the complex world around us, encourage us to reflect on conflicts, poverty, and climate change, and motivate us to contribute with our positive strength. Museums are trusted, although not neutral, spaces.

Balkan wars - The Museum Network, meeting in Pristina, Kosovo.
The Museum Network, meeting in Pristina, Kosovo. Photo: CHwB

After the conflict in Kosovo (1998-99) hundreds of historical buildings were burned and destroyed. “Kulla” is an Albanian word meaning “tower house”...these buildings look like fortified stone houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries and are where large Albanian families lived. Because of their special value for Kosovars, they were particularly subjected to consistent destruction during the worst of the ethnic conflicts. In 2001, CHwB mobilized the first group of professionals and institutions and made it possible for craftsmen of different ethnic groups to work together. Five Kullas were restored and the awareness of cultural heritage was increased among the local population who actively participated in different events around the restoration of buildings.

Another example is the Serai, a communal building, in Velika Hoca. This restoration project in the Kosovo-Serbian enclave gave work to people where there was 70% unemployment and gave hope for collaboration with the villages' Albanian neighbors. Later on, some of the private buildings in this wine-producing village were restored and opened as bed and breakfasts.

Fostering a Discussion About The Balkan Wars and Museum Life

In the spring of 2006, the two ICOM (International Council of Museums) members of the CHwB board, Per Kåks and myself, under the new General Secretary Margareta Husén, invited 16 museum directors from six Balkan countries to a meeting in the University of Uppsala/Museum Gustavianum. The aim was to determine how CHwB could contribute to a network for cooperation between the Balkan museums, a network that would strengthen museums as meeting places for peace and reconciliation. Many of the visiting directors had never met before, some had not met since the Balkan wars broke out. After the first minutes of a bit tense atmosphere, some archaeologists, who had not seen each other since the war started, came together in a big hug. The discussions were loud and very constructive. They all found out how similar their problems were and what joys they shared and they all agreed that the cultural heritage is a common heritage for the world and should be shared and valued equal.

Balkan wars
Museum Network, BMN, in action.

The result of the meeting was the creation of a Western Balkan museum program of regional cooperation. In 2010 the network met again in Uppsala and another step towards a formalization was taken. In 2014, the Balkan Museum Network (BMN) became official, and is now under the direction of the Balkan Museums themselves.

Balkan wars
Photos: CHwB

Every year a conference is organized called "Meet See Do," with different themes and practical/learning workshops. This year 100 delegates came together in Pristina, Kosovo. And the museum sector has now become a vital part of most communities, and is listened to and fosters discussions about social and financial development, human rights, equality and gender perspectives. Two years ago, I myself had the opportunity to act; dressed as “Viking Mother”, I gave a workshop on female leadership.” Just seeing each other, getting to know each other, and sharing competence and ideas is the best way of peace building. A joint exhibition was first discussed in 2006, and a simultaneous exhibition called "1+1: Life and Love" took place in 2011, with eleven separate exhibitions across six countries opening the same day, combined with a Peace Bus Tour through the region.

Pressure From the Outside World Leads to Museum Opening Back Up

Meg: Can you share some of the challenges and successes that have occurred in the region since then?

Ing-Marie: There was so much hope and creative force within the staff of the National Museum/Zemaljski Muzej during our first years of cooperation. The educational activities grew and the leadership training had effects both at the management level and the middle-management level. But the support from the dysfunctional state created by the Dayton agreement was minimal to non-existent. The Federation didn't provide such elementary things as heating and even worse, the staff didn't get paid. In 2012 the Museum was closed completely, it was really a great mischief!

Balkan wars
Photo: CHwB

The curator of the Ethnological collections told me in 2013 that she went to the Museum now and then, just to look after her collections! In the spring of 2015, sitting together with some staff in the backside garden of the Museum, where we had met for the first time in spring 2000, they still had hope for the future and just said, “please let the world know that we need the Museum open to welcome all people in dialogue for the future.” And, finally, the Museum opened again in September of that year. I think it finally happened because of strong pressure from NGOs and museums around the world!

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A Clear Link Between Restoring a Building and Building up Human Relations

Meg: One of CHwB's major initiatives is the Restoration Camps. Can you describe that endeavor?

Ing-Marie: We see our work as a vital contribution to building democracy and supporting human rights. By this we mean “the rights of all people to cultural heritage – now and in the future” and it is our conviction that the Restoration Camps can play an important role in this work! As we see it, there is a clear link between restoring a building and building up human relations, trust, economies, societies--and, indeed, nations! A building is more than just bricks and mortar. It is also a link to the past and part of people's history, security and identity. A link to the past and a door into the future. We promote cultural heritage as an engine for local and regional development. Every project is a potential democratization process that offers countless opportunities to bridge conflicts, promote trust between former enemies, and work on social and economic development.

Restoration Camp, Albania.
Restoration Camp, Albania. Photos: CHwB

The CHwB Regional Restoration Camps represent a very successful model, which grew from a few students in Albania in 2007. Today there are multiple sessions in four countries. The main objectives of the Regional Restoration Camps are to use cultural heritage to build relations among young professionals, creating conditions for reconciliation as a prerequisite for peace and democracy, and to preserve traditional crafts and techniques. Over the course of two weeks, participants take part in engaging lectures and presentations in combination with hands-on restoration work. In 2014, the Camps were honored with the prestigious European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Award in the category of “Education, Training and Awareness-Raising.” The Jury was very impressed by the program's success since 2007, with 649 participants from 26 countries.

Cultural Heritage a Prerequisite for Democracy After Balkan Wars

Meg: It's heartening to see professionals from a particular realm of disciplines mobilize and use their skills and expertise to rebuild not only cultural and historical infrastructure but also the morale and dignity of a people. Do you feel this initiative coming together in Sweden as it did make any statement about Sweden's culture?

cultural heritage without borders
Restoration Camp Albania. Photo: CHwB

Ing-Marie: Sweden has a long history of peace and democracy, no wars for 200 years and in my city of Uppsala we can celebrate peace and no battles for 500 years. Most people in our country believe that cultural heritage is a prerequisite for democracy – meaning a system that gives all citizens space based on respect and tolerance. And cultural heritage is seen as our common memories, no group of people left behind in a kind of homelessness. If there is no past there will be no future. It's a question of identity, social stability and belonging. This is a very strong foundation of Swedish culture.

Meg: CHwB has an impressive board. Can you share a little bit about the members' expertise on museums and the Balkan Wars?

Ing-Marie: From the very beginning of the CHwB foundation, the competence of members of the Board was used as a resource, a kind of “working board.” Many international organizations offer a lot of talk, but no action. The organizers of CHwB wanted to do actual rescue work on the ground. The Board is appointed by ICOMOS Sweden, ICOM Sweden, The Swedish National Heritage Board and The Swedish Association of Architects. It is a massive group of competent people and the very best being part of that Board has been to see all these people use their knowledge in voluntary work. It is impossible and not fair to mention just some, all have contributed!

Managing Relations Between Sweden Society and Cultural Life

Meg: Because of the special importance of the CHwB's founding members’ involvement, professional experience and occupational positions, from its very beginning, the Foundation was able to nurture close relations with various parts of Swedish society and cultural life. Can you share some examples of such relationships and their impact?

Ing-Marie: The organization has been financed by Sida, (the Swedish International Cooperation Development Agency), EU, EAR (European Agency for Reconstruction), different Swedish companies and private donors. From start the group who initiated the foundation realized that to get broad public back-up for their ambitions, they needed to engage many in the role as founders, but also needed to formulate the statutes in a way that granted direct connections to other institutions responsible for heritage. The chairperson of the Swedish Red Cross, the Princess Christina, accepted to be the first among the founders. The political sphere was represented by three former ministers of culture, while other interests in Swedish society were represented by the Director of Swedish heritage, the chairperson of the Swedish UNESCO council, the Bishop of Stockholm, the heads of learned academies, and the chairpersons of ICOM, ICOMOS, and the Secretary General of the architects organization. Without the broad support from the founders, the foundation would not have survived the first years and the financing via Sida would not have been possible.

The Many Commitments of Ing-Marie Munktell Following Balkan Wars

Meg: Your career has spanned working at a variety of museums dedicated to a range of cultural dimensions, including serving as the director of the Göta Canal and Shipping Museum and The Uppsala Art museum, and head of pedagogic department of the Museum of National Antiquities. Can you share what such a breadth of experience has brought to your perspective?

Ing-Marie: When I became Director of the Canal and Shipping museum I didn't know much about boats and shipping, but my favorite museum as child was a Maritime museum. It was a small museum and I learned all the basic things about how to run a museum. My colleagues were engineers and craftsmen with huge competence so I had to listen and learn. Coming from the university and the world of Academia, it was a very useful approach to embrace. I knew a bit more about art so in my next job I could focus on how to reach out to broad audiences, which has been my core interest during all years. My role as Director has always been leadership in combination with “acting”, in the Swedish History museum I was known as the “Viking mother." I have learned different things in all of the museums--about myself, my staff and my audience but the common thing about my leadership positions is that if you climb down from your “Ivory Tower” as Director you will have success and serve all parts the very best.

Meg: You are the chairperson of the "Peace House" in Uppsala. Could you describe the organization, and your involvement?

Ing-Marie: The House of Peace was established 2006 and is situated at the Castle of Uppsala. The focus is peace work among children and youth, meaning working at a grass roots level with training and dialogue around anti violence, anti-mobbing, and anti racism. Schools are the most important target group. Since 2006, more than 160, 000 young people have learned about peace building by discussing the Balkan Wars.

As chairperson of the House of Peace for three years, I have been involved in supporting the leadership and creating a sustainable administrative platform for the existence of the House. People working in NGOs are often “burning souls” with high risk to burn out and therefore it is so important that the platform is strong enough to be sustainable. My involvement has also included working with exhibitions, texts, openings etc.

I was very happy to be able to work with students from the Department of Peace and Conflict research at Uppsala University in the production of “Women Peacemakers.” The gender perspective was not very visible in the exhibitions before 2016. I also had the opportunity to work with students from Uppsala University in the Dag Hammarskjöld Youth Leader Training. Students from all over the world were invited for one week training in the spirit of our famous U.N. leader Dag Hammarskjöld. For me it was a pleasure to talk about female leadership.

Crafting Access Program by Cultural Borders Without Heritage Albania

Meg: I am a huge craft aficionado and feel it is a really meaningful way to access people's culture. Can you tell me about the Crafting Access program?

Balkan wars
CHwB Albania's Crafting Access program is bringing back traditional skills. Photos: CHwB

Ing-Marie: Crafting Access is a very young program that CHwB Albania started together with the Balkan Museum Network last year. Namely, the training is aimed at bringing together local artisans with curators of museums to exchange their learning on accessible re-produced artifacts for education and promotion purposes. The further goal with this training is to work with cross-border areas to stimulate good neighborly relations. The first training that was held in Gjirokastra last year brought together practitioners from Greece and Albania.

The Balkan Wars has had its impact on all walks of life. However, the heritage craft, or more precisely the techniques of building repair has had their "renaissance" since the Balkan wars. These skills have been completely brought back because of the need to reconstruct cultural heritage with traditional skills and methods.

CHwB's "Make It Yours" Program Leads to Peace-Building and Reconciliation

Meg: I know that for a tradition to be designated by UNESCO as an "item of intangible cultural heritage," it needs to be considered as "living" and evolving. I was intrigued by learning about a graffiti workshop and to see that students were studying ancient designs to use in this very contemporary way of self-expression. Can you describe any ways in which CHwB seeks to engage young people in carrying on cultural traditions?

Ing-Marie: The "Make It Yours" program is from aimed at engaging a large array of stakeholders within society and attempt to make them/us take responsibility and share the ownership of cultural heritage while engaging practically. The goal was to have taxi drivers, doctors, students, etc, plaster a facade, build a wall, hew a timber, and, by doing that, to learn about how the historical buildings are made. Engaging practically is fun, it creates a very strong connection to the item/building/site, and stimulates a different type of commitment. You know, when you create something, you would be very upset if someone is not careful with your creation. Well, this subconscious understanding of the importance of heritage is what we aim for with "Making It Yours." Heritage is alive as long as we make it relevant for people to engage in, understand, participate, appreciate and eventually preserve.

Balkan wars - CHwB's Make It Yours program seeks to make heritage relevant, practical & meaningful.
CHwB's Make It Yours program seeks to make heritage relevant, practical & meaningful. Photos: CHwB

Meg: I love the idea of the "Make It Yours" program. Can you share how the program is presented, and how it relates to reconciliation and peacekeeping?

Ing-Marie: “Make it Yours!” is educational and awareness raising campaign that has challenged the prevailing notion of cultural heritage as belonging to a particular ethnic group. Destruction of cultural heritage during the Balkan wars and divisions that now exist in B&H society left huge marks on the people across the country. The symbols of multicultural life disappeared with the destruction of heritage, as well as their pride in their common heritage. Nowadays, people live in divided communities, children go to divided schools where they learn different languages, and histories. Trust among people has not recovered, the unemployment rate is high, and political situation is very difficult. The differences are used to cause division rather than be celebrated as diversity.

balkan wars
Photo: CHwB

In such an environment, the interest in culture and heritage is very low. The potential of cultural heritage to support sustainable urban and rural growth, to generate income and a vibrant creative sector is not recognized by local stakeholders. It is important that heritage is not hijacked for narrow political agendas and that the ownership of it is multi-layered and with many voices, and is a force for demonstrating the strength of diversity in community life.

During the work in this country, CHwB contributed to peace-building and the reconciliation process by implementing different programs. One of the programs is the “Make It Yours!” The aim of the project was to increase the sense of ownership among citizens of B&H, and to confront them with standard prejudices and misunderstandings of concepts of heritage. The project also aimed to increase the sense about their role in the preservation and the importance of our heritage, and also to understand that heritage is common and belongs equally to all people.

This program was inspired by the campaign implemented in Albania and Kosovo by CHwB Kosovo and CHwB Albania. It is ongoing program that had a very intense period full of activities during 2014 and 2015 in Bosnia and Herzegovina (due to the funding provided by EU) and is now integrated in all activities that CHwB is doing.

The project in B&H had a large number of activities designed to different target groups, including children, students, ordinary people, professionals. During 2014 and 2015, several hundred people from different parts of B&H participating in a variety of activities related to promotion and preservation of the common heritage. Participants symbolically contributed to restoration of one of the oldest hamams in Sarajevo, and learned more about traditional music, architecture, and crafts.

As part of the project, CHwB BiH led a year-long campaign in the media and online, and produced several short movies and one documentary about cultural heritage. As part of the project, CHwB BiH issued a toolkit for high schools and cultural institutions about the cultural heritage of B&H and established a news portal “Cooltural Heritage,” the only portal dedicated to cultural heritage. Each workshop was designed in a way that participants were coming from different parts of BiH, different entities (Federation and Republic of Srpska), which enabled excellent interaction and created space for sharing ideas and creativity. It was added-value to the regular school curricula.

During the project, for the first time ever, some participants visited Sarajevo and museums that preserve valuable heritage of all the people of B&H. This was there unique opportunity to see the town, feel its energy, meet new people and enrich their knowledge. Also, at several workshops for the first-time people of different ethnic groups got together to learn about their heritage, and contribute to its protection.

The value of this project does not lie in numbers of participants, activities, media coverage--but the impact that had on every individual that contributed to any parts of it.

The owner of Hadëri with a representative from CHwB office in Gjirokastra, just before emergency conservation of the house following the Balkan Wars.
The owner of Hadëri with a representative from CHwB office in Gjirokastra, just before emergency conservation of the house following the Balkan Wars. Photo: CHwB

Cultural Heritage without Borders in Albania

Meg: I understand CHwB's work in Gjirokastra has been significant. What can you tell me about it?

Ing-Marie: Gjirokastra is a city in southern Albania, situated in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino River, 300 meters above sea level. Its old town is a UNESCO World Heritage SIte, described as a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town, built by farmers of large estate. Many houses in Gjirokastër have a distinctive local style that has earned the city the nickname "City of Stone", because most of the old houses have roofs covered with flat dressed stones.

cultural heritage without borders
Photo: CHwB

Gjirokastra's buildings are protected by Albanian legislation and divided into two categories. The first category means that the monument needs to be preserved in its totality; no changes can be done and it needs to conserved as it is. Only essential repairs in order to keep the monument in well-maintained condition are allowed. It is a monument of a highest level of protection. The second category means the building needs to be preserved from the outside--its proportions, usage of materials, window openings etc, all needs to remain as it was, but owners can make an appropriate/sensible change in the interior.

In Gjirokastra, the preservation of cultural heritage is hindered by many challenges. One of those is the ownership issue. Due to the communist legacy of expropriation of private property, buildings were taken away from many owners, and then they were given back to them in the post-Communist phase. However and in the meantime, the original owner would not leave a will or anything, so the property gone back to all the lawful inheritors making Gjirokastra houses being owned up to 80 owners. The ownership conditions make it very difficult task to preserve these monuments.

Many of the buildings in Gjirokastra bear the name of their owners. The owner of the historic Haderi building is a lucky one, he shares this big house with "only" 3 other owners. But living in a transitional society is not easy. There is a lot of unemployment, poverty, and people have no cash to sustain themselves day to day. So, in practical terms they consider themselves materially poor, while actually having to own the property such as Haderi actually makes you very wealthy. I guess this is a contradiction that is hard and on the state and on the owner. The owner of Hadëri house doesn't have money to safeguard his house--his wealth--but neither does the state have the money to protect it as a value for a whole human mankind. This is why we are trying to work with stimulating interest in these properties and stimulating restoration of them, where by preserving their values one could develop a sensible business function that could generate profit.

Closing the Gap on Gender Equality in the Balkans

Meg: Are there other initiatives that you feel are particularly noteworthy?

Ing-Marie: In 2006, some female CHwB colleagues realized that women in the Balkan museums, even those in leadership positions during the Balkan Wars, had worse conditions than men. They often experienced discrimination in different ways, concerning salaries, career planning and as people. We decided to start a female group for discussion and leadership support. Thanks to our project coordinator Diana Walters, the female network in 2012 grew into the WILD – Women´s International Leadership Development, which supports women in the cultural sector of the Balkans to come together and strengthen their voices.

Members of a Women’s International Leadership Development discussion group.
Members of a Women’s International Leadership Development discussion group. Photo: CHwB

Another important branch of CHwB has been a partnership with Stavros Niarchos Foundation since 2007 to help museums to have greater understanding of the needs of disabled visitors to ensure access in all museum activities. Diana Walters introduced the “social model approach,” meaning that it is the community itself which disables people, raising obstacles which could easily be solved. Which has been very successful.

The South East European (SEE) Heritage Network is a voluntary, independent, NGO that gathers organizations from South East European countries which believe that cultural, ethnic and religious diversity is a valuable social resource. By gathering NGOs that are willing to contribute to protecting and promoting South East European heritage as part of our common European and world heritage, SEE creates the framework for creating synergies and testing innovative ideas.

A Hopeful Future Following Balkan Wars

Meg: Was there a formative experience you had that inspired your commitment to peace and reconciliation?

Ing-Marie: I had no formative experience that inspired my commitment to peace and reconciliation. My background is in a non-academic family, farmers and craftsmen and a country (Sweden) where we have been living in peace for 200 years. But growing up in the fifties and sixties also meant a lot of war-political discussions. My father was a strong peace activist and at school I learned that it was important to speak up and take action for your beliefs. War has always frightened me and as a student in the sixties/seventies I took part in different peace movements.

Meg: Cultural Heritage without Borders' three offices in the Balkans became independent in 2015. Looking back and looking ahead, are there any observations, feelings, aspirations?

CHwB staff from the offices in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo convene in 2013.
CHwB staff from the offices in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo convene in 2013. Photo: CHwB

Ing-Marie: CHwB staff from the offices in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo met the Swedish CHwB Board in Gjirokastra, Albania in spring 2013 to discuss the future of the organization. Very soon we came to the conclusion that our three “babies” now had matured and grown into a capacity where they could stand on their own legs, and the process of independence could start. It was a long process with a lot of discussions before the agreements finally were signed in end of 2015. But all discussions were held in a very positive way, the statutes and the core values were very easy to agree upon and in the end also different views on law and economy could be solved. I felt that we all had grown up and learned from each other, and there was a strong feeling that we wanted to continue working together using our best models for peace and reconciliation. And as chair, I'm very proud of what we have all achieved over the years! Together we are now stronger than ever before and many organizations are looking to us and are seeking partnership for future projects. Although we now have problems financing our office in Stockholm, we are hopeful for the future because the network is so strong.

Dealing with Cultural Destruction in Syria Post Balkan Wars

Meg: Do you envision cultural heritage being increasingly used as a tool to promote human rights, peace-building and democratic development? What do you think the necessary catalysts are to build a movement behind this?

Ing-Marie: Since the war in Syria broke out, there has been a huge international interest in the effects of destroyed cultural monuments and the dealing with cultural objects being for sale on an open market. There is also a deep understanding of immaterial heritage now being lost for generations, like songs, food, stories and what that means for people as refugees in different countries.

Thousands of Syrians are now in Sweden. CHwB produced two years ago a book called “Timeless Tales,” folktales told by Syrian refugees. The stories were collected from displaced Syrians and Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The book is about the living tradition of oral storytelling that still exists in Syria and other countries of the Middle East. For generations, this oral tradition has been considered as a common denominator for solidarity across ethnic, geographic and religious boundaries. The anthology will be distributed as widely as possible in Sweden and the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa” region) region followed by storytelling performances. For the first time, CHwB is involved in the rescue of immaterial cultural heritage rescue that is in close proximity to our everyday life. This is where peace building begins.

Syrian story-telling lives on in Sweden.
Syrian story-telling lives on in Sweden. Photo: CHwB

I can also see how universities around the world are taking up cultural heritage as a tool for peace building. Nowadays, scholarships are more frequently given for young architects and archaeologists to do post graduate studies abroad in fields like urban conservation and heritage work. When the Council of the European Union 2014 adopted "Conclusions on cultural heritage as a strategic resource for a sustainable Europe" it was a strong signal about the importance heritage plays in creating and enhancing social capital, as well as its important economic impact.

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Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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