Truman, Crispin “A great meeting of minds: the second Future for Religious Heritage conference”

 

 

 

Online conference report

 

Our European Network, Future for Religious Heritage (FRH), came of age in November 2012. 87 members and delegates from 23 countries met in Venice for the new network’s second conference and its first General Meeting. The culmination of two years’ work since the inaugural meeting at Canterbury in 2010, FRH is now formally established as a charity/ ASBL and, more importantly, taking a lead on the debate about the future of historic places of worship in Europe.

Extended use of historic places of worship, the idea that the original use can be sustained if sympathetic community and/or cultural uses are brought in alongside it, was the theme. Members and other delegates came this time because they knew FRH to be a place where they could meet like minds, bring their problems and opportunities, and talk creatively about practical solutions. The question when people came to Canterbury in 2010 was: ‘what is this new network about?’; at Venice in 2012 there was no doubt that FRH is the place where Europe discusses the future of its religious heritage and the only question was ‘how can I pack so much of interest to me into 2.5 days?’. As Lady Frances Clarke, president of Venice in Peril, said at the opening dinner, Venice is the right place to be talking about the future of historic religious buildings and now is the right time.

Venice is the right place to be talking about the future of historic religious buildings and now is the right time.

We kicked off with presentations from Prof. Thomas Coomans of the University of Leuven and myself on the history and meaning of ‘extended use’. Thomas demonstrated that adaptive reuse and the debate surrounding it has been a phenomenon throughout history. Reformation and economic, political and religious change has seen churches used as mosques, Protestant and Catholic swapping and sharing buildings and both secular and religious uses sustaining buildings through times of change. One of many examples was Koln Raskapelle: a synagogue then church then store, then club, then a church again. There have always been very differing views about extended use, but there has always been extended use.

Using case studies from The Churches Conservation Trust in England, I defined extended use as a continuum. Extended use does not have to be dramatic; it ranges from very gentle changes which don’t affect the building, such as increased visitors and occasional concerts, right through to major interventions including some sacrifice of historic fabric. But what extended use always involves is coexistence between community, cultural and worship use. What it achieves is a broader constituency of support for the building: bringing more people, resources and organisations to its aid.

Don Gianmatteo Caputo, Director of the Pastoral Tourism and Cultural Heritage, Patriarchate of Venice, keynote speaker on day 2, described how new use must enter into a complex dialogue with the original use and not obliterate it. That captures for me the essence of extended use and what differentiates it from alternative use where a church is formally closed and turned into something else. We need to get away from the black and white approach to religious ‘versus’ secular use and explore the grey area in between, if we are to help keep many historic places of worship open.

Don Caputo illustrated his point with some of the arts and exhibition uses which had complemented worship in Venetian churches. He talked about how all the senses are important to the experience of historic places of worship. Too often we rely only on the visual experience, when in fact the real joy of a beautiful religious building is also in listening, smell and even touch. How we present our places of worship is therefore of vital importance in our quest to keep them open. The feeling of a building still being used for its essential, spiritual purpose, is often key to a community’s ability to bring it back to life through extended uses.

Over the two days we heard from many parts of Europe and beyond, about the threats to religious buildings and examples of reuse and extended use ranging from complete change – such as a skatepark in a Montreal church to subtle extended uses such as a pilgrimage centre in the Czech Republic church of Neratov. We heard how in Sweden, changes in society are being reflected in the changing use of churches built for a predominantly rural nation. State funds are declining and the debate is about using grants to adapt as well as repair.

We heard about waves of closures of monasteries and churches in the Netherlands but also how the issue has successfully gained national attention and that the state is now contributing to 50% of repair costs. The Museum Catharijne convent introduced new guidelines for moveable religious heritage, translated into English with the help of FRH members.


There was so much passion and energy at FRH Venice, we now had no doubt that our network is something we have to do and which has to go on to become stronger and even more active.

While there are many things we have in common, there were also reminders of how different things can be and how diverse our European religious heritage is. Fortified monasteries in Iran contrasted with ‘Art Alive’ in Norfolk churches in the UK. The challenges of reuse in the absence of the religious community in Northern Cyprus contrasted with growing congregations wanting new buildings in Macedonia. From Belgium, Scotland, Germany we heard mini-presentations in which contributors ably described the work they were doing in just five minutes. Parallel sessions explored the theological and material impacts of extended use in more detail from a range of national perspectives. There was so much to learn from so many contributors, it is impossible to capture it all in one place, but all the information will be available on the FRH website and Twitter #FRHvenice.

The joy of a conference is not just the presentations and speeches, not even the dinner or the breakfast sessions. It is also the time in between when we could all speak to each other about what we had heard and what there hadn’t been time for and where we thought it was all going to go. There was so much passion and energy at FRH Venice, we now had no doubt that our network is something we have to do and which has to go on to become stronger and even more active.

The final session involved all delegates in discussing what they would like their FRH to be doing in the year ahead. They took the view that an important next step is to raise funds to facilitate a programme of mutual learning and exchange visits through which members could see for themselves the work they’d heard about at the conference, share and develop best practice and produce materials to help others do the same. The concept of extended use was rehearsed, refined and shared at the conference, now we need to take our thoughts and experiences to others and make practical application of our theory. As the posters for the Bienniale running at the same time as our conference so eloquently put it: ‘We expect the conversation to continue beyond Venice’.

Crispin Truman
November 2012