Would you dedicate your time to see beyond borders, explore heritage sites, and share your experience on social media? Eleven heritage buffs from distant geographical regions and diverse backgrounds said yes with no hesitation. The second Social Media Volunteers for Heritage Seminar launched in the courtyard of our seminar venue — the tranquil Wieland Estate. Within its walls our small, global group gathered, sipping coffee and sharing pasteis de nata — Portugese pastries brought from a Paris bakery by Anna, who’s originally from Brazil. Like the pastries, representatives came from distant parts of Europe — Scotland, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and beyond such as Russia, Brazil, and the United States. New volunteers descended on the tiny village of Oßmannstedt with their expectations, which although foggy at first, would soon clear. Each participant arrived eager to learn and contribute to a thriving community of heritage enthusiasts.
We would not be still for long though, as one of our first group activities was to tour the Wieland Estate grounds. Leading the walk was Frank Rochow, a project coordinator for European Heritage Volunteers. Our group set off across the garden as Frank pointed out essential facts about the history of the house and to grasp the significance of the place. Christoph Martin Wieland, a contemporary of German literary giants such as Goethe, Schiller, and Herder, promoted cosmopolitan ideals as well as early notions of a common European identity. Wieland Estate therefore has been a fitting place to host seminars for Social Media Volunteers for Heritage. Frank’s tour served as a preview for our deeper investigations into heritage topics organized by local experts. In the following days, our group accompanied key experts to explore lesser-known aspects of renowned German cultural sites. Our team walked nineteenth century footpaths at Belvedere Castle, contemplated the pulverized former Gestapo barracks in Weimar, and observed the layered patchwork of German-Jewish heritage in Erfurt. Each tour dubbed “afternoon of inspirations” was designed to showcase the hidden, or emergent aspects of heritage sites to prompt us, as heritage volunteers to dig below the surface to unpack the nuances of cultural heritage, before creating a presentation of our own.
On the first day, Bert Ludwig, director of European Heritage Volunteers briefed us on the core concepts and mission of European Heritage Volunteers and Europa Nostra. Well-equipped with the theoretical framework, our team left the initial meeting and headed to the outskirts of Weimar to meet Andreas Pahl, the head gardener at Belvedere Castle.
Our first afternoon of inspirations began with Andreas’ brief history of the baroque palace and the idyllic landscape park. However, these were not the focus of our tour. Instead, Andreas Pahl exposed pieces of the site that the average visitor might miss. Underneath layers of accumulated soil lay a network of stone-paved walking paths from the nineteenth century. Seven years of hard work, and an international team of volunteers working with European Heritage Volunteers have painstakingly brought the trails to the surface again. Andreas Pahl’s passion for restoring the original walking paths highlighted the role that volunteers play in heritage management. Engaging young people to uncover new perspectives of well-known heritage sites preserves the site for future generations of visitors.
Later in Weimar’s medieval city center, Uta Tannhäuser led us on a walk to fill the breaks and gaps of the history of the city, which played an outsized role in Germany’s history. Already touted as the cradle of German literature, Weimar also claims the interwar design school, Bauhaus, as well as the short-lived Weimar republic. Walking around town we saw diverse architecture from an eclectic market square to socialist modernist housing blocks within steps of each other. Uta Tannhäuser would point out a darker history though, one that is often left unsaid. As the site of Hitler’s hated Weimar republic, the Nazi era would leave its built legacy in the city. Uta Tannhäuser took us to what appeared to be a weedy, vacant lot in the courtyard of Weimar’s neoclassical Marstall. Enclosed in the space was in fact an art installation — Zermahlene Geschichte — Crushed History. Once the site of a Gestapo barracks, artists Horst Hoheisel and Andreas Knitz had bulldozers completely destroy the buildings in 1997, but they did not remove the debris, but instead displayed the cement rubble and wooden splinters on the original building’s footprint. Weimar’s difficult history lay in front of us to ponder, clearly destroyed but not erased.
Karin Sczech, our third local expert met us in front of Erfurt’s neo-gothic city hall. She guided our group on a journey through the layers of history of one of Germany’s best preserved medieval cities. Karin Sczech’s tour focused on recent discoveries in Erfurt’s medieval-era Jewish quarter. We enthusiastically followed our guide who invited us to explore the place and to peer beneath the surface. We began in front of the Old Synagogue, which was seized from the Jewish community in a pogrom in 1390 and adapted to a series of uses including a warehouse, a dancehall, and a restaurant. Paradoxically, according to Dr. Maria Stürzebecher, World Heritage Coordinator at the City Of Erfurt, it was the pogrom and subsequent reuse that preserved the building into our times. Currently, the Old Synagogue is a museum devoted to the artifacts and architectural remnants of the fourteenth century Jewish community. Our final stop was a discovery made by Karin Sczech and her team. We entered a dark corridor through a heavy metal door into a dimly lit passage and below us were old stone-lined walls. Water stood at the bottom suggesting its original purpose. Karin Sczech explained that this was what remained of one of the most important religious buildings for the Jewish community of the middle ages: a Mikveh, or ritual bath.
Exhausted after our tour of Erfurt, we met late to discuss group project proposals. Despite our exhaustion, it wasn’t hard to brainstorm topics and divide into small groups. After deciding on a project proposal, and scheduling interviews with the local experts who had led us on our afternoons of inspirations, we jumped into the train ready to explore and gather material for our presentations. For one full day, we heritage investigators delved into our topics. Teams chose diverse themes, from documenting the architecture of one of Erfurt’s socialist housing estates, to researching the history of cobblestone pavement — from creating an animal emblem scavenger hunt in Weimar, to peeling back layers of Jewish heritage in Erfurt. In the evening after gathering photos, stories, and expert interviews, the real work began. Our deadline was eleven that night and we had to furiously arrange our findings into a polished presentation for the following day. Giuseppe Simone and Wolter Braamhorst from Europa Nostra would be in the audience to give their remarks and suggestions to refine our ideas.
Such a brief seminar required that every moment be accounted for. After just four days together, a new generation of Social Media Volunteers for Heritage was ready to head home willing to take on the challenge of volunteering on social media. More importantly however, eleven grateful people from across Europe and beyond welcomed the opportunity to promote heritage causes on social media and to push the boundaries of what it means to advocate for cultural heritage.
text: Jacob Dunn and Inna Starkova
photo credit: Jacopo Ibello
video credit: Anna Karla Almeida