Culture & ideas

Heritage: No money for old stones

10 August 2012
El País Madrid

The House of the Faun in Pompeii. The site is symbolic of the lack of funds available to maintain archaeological heritage sites.

The House of the Faun in Pompeii. The site is symbolic of the lack of funds available to maintain archaeological heritage sites.

Cultural heritage is not escaping the austerity cure being dosed out to European countries, starting with those in the south. It’s here where a large part of Europe's historical heritage, and the budget cuts that are affecting them, are concentrated.

The euro crisis and the Peloponnesian War are rarely compared. But look beyond the dark suited men or visionaries in white, and today's financial crisis is indeed as much a threat to the world now as the ancient Greek conflict was back then.

Europe may be saved, but it won’t be the same; neither its citizens nor its heritage. When there is no money for pensions, it seems frivolous to demand it to protect stones. The stones of Greece, however, also deserve respect. On them there took root a political system of universal aspiration called democracy, and above them there arose a certain idea of Europe.

Now, the stones are under threat. Curiously, the cradles of Western history and art today are countries being battered and half-drowned by the succession of crisis followed by cuts followed by yet another crisis. Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal together are home to 122 UNESCO World Heritage sites, or 13 per cent of the global total.

Glorious past

A glorious past which may turn into a twisted future, like that of the Roman Coliseum? The amphitheatre of Vespasian is losing stones, probably because of too much traffic, and is leaning over by 40cm on its southern side, to the horror of the Italians.

So drained are the public budgets, that it was left to shoe entrepreneur Diego Della Valle, to put up 25 million euros to restore the Coliseum, whose inauguration under the Roman Emperor Titus was followed by 100 days of public spectacles. Beautiful Venice is also turning to private health care for help with its hospitals; Bulgari has lined the Bridge of Sighs with its own advertisements to help in its rehabilitation.

Italy is the country with the most sites protected by Unesco (47) and is a savage example that history does not always move forward. The 2.3 billion euros from the 2001 culture budget has dwindled to 1.4 billion for 2012.

That’s why landmarks such as Pompeii and other less famous attractions are crumbling. Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo, journalists of Corriere della Sera, provide numerous examples of the darkness threatening art in their country in their book, “Vandali: L’assalto alle bellezze d’Italia (Vandals: the assault on the beauties of Italy).”

“The only wealth we have left – the scenery, museums, medieval villages – is suffering an assault. And yet it’s just the sector that could be the treasure of the country at this time of crisis,” Stella writes bitterly.

Gangrenous foot

Europe is being torn apart at the classic seams from which it emerged. Germany, so enthused about Greeks and Latins in the 19th century, now looks to Greece as the gangrenous foot it would be a good idea to amputate. The cuts Germany is demanding are thinning out public and private purses: by this past June, the budget of the Greek Ministry of Culture had suffered a reduction of 35 percent, and for 2013 and 2014 other cuts are in the works – less money to protect and to guard.

Perhaps that will make it easier to pull off again what happened in February at the Museum of Olympia, when an armed robbery showed the glaring cost of cutting back on staff and resources. This was further underlined in January, when a Picasso and a Mondrian were stolen at from the National Gallery of Athens, when only one watchman was left to guard the treasures.

“The monuments have no voice; they only have us,” warn Greek archaeologists, trying to protect against the abandonment of Greece’s immense heritage: 17 sites on the Unesco list, 210 museums and collections of antiquities, 250 archaeological exhibitions and another 19,000 declared historic monuments.

And what is happening in Spain? The glory of its past left vulnerable to its shaky future? In Unesco's second-most protected country, with 44 sites, something paradoxical is happening.

Sites will struggle for funding to allow them to be preserve, but fewer will fall victim to the march of development and new building. Víctor Fernández Salinas, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Seville and secretary of the Spanish committee of the ICOMOS, an international non-governmental organisation that advises Unesco, emphasises the good side of the crisis.

The party-days of speculation are over, and with them, the major threats to Spanish heritage. “The greatest damage came from urban projects such as golf courses and skyscrapers fuelled by speculation,” he says.

Tighten the tourniquets

The tourniquets are tightened to choking point in the south, but there are other models. France, which has nothing to brag about either, has also pruned back the heritage conservation bodies' budgets.

In 2012 it budgeted 380.7 million euros, which was 0.2 per cent more than the previous fiscal period – once again, the French bucked the trend. In the UK, English Heritage, the national body responsible for safeguarding the UK’s national heritage, reports that in addition to Big Ben, which is leaning over by 43cm, 3,168 other monuments are at risk, some requiring “significant investment”.

In this multi-speed Europe, Germany is going its own way when it comes to culture. The crisis has made no dent in the cultural budgets that, according to the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), have continued to go up since 2008, helping to fund the country’s more than 6,000 subsidised museums, 150 theatres and 130 orchestras, and 84 operas spread over 81 locations.

Christian Democrat Bernd Naumann, Commissioner for Culture and Media in the second Merkel government, said in May what is unthinkable in other places: “In these disorienting times, cutting cultural budgets would be an audacious act.”  In Germany, after all, “there are more people in museums than on the soccer pitches.”

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