NETHERLANDS – Launch of National Agenda for Religious Heritage

NETHERLANDS – Launch of National Agenda for Religious Heritage

On June 26, a broad coalition made up of all the major stakeholders in religious heritage conservation in the Netherlands gathered in Amersfoort to launch the National Agenda for Religious Heritage, Agenda Toekomst Religieus Erfgoed. Thus, government and university departments, religious and civic organisations aim to confront the threats facing Dutch religious heritage more effectively. FRH, represented by council member Lilian Grootswagers, also contributed, bringing an international perspective to the agenda.

The agenda consists of seven points, which together cover the issues and opportunities in relation to both built and movable religious heritage, be it in continued use for worship or in transition to new or extended uses. Each point is connected to a project group responsible for translating that agenda topic into concrete aims, actions and results in the coming years. Below is a translation of these points.

The partners of Agenda Toekomst Religieus Erfgoed; FRH's Lilian Grootswagers holding the Agenda

The partners of Agenda Toekomst Religieus Erfgoed; FRH’s Lilian Grootswagers is holding the Agenda

1. Churches and Monasteries in continued religious use

The majority of churches and monasteries are still used for worship, but they too often struggle to keep their buildings operating. This agenda point seeks new possibilities to support the buildings’ functioning, ensuring that motivated owners do not become demotivated, troubled owners. Concretely, attention will be paid to the fact that additional expenses ensue from the use of this cultural heritage; to differentiating the regulations covering religious heritage in continued use so as to lessen the administrative burden; to the adequate application of subsidies; and to creative fundraising for justifiable forms of extended or secondary use.


2. Use, exploitation and financing

It proves increasingly difficult to keep religious heritage in use or to find new uses for churches and monasteries which become vacant. Resources are needed to maintain the building, meaning that a sound exploitation is essential. Moreover, often an extra investment is needed to create a new possibility for exploitation. This requires a businesslike outlook. In this agenda point, financial experts and owners will look at new possibilities for exploitation and financing. Concretely, this means seeking new forms of exploitation and new resources (including the engagement of a third party, as in Esco’s or crowdfunding), mapping the current subsidies and financing tools and examining the contribution of secondary uses to the exploitation. Attention will also be paid to the possibility of bringing down energy costs by investing in sustainability.


3. Intended and unintended effects of laws and regulations

Over the past few years, the government has made a considerable effort to simplify laws and regulations and to speed up procedures, assuming that this would mean that (religious) heritage owners have more clarity, a better service and fewer expenses. After all, those engaged in (new or extended) use of churches and monasteries are confronted with a plethora of laws and rules issued by town and country planning, governmental Heritage departments on the one hand, and religious ordinances on the other hand. The question is whether the simplification and speed achieved are considered to suffice, or whether more action is necessary to bring out the positive effects of this deregulation – and what role other players, such as heritage organisations, can play. In short: how can the positive effects of deregulation be optimized for everyone, and how can we counter unwanted side-effects? Consulting all those directly concerned will show these processes can be perfected. Within this agenda point, specific attention will be paid to all applications of laws and regulations by municipalities and heritage organisations (case studies), the application and implications of listing buildings as monuments, the effects of (national) procedures for the conversion of churches or monasteries, and to policies concerning religious heritage falling vacant.


4. Practical manuals, training and education

Owners, caretakers and volunteers have a need for concrete information and tools for the maintenance and management of their religious heritage buildings and inventories. Which instruments can be offered to help them formulate a strategy for use, secondary use or multiple use? Which instruments are available to help governments or those engaged in the use and conversion of these heritage objects?

For the conservation of religious heritage, it is important that all parties, both professionals and volunteers, have knowledge about the (im)possibilities and opportunities of (multiple) use and conversion, and insight into sustainable exploitation. This includes maintenance, collection management, drawing up a risk assessment and handling, for instance, organs. Practical information in the form of manuals, training and seminars can be used to this end. Existing material, national and international, will be inventoried and developed further into practical tools.


5. The interim and plans for the future

It will be impossible to ensure that the hundreds of churches which will fall vacant in the coming years, will all be converted, opened up for multiple uses, or saved by private citizens, (provincial) trusts or City councils. But a large number of these churches certainly merits preservation. How do we approach valuable religious buildings which are threatened by vacancy, but for which a new usage has not (yet) been found? And what will happen to their interiors? History shows that a long-term vision is crucial. Ideal solutions may not be attainable straight away. A transitional period, or a temporary, less suitable use can lead up to finding a fitting, long-term new use for religious heritage buildings. Keeping the building in good condition (wind- and waterproof), and protecting its interior from harm during the interim use, is very important. A transitional period provides the opportunity to search a fitting new use. Finding new owners, tenants, end-users, or developers and bringing together stakeholders is crucial.

To maintain historic places of worship, expertise, care and respect for the heritage are indispensable. These are also important when a decision must be made about conversion and the necessary adaptations. Expertise on this subject, an eye for a building’s qualitites and important elements and details, are essential if the transformation is to be not only economically and socially, but also aesthetically successful.


6. Values, plural

Developments within Churches and society during the coming years will have important repercussions for church buildings, monasteries and their inventories. The question is what influence we can exert on this process to preserve that which is deemed valuable. This is a common task. In the end, the decision about each individual religious heritage building or ensemble will be made on a local level, whether it loses its religious function or not. The considerations which enter into this choice, should do justice to the interests of stakeholders: religious owners, religious communities, municipalities, heritage professionals, local inhabitants, possible new (secular) owners, developers, etcetera. Hence: values, plural.

The key is to jointly develop a framework or mechanism to aid decision-making. A tool which reunites several perspectives on the values of church buildings and monasteries, and which is widely applicable. Value is the central concept here. In determining value, the accessibility of factual information will be a factor. Information about the price of land, gross/net floor surface, conversion potential, attainability of sustainability, demand etcetera will be part of decision-making.

The challenge is to develop, on the basis of value pluralism, a vision on the future of religious heritage buildings and their inventories, so as to be able to make sound decisions about those? Can we show understanding for the values of our table-companions? Dare we follow an adventurous train of thought, temporarily relinquishing our own worldview to rediscover it in a different light? Dare we explore these plural values?


7. Communication: open churches and monasteries

A broad societal support is of great importance for the future of religious heritage. Within this final agenda point, the focus lies on developing that basis by means of concrete activities, good examples and positive experiences from the Netherlands and abroad. To do so, the concept of Open Churches and Monasteries is central. Nowadays, a Dutch citizen visiting a church is most likely to do so abroad, on holiday; at home, he is likely to find the door closed, despite the fact that there is a lively interest in religious heritage, as an international poll has recently shown. Those Dutch churches which do open their doors, draw many visitors. And with good reason: there are many artistic treasures among our historic places of worship. In order to enlarge the knowledge of and involvement with religious heritage, we launch a new initiative: a national Open Churches programme. We shall link existing initiatives, and develop new plans. To do so, we draw inspiration abroad, where such national programmes have been successfully developed. With this initiative, we hope to bring a large public into contact with religious heritage: physically and digitally. Come in and enjoy the beauty and rich history of the Dutch churches!

Read interviews with the major participants in Dutch here. Read the original agenda points in Dutch here.

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