I believe this is a word that one never gets tired of hearing after being honored with Europe’s most prominent award in the Heritage field, the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award. Have you ever wondered though, what follows once the lights fade? What effect does such an important award have on the receiver and, most importantly, on the country and the local community that he/she comes from? On more than one occasion, I have become emotional admiring and -I admit- was a bit jealous of the hard-working people whose efforts over the course of years gained the recognition they deserved. But I have also wondered, “What happens next?”
Is the prize itself the purpose, the final destination, or should it be used as a stepping stone for the receiver to further develop the awarded project?
Often, this kind of achievement belongs to those pieces of news we hear during our busy daily lives that make us proud for our fellow countrymen but that are soon forgotten. How beautiful it is when a distinction not only makes the local community proud but actually helps it as well. And what about the local government? Should the local officials only be interested in taking photos with the laureate during the award ceremony or can they themselves make a meaningful contribution to the advancement either of the awarded project, or of another project by a scientist trying to excel and have a positive impact on his/her country? So, let’s find out what happened to the Greek project HERMES and its developer Dr. Pavlos Chatzigrigoriou after it was awarded by Europa Nostra in 2015.
HERMES? WHAT’S THAT?
Allow me to paint you a mental picture by transferring you to Syros, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and more specifically to its capital, Hermoupolis. A town some 200 years old, it is unique in that its architectural make-up of more than 1,000 buildings has remained intact, almost in its entirety, since its foundation to the present day. It is here that the idea of HERMES was born in 2002, when Pavlos witnessed the collapse of a neoclassical monument and was affected not only by the great loss itself, but also of its acceptance by the competent bodies. So, while working as the Head of Planning and IT in the Municipality of Syros, he started developing HERMoupolis Digital Heritage Management (HERMES) for his PHD research thesis. It started as a Conservation Plan to save the highest number of historic houses with the lowest possible budget. After ending his research, the project was transformed into an online platform aimed at raising awareness and updating a database, with open data, so that anybody could contribute to this Conservation Plan. That made the difference which attracted Europa Nostra’s attention.
It is also necessary to place the project into the context of the current Greek reality. You can only imagine the effect that economic crises have had on the funding of research on and on the preservation of cultural- and especially architectural heritage which is in the process of decay. Thus, a cost-effective and sustainable conservation plan such as HERMES, which is based on priority assessments, would be an even more valuable management tool of perishing Greek heritage during these times of limited resources.
DISSEMINATION ACROSS EUROPE
No matter how valuable HERMES could prove to be for heritage, especially during the current Greek crisis, its dissemination in our country would be difficult: I remember Pavlos once telling me that it is easier to be accepted in Greece after your work has been acknowledged abroad. Thus, HERMES spread its wings and started its journey across Europe in 2013, receiving the Best Paper Award at the Digital Heritage International Congress 2013 in Marseilles. The award that would be the cornerstone of HERMES’s later success came in 2015, however, when the project was honoured with Europe’s most prestigious prize in the heritage field, the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage / Europa Nostra Award in the category Research and Digitization.
Since then, HERMES has enjoyed remarkable diffusion across Europe. A few months later, Pavlos was chosen by the Greek Government to present HERMES as a “good practice” example for the 8th Quality Conference in European Public Administration (EIPA) in Luxembourg. Another six international conferences followed, among them the Culture Forum 2016, for which he was invited by the European Commission to present HERMES in a special session on Heritage. The last few months have also been very significant for the project’s spread. In September 2016, Pavlos was invited by The Best in Heritage event in Dubrovnik to present HERMES during a special session called IMAGINES, consequently becoming a member of the Excellency Club. The latest presentation was made in November at the 6th International Euro-Mediterranean Conference on Digital Cultural Heritage in Cyprus, where he was also the Chair of the Paper Review Committee.
IMPACT AT THE LOCAL LEVEL
Apart from the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage/ Europa Nostra Award being a decisive factor for HERMES’s promotion in Europe, we should not forget to look at its impact on the project’s birthplace. For starters, the project has helped Pavlos achieve one of his most significant goals: raising awareness for Hermoupolis’ heritage on a local and national level. This is a matter of the utmost importance, since the town has neither taken much advantage of its rich and unique cultural heritage, nor has it taken the necessary steps to preserve it. Moreover, the award and the subsequent diffusion of the project has had a positive effect on the efforts to enlist Hermoupolis as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since it attracted the attention of the international community of heritage experts (and the European Heritage Lobby).
Success can however sometimes be a double-edged sword, especially in Greece.
HERMES, in its battle for the protection of cultural heritage, was exceptionally equipped against the threat of the (Greek) financial crisis. However, it had not taken into consideration the threat of the local political status quo. It is a common reality in the Greek political life: When a change occurs in the political scenery, successful projects that were developed during the previous administration, even if they were politically independent, are ignored or even challenged by the new political entity. It is indeed sad when the effort to engage the community and raise awareness for crucial matters, such as the preservation of cultural heritage, is mistaken for political propaganda. HERMES was unfortunately confronted with this phenomenon, but I hold on to some thoughts that Pavlos shared with me regarding these circumstances:
”Saving heritage is a constant battle. Research and innovation is demanding and needs to overcome obstacles. Politics are a not a problem but a challenge. We need to find ways to keep negative people outside of our work and… just keep moving forward.”
FIGHT OR FLIGHT?
Another phenomenon in Greece – one that has emerged in recent years due to the financial situation – is called Brain Drain, and it actually worries me more than the crisis itself. The name refers to the emigration of highly skilled or well-educated individuals in order to find a job and better living conditions elsewhere. In other words, it seems like Greece is no longer able to hold on to its brightest minds. Would Pavlos become one of these minds? The EU Prize for Cultural Heritage/ Europa Nostra Award, in addition to the necessary hard work and personal effort, has offered Pavlos a wide new range of possibilities at an international level.
If you were in his shoes, would you stay in your country, the place that inspired you and gave you all the knowledge, emotions and moments that you carry deep in your heart but that at the same time continues to make it difficult for you to evolve? Or would you go abroad in search of more opportunities, some of them already waiting? Would you fight or fly? Pavlos chose to fly. But his main reason for leaving Hermoupolis and Greece wasn’t the seemingly “easier” path to success via the opportunities presented abroad. As he told me:
”It was the lack of meritocracy and the domination of partisan mentality!” Had he remained in Hermoupolis, HERMES would have passed into oblivion. ”Flying” was the only option.
HERMES BECOMES HERMeS
The question now remains, what is the current state of the awarded project? As the change in its name depicts, it has evolved: instead of HERMES (Hermoupolis Digital Heritage Management), it is now called HERMeS, an acronym for HERitage Management e-System. Its journey continues through research. Today, Pavlos works for the Cyprus University of Technology in the Digital Heritage Research Lab after being offered an EU Marie Curie Fellowship as a Post-Doc to fund the project’s further development. Here HERMeS will have access to all the tools necessary to add to the Tangible Heritage of Historic Buildings and the Intangible Heritage of local stories.
A huge new project will digitise photographs, documents, books, newspapers and other heritage items in order to explore the meta-data and semantics between tangible and intangible cultural heritage.
At the same time, HERMeS has been proposed in two EU funding projects (INTERREG) in six Historic Cities: Limassol (Cyprus), Chios (Greece), Samos (Greece), Corfu (Greece), Ohrid (F.Y.R.O.M.), Gjirocaster (Albania).
Pavlos has left Syros and Greece, but he hopes one day to return under different conditions and use the experience and knowledge that he has gained for the benefit of his beloved island and country. In anticipation of this, one of his newest projects is a Greek not-for-profit NGO composed of young professionals who share the same passion for heritage. The NGO is also named HERMeS which, in this case, is an acronym for ”HERitage Management e-Society”.
The aim of HERMeS NGO ”HERitage Management e-Society” is the documentation, preservation, management and promotion of Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage in all its various forms and manifestations, with the aid of new technologies and digital applications.
There are already proposals for European and even global cooperation, although Pavlos is even more thrilled by the prospect of implementing HERMeS in Greek historic towns (for which several municipalities have already expressed interest). He also thinks that it would be interesting to apply the project in Greek towns included in the Europa Nostra program “7 Most Endangered”, such as Chios and Kastoria.
FOR THE LOVE OF… CULTURE, KEEP GOING!
HERMeS and Pavlos’s journey has had all the elements that make for a good adventure, including excitement and disappointment. Then again, this is usually the case with people who have achieved… well… anything – and the best stories are the ones testifying that hard work does pay off. In my opinion, Pavlos’s success was due to the fact that he managed to forge his own path through hard work and by seizing opportunities presented to him even in the face of adversity. If there is one lesson that I have learnt from my interaction with him, it is to keep going no matter what because creativity, persistence and love for what you do is a very powerful combination. What did Pavlos learn from his adventures in Europe?
“Cultural Heritage – even if it is “local” – is always a global asset. We need to think out of the box and understand that we are part of a bigger picture. If a piece of the puzzle is missing, the picture is not complete. That is why the management and promotion of Cultural Heritage is so important.”
Special thanks to Pavlos Chatzigrigoriou for sharing his experience and thoughts with me.
By Marita Oikonomidou @