Heritage protection and preservation
Dealing with the cultural heritage is always controversial. In its core lies an attempt to balance the interests of the owner with the interests of the general public in preserving the heritage. Heritage management can be successful only if it manages to grasp both the material assets that exist objectively in time and space, as well as taking an interest in the subjective categories of identity, values, and perception.
The highest possible legal act – the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia – states that it: “/…/ must guarantee the preservation of the Estonian people, the Estonian language and the Estonian culture through the ages”. The law is meant to protect the existing cultural heritage. Despite this, 25 percent of the listed buildings are in bad shape.
The main responsibility is placed on the owner of a monument. Under the Heritage Protection Act, it is their task to guarantee the preservation and the upkeep of the object.
Laws are always reactional: the objective reality has usually already changed, and the legislators only try to regulate the changed situation. We need proactive laws that not only react but also induce change in values and behaviour. The law should express the desired outcome of this social contract – how the preservation restrictions serve the common good.
Estonia has listed a total of 26,600 national monuments. Half of these are objects of art, mostly church ware, liturgical objects, interior elements; 6,600 are archaeological sites, 5,200 buildings, 1,300 historical monuments. In addition, there are 12 conservation areas and 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. All monuments are considered equal, and there is no grading system.
As expected, the most disputed group includes the buildings, which make up only 0.7 percent of the national registry of buildings.
Estonia has started the drafting of a new Heritage Act. The changed conditions have created the need for certain technical or reactional amendments; but we also need a new Act because we need to change our thinking: we need to bring this strategic resource – the heritage – closer to today’s generations.
Main planned changes:
- Balancing the government restrictions and the owners’ interests by compensating the extra expenses – research and surveillance – during restoration.
- Improved flexibility of the National Heritage Board to alleviate, analyse, and grade the restrictions according to the object and the case.
- More emphasis on consultations with the owners.
- Consolidation of separate institutions whose work concerns history and memory – a more active co-operation of heritage institutions and museums.
Attitudes towards preservation change when we start seeing it as a strategic resource and a national asset, instead of considering it just an expense. Heritage is and can be a source for creativity, identity, sense of place, and diversity. We have to learn to use it better in a cultural context, but also utilise it to create added value for the economy. It is not just the physical object that we protect, but also its meaning.