10th Year Anniversary Interview: Lilian Grootswagers

10th Year Anniversary Interview: Lilian Grootswagers

Lilian Grootswagers is a founding member of FRH and the current president of the FRH Advisory Board. She was an FRH Council member from 2011-2020 and represents FRH in the European Commission Expert Group on Cultural Heritage. Currently, she is the owner of erfgoed.nu who advises governmental institutions, corporations and private owners on heritage-related issues. She is also the author and co-author of multiple publications in the field of heritage as well as a member of the European Heritage Alliance.

In honour of FRH’s 10th year anniversary, we’ve conducted an interview with Lilian to reflect upon the achievements that the FRH Network has made since its founding, what she sees for the future of the network and how it can work towards innovative solutions to current challenges and the goals of the EU Green Deal.

1. As a founding member, what inspired you to create FRH?

In 2006, I was personally confronted with the challenges facing religious heritage for the first time when my village church was sold off and expected to be demolished. I realised that this was something that would become a societal challenge for the future as more and more religious heritage sites were expected to become abandoned due to increasing secularisation and societal change. Despite this, it appeared to me that this topic was not yet on anyone’s agenda, even though more and more people working in the heritage sector were becoming aware of it; it was clear that action was required. In 2008, the Year of Religious Heritage first took place in the Netherlands in order to raise awareness of these issues and to highlight the necessity of working together to face these challenges. During this year, the complexities of facing this challenge became clearer. It was apparent that building and sharing knowledge and cooperation among different stakeholders was the best way forward. This is what inspired me to help create FRH.

I would like to add that it is an honour to work with so many passionate and knowledgeable people. Since day one, there has been a lot of positive energy amongst the network’s members. FRH Membership is and has been a source of inspiration for me. It’s enriching as it brings together people from different countries, languages, cultures and religions. We are very lucky to have and have had people on the council with a variety of expertise and backgrounds who are willing to dedicate much of their time and effort. We are always able to rely on each other and we have built the network step by step together.

2. What does religious heritage mean to you?

Religious heritage sites are meeting places and landmarks in both time and the landscape. They tell the story of European peoples’ identity, roots, history, beauty and architectural prowess. These sites are treasure troves of art and craftsmanship. Every site tells a story – the story of the people connected to it, the story of the region and even the nation’s history. Religious heritage is the heritage of the community, it’s the jewel in the crown of Europe’s heritage.

It is also a patrimony that we have the duty of passing on to the next generation. As a mother of two, I am always happy to see children interested in religious heritage. Even without their parents, they continue visiting religious heritage sites all over the world, and are impressed by the stories, the history, the beauty and the possibility of getting a bit of the flavour of a country, as well as its identity and history. As my daughter wrote in her contribution to the Torch of Heritage and Culture initiative in 2018 “a holiday seems not to be complete without the experience of entering a religious building at our destination. We feel it is a great way of experiencing a country’s culture and history in multiple ways”.

3. What is one of the biggest challenges facing religious heritage?

Due to secularisation and changing societies, these buildings, which were once expected to stand for eternity are becoming abandoned and are in danger of being demolished or becoming ruins. Amazing works of art and other “storytellers” are what is at stake. It is difficult for us to believe, but they will not last forever. An exemplary story comes to my mind comes that was told in 2008 by Mr. Pieter van Vollenhoven, the brother in law of the former Queen of the Netherlands, at the opening of the Year of Religious Heritage in the Netherlands. When he was a young student, he would cycle past his town’s enormous church every day. One day he came along and saw that it had been demolished …he was amazed and totally overwhelmed as it never would have crossed his mind that this could happen. His story is one of many. We could lose many of these beautiful buildings, exquisite pieces of art, and amazing works of craftsmanship in the blink of an eye because we are not aware of what is happening.

4. What is one of the best ways we can protect religious heritage?

Through cooperation and by keeping the buildings open and accessible to the public, as well as by making sure they remain meaningful and a part of everyday life in any way possible.

5. How can FRH contribute to the innovativeness needed to address the challenges of sustainability and the goals of the EU Green Deal?

FRH supports its network members and professionals in the field of religious heritage via workshops and other training activities, increasing their competencies, innovativeness and competitiveness. This allows a complementary approach to addressing environmental challenges and allows the sector to actively contribute to the European Green Deal and other sustainability-related challenges. FRH is also a partner of the New European Bauhaus initiative and the Climate Heritage Network.

The FRH network’s key purpose is to be the hub for those working in and concerned by religious heritage in Europe, allowing the dissemination of good practices across regions and countries, both inside and outside the EU, as well as other sectors which face similar challenges. The network is uniquely placed to enhance and make good use of these synergies.

6. How do you see FRH in the next 10 years?

Religious heritage represents by far the largest single category of European cultural patrimony. There are about 600.000 religious buildings (churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, etc.) in Europe, most of which have a long history, a high heritage value and rich artistic content. In rural areas, religious heritage sites are often the last remaining community buildings. The diversity of this shared heritage contributes to Europe’s identity. All over Europe religious heritage buildings are under threat. Shrinking congregations, financial distress and lack of knowledge about conserving the buildings and the treasures held within them all contribute to the impending loss of a substantial collection of testaments to European history and heritage. A survey that was conducted by FRH in April 2014 (powered by Sociovision and Toluna) showed that Europeans across all generations have a strong attachment to their religious buildings and want to safeguard them for the future. FRH has been set up to act as a catalyst for change in the sector, to help those active in the management of Europe’s religious heritage and to provide them with tools to facilitate this task. It offers a communication platform and shares experience and expertise on common challenges as well as promotes successful initiatives. The network, through its members, identifies areas where a Europe-wide response is appropriate and works to influence policymakers. It provides a strong structural framework for ongoing inter-cultural and inter-sectorial exchanges of ideas and problems regarding religious heritage protection.

Cathedrals and religious buildings are repositories of the history of local communities. The sector needs to be professionalised by disseminating and developing knowledge. As our founding president, Olivier de Rohan says: “Europe’s religious heritage is under threat and the buildings are often ill-adapted to the needs of modern society. Knowledge transfer and innovation will be needed on a European level if this remarkable patrimony is to be handed down to future generations”. So there is still much work to be done.

When FRH was founded in 2011 we had to explain to the outside world what it was we were trying to accomplish and why our network was important and relevant. Now, 10 years later, the situation is very different. We are now recognized. We have built relationships with the institutions and are partners in many EU wide initiatives. We have built a diverse network with knowledgeable and passionate members in all European countries and even beyond; it is growing every day. The field is ploughed, the seeds are planted and now FRH needs to raise the crops. I am convinced FRH’s new president, Pilar Bahamonde, together with the council, staff and the great variety of members will bring together the right skill set and experience needed to successfully build the network further. I hope I can count on you to help us preserve and promote our religious heritage for the benefit of future generations. It is up to us to make the most of it!

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