Participatory Governance of Cultural Heritage

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Participatory Governance of Cultural Heritage

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About the Theme


Participatory governance models and community and local engagement are increasingly felt to be an integral part(1) of culture and heritage policies.

‘Cultural heritage is’, as a recent Commission Communication suggested(2), ‘a shared resource and a common good’; looking after it must therefore be ‘a common responsibility’. The Communication acknowledges that conservation is increasingly ‘people-centred. Old approaches sought to protect heritage by isolating it from daily life. New approaches focus on making it fully part of the local community. Sites are given a second life and meaning that speak to contemporary needs and concerns.’

The digital shift and new forms of social networking and online accessibility enable unprecedented forms of engagement. Museums are increasingly community-oriented, led by people and stories, proposing heritage-based narratives that weave the personal stories of community members into the interpretation of larger historical events(3).

The adoption of a participatory approach is now well rooted in several EU Programmes, such as the European Capitals of Culture(4). The broadening notion of cultural heritage, encompassing tangible, intangible and digital resources, enlarges the spectrum of ownership, making local engagement and shared responsibility a necessity for sustainable management. Historic cities, towns and villages engage citizens and communities in taking in proper consideration of heritage resources, including those valued by local communities or under-represented areas, in their plans for the future(5). This ensures that their vitality, sense of identity and cultural diversity are kept alive, while generating sustainable growth and employment.

Effective participatory governance frameworks are increasingly key to facilitating cross-cutting policies, enabling heritage to contribute to different policy areas, including smart, sustainable and inclusive growth by:

  • stimulating active citizenship;
  • increasing trust between public authorities and people;
  • improving the transparency and accountability of public bodies;
  • activating civic participation of people with a migrant background; and
  • fostering social cohesion.

Although this shift is increasingly accepted, its practical implementation is not always easy to apply. The Culture Ministers of the European Union, in their Council Conclusions of November 2014, therefore invited Member States to develop multi-level and multi-stakeholder governance frameworks and promote the involvement of relevant stakeholders by ensuring that their participation is possible at all stages of the decision-making process. As cultural heritage is one of four priorities in the new Work Plan for Culture (2015-2018), along with accessibility and cultural diversity, it is pertinent that one of the ‘Open Method of Coordination’ working groups deals with ‘participatory governance of cultural heritage’. The aim is to identify innovative approaches to multi-level governance of cultural heritage that involve the public sector, private stakeholders and civil society.

Building on earlier work of the Commission, UNESCO, ICOMOS, the Council of Europe and other national bodies and suggesting a series of principles for good governance, Shipley and Kovacs (for the Canadian Institute of Good Governance(6)) also underline the need for active ‘citizen participation… at all levels of decision-making’; from grassroots initiatives to cultural policy. However, they also highlight the fact that effective participation is dependent on a ‘supportive democratic context’: one built on a respect for human rights and a rejection ‘of discrimination based on gender, race, colour, ethnicity or religion’. The involvement of an active civil society, they suggest, is not only needed to build a sense of ‘trust’ between stakeholders but also to act as a balance to political power.

A later, but important, addition to these principles is a recognition that ‘the traditions of all those involved’ need to be recognised – not just the buildings, historic sites (or prevailing narratives) of the dominant ethnic, religious or cultural groupings. This is a principle that may need to be constantly examined in terms of what we mean by real ‘participation’ and ‘representation’(7) within cultural governance, especially when few countries have a bottom up process for involving local communities in the designation of heritage.(8)

Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation (1969) offers a model of participation that starts with the passive exchange of information, moves through a more two-way consultation and finally reaches an open exchange of ideas involving real partnership.(9) The challenge for realising genuine participatory governance of cultural heritage is whether the partnership between governments and civil society can move beyond what Arnstein calls ‘tokenism’ to shared problem solving.

In this shared problem-solving exercise, civil society often plays the role of promoter or mediator in engaging communities, local population, cultural institutions and stakeholders in innovative approaches to valuing and managing cultural heritage. Their voice is needed in order to explore how a participatory approach may contribute to addressing public resources better, as well as building public trust in policy decisions on heritage management – thereby increasing and balancing social and economic benefits for the territories concerned – and whether more should be done to make full use of the opportunities it opens up.

This state of affairs could suggest a discussion on the themes of Participatory Governance of Cultural Heritage, focusing on the following set of questions (list not exhaustive):

  • In the context of the described shift, what is the added value of a people-centred and community-oriented approach for quality heritage policies? What are the opportunities to be seized?
  • In the same context, what are the challenges and barriers to be addressed for an effective participation?
  • In order to address challenges, what are the lessons to be learned from existing practices throughout EU Member States?
  • In order to address challenges, what are the lessons that can be drawn from other EU programmes, including the European Capitals of Culture?

(1) The Third UNESCO World Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries: ‘Culture, Creativity and Sustainable Development. Research, Innovation, Opportunities,’ shares this aspiration. ‘Inclusive economic and social development’, it states, ‘requires ‘transparent, participatory and informed systems of governance for culture (involving) a diversity of voices… in policy-making processes that address the rights and interests of all members of society.’
(2) Towards an integrated approach to cultural heritage for Europe.
(3) Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum:
(9) The Guide to Effective Participation by David Wilcox, 1994:

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Brainstorming session
2-3 July 2015, Florence/Italy


The Brainstorming Session on Participatory Governance of Cultural Heritage took place on 2-3 July 2015 in Florence/Italy. It was attended by representatives from a broad range of disciplines, all of whom have a stake in ‘participatory governance of cultural heritage’, this included: academic researchers and practitioners, R&D specialists, museums and cultural heritage administrators and managers, librarian and documentation specialists, and arts professionals from sound, music, opera, dance, and theatre. You can find the agenda Download Symbolhere and the list of participants Download Symbolhere.

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Brainstorming Report


The Brainstorming Report summarised the discussion held during the Brainstorming Session in Florence/Italy. This document has been edited by an editorial team, coordinated via online digital means. You can download it here.

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Dialogue Meeting
22 September 2015, Brussels/Belgium


The Dialogue Meeting took place on 22 September 2015 in Brussels/Belgium. The Brainstorming Report on Audience Development via Digital Means was presented to the European Commission. The presentation was followed by a discussion on the results.