What do we see when we look at cultural heritage sites? What cultural background informs our appreciation of what we see? And how does our tourist gaze alter once we step into the shoes of a local resident, or a small entrepreneur? Looking at and living with heritage are very different things, to paraphrase Lowenthal and extrapolate the widely documented unequal or even undemocratic access to landscape. In the protected site in focus, most of the current residents aren’t the direct heirs of the settlers who built the village beginning with the thirteenth century. Today’s locals were neither involved in the more recent process of having the entire rural settlement they call home inscribed on the World Heritage List (UNESCO), in 1999, as part of the Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania serial site. It was rather a small group of custodians (Saxons) and technical experts who initially advocated for the site’s inscription as a means to prevent the inevitable decay that follows depopulation, in the aftermath of the great exodus of the Transylvanian Saxons from the 1980s and early 1990s. Significance here was therefore created by national and international heritage specialists and patrons and by a cultural local minority, and later on validated or challenged by growing numbers of tourists. This leaves open the very important question of potential areas of exclusion associated to heritage making in a culturally, socially and economically diverse rural settlement.
These multiple layers of a popular historical site, and all the related possible perspectives are invisible to the hurried tourist. Upon close research, they highlight the complexity of a concept like cultural heritage and point to the diversity of stakeholders and themes involved—or forgotten—in the process of recognizing, protecting, and promoting significant sites. A growing critical heritage scholarship as well as relevant international organizations increasingly press for the acknowledgement of such complexity, of the pluralism of perceptions of past, heritage, and identity, “as heritage has many uses but also multiple producers, both public–private, official–non-official and insider–outsider, each having varied and multiple objectives in the creation and management of heritage.” The more so as societies are becoming more fragmented, mobile, globalized, and also more aware of their social and cultural diversity. Researchers underline that “heritage results from a selection process; heritage values are attributed, not inherent” thus raising the question of how contemporary heterogeneity can be accurately reflected in the practice of heritage selection, interpretation, and management. Divergent or contested views on designation and conservation of heritage sites are inherent, and in response, a more fluid, aware, and inclusive process of heritage-making is needed. This process is seen increasingly as one that allows for constant production and negotiation of meaning, a clear departure from the half-century old top-down imposition of what is significant, either by the national state or an elite.
Even defining authenticity—a criterion that UNESCO enforces on candidates for world heritage status—has evolved in heritage and tourism literature to accommodate not only the way the physical remains of the past are preserved, but also the responses to them, how people and various communities engage with heritage. National and international regulators largely use authenticity as a technical means for measuring the quality of a candidate or inscribed site as an immovable cultural good, taking less interest in the experiential side of the term. Increasingly, this “objective authenticity” of the monument is currently made to enter dialogue with concepts like “staged authenticity,” referring to conditions, places, and experiences designed for “the tourist gaze,” and therefore for the consumption of heritage and as a response to an “expected authenticity.” Authenticity can be “emergent” or “constructivist” and negotiable as material or cultural traits can become authentic over time or in the perspective of different people with different socioeconomic backgrounds.
I set out to the UNESCO village I had chosen as a case study for my research wondering what version of authenticity is professed there and what are the sources of over twenty years of condoning and living with a heritage of “others” that had all the premises to be contested.
Prompted by Helaine Silverman’s writings, I focused constantly on the essential difference between official heritage (as imposed and regulated by national or international agencies) and the “heritage that operates through actual communities,” one that is continuously produced and negotiated. Only the latter is, in Silverman’s view, relevant for popular culture for it is “received, talked about, circulated, loved, ignored” or simply consumed. This dichotomy echoes that between “monumental and social time” introduced by Michael Herzfeld, a consummate researcher of how the former is challenged by the latter.
It is worth mentioning that the UNESCO site in focus is primarily valued as a cultural landscape, which results in a very large protection area covering both architectural and natural components and indirectly influencing local practices. The motivation for the inscription reads that “these Transylvanian villages with their fortified churches provide a vivid picture of the cultural landscape of southern Transylvania. The seven inscribed villages, founded by the Transylvanian Saxons, are characterized by a specific land-use system, settlement pattern and organization of the family farmstead units that have been preserved since the late Middle Ages. They are dominated by their fortified churches, which illustrate building styles from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries.” The efforts for inscription were initiated by Romania’s Ministry of Culture in the early 1990s, but the presence of this village on the World Heritage serial site list depended greatly on the agency of local community leaders (some of the very few remaining Transylvanian Saxons) and the actions of supporting international patrons and organizations such as the now British-Romanian Mihai Eminescu Trust (MET).
Whereas in many documented cases of contested heritage, the opposition lies between locals and government bureaucrats, here heritage-related tensions—if any—have built within the very heterogenous community, where different ethnicities (Roma, Romanians, Saxons, Hungarians), religions (Orthodox majority, Protestants, and Catholics), social and economic layers, and levels of political or civic agency co-exist, “together albeit historically separated.”
Formally, it is the national and local authorities’ responsibility to ensure maintenance of authenticity and integrity of the site and the implementation of UNESCO operational guidelines. In practice, everyday monitoring and maintaining of the site’s integrity is up to the local community—mainly the local network built by the very few heritage custodians and some other “heritage investors,” such as the owners of guesthouses operating in traditionally restored farmsteads or foreign owners of holiday houses. Belonging to the local heritage stewardship depends on having a direct interest—be it rooted in identity and personal heritage, economics, or taste.
Raising the stakes in safeguarding the local heritage
The initial aim of safeguarding an endangered built heritage, largely informed by identity-politics and a Western sensibility and nostalgia for lost medieval rural landscapes, was gradually developed into something larger and essential for local inclusiveness. MET’s Whole Village project became the key local strategy, in which responsible use of cultural and natural heritage, involving local workforce and traditional knowledge, would serve to improve locals’ quality of life by attracting resources and initiatives necessary to meet the most pressing needs. Apart from developing compatible tourism facilities and services, a new and not so young generation of local craftsmen needed to be trained and provided constant work, and traditional knowledge had to be restored, re-learned, and even re-invented for even a first wave of positive effects of heritage-making to reach the villagers. All of this while setting up and maintaining some mechanisms of local participation and transparency like the informal Village Council.
What is interesting about this place is that when devising the heritage-making strategies, the local custodians also took into consideration the often neglected extrinsic value of heritage: its economic uses. Here, the opposition between culture and economy documented along the three other main axes of heritage contestation (temporal, spatial, public-private) by Ashworth et al. is not as obvious. We could say that MET and the local leaders tried to prevent this type of potential dissonance by allowing for heritage to be commodified for local development, while at the same time controlling the market (they operated the first and most of the guesthouses) and the marketing, and setting rules to make sure that the turning of heritage into a place of consumption does not alter its intrinsic values (e.g., setting a cap on accommodation capacity, opposing the modernization of connection roads, pressing for limitations on car traffic, monitoring interventions to facades, including signs and displays of local businesses, etc.).
When I began my research, national TV stations were already touting that the UNESCO village had become “more popular than it affords to be,” citing the Local Council’s decision to limit the access of cars given that over 35,000 visitors would swamp the small village of 400 residents every year. The limits of the initial strategies of development through cultural heritage were beginning to show.
Most locals still recognized and took pride in the intrinsic value of the Saxons’ built heritage which attracted so much interest. They also generally adhered to the rules of its preservation, as long as they remained confined to the public spaces—and custodians have never pushed conservation demands past the houses’ facades. Without calling it “staged authenticity,” locals were however aware that their village was a place of consumption of a particular story about the past, and they claimed that this business (and costs of heritage conservation) should be limited to places like guesthouses or restaurants on the Main (touristic) street and around the Fortress, as they call the Evangelical fortified church. It worked as a form of spatial self-exclusion—from the costs of living in heritage, in response to the socioeconomic exclusion people were becoming more aware of. Living in such high-profile heritage has undesired costs, from the soaring prices of houses in the recent years (a clear sign of gentrification and slow but steady spatial exclusion), to house maintenance and to those real or perceived costs of preserving “authenticity” of the village overall—bad roads and geographic isolation, uncomfortable, embarrassing textures of the past like uneven cobblestone sidewalks, mud, and dust.
Due to low financial and social capital, many locals were feeling excluded from the benefits of living off heritage, and those who agreed they had earned from it felt they had reached the limits of this resource. “It’s better than in other villages, but can you live off knitting socks and making felt shoes or giving tourists a ride in your horse cart?”—to cite a few of the recommended tourism-related activities available to the villagers.
Many of the people formerly trained by the local NGOs to meet the increasing need for craftsmen in restoration projects have left the village seeking better paid jobs abroad, just as many locals are giving up traditional farming activities and hard rural life to look for work in the cities or, upon return, to bring modernity and comfort in their homes. Fewer and fewer are willing to stay until heritage pays off. The feeling echoes that of “impatience on a monument” described by Herzfeld (1991) in a similarly disenfranchised community of a UNESCO Old Town in Crete, where the early winners of heritage-making no longer must live with heritage but only off it.
To many locals there was a perceived incompatibility between heritage and modern life, an exclusion imposed on them by the conservationists, to maintain the “original aspect” of the village. Although the village has been one of the first in the area to be connected through telephone lines and cable, and to have its own water supply system, an ecological waste treatment station, and a milk collection centre, villagers resented the lack of a modern access road, which the heritage custodians had historically opposed, and the ban on modern materials associated to an increase in comfort—concrete, PVC windows, among others.
Some voices even claimed that these rules and the uneven distribution of tourism-generated wealth are being consciously maintained to only benefit the affluent few, owners of most houses and businesses and informal enforcers of the heritage protection laws. “We must live in the past, but the others can negotiate what is ‘original,’” argued some of the more radical contesters. Having worked abroad for many years, they have some capital and are determined to ellude conservation laws and modify their houses to cater to a new type of tourist, with a different expectation of “authenticity”: the typical, generic, rural experience largely documented under the label of “rustic.” Romanian flags on typical pale blue or green Saxon facades are another indicator of dissonance and the need for a more inclusive official marketing story. Their owners are unconsciously pressing for a negotiated authenticity where the practices, traditions and livelihood of the present majority take centre stage of local tourism and an equal share of the revenue.
The Past is a Foreign Country wrote Lowenthal, the founder of heritage studies in 1985, pointing out the way the twentieth century valued history—and heritage—for holding values radically different from those of our own time. This rendered historical relics practically irrelevant to modern realities and concerns—a view increasingly shared by the local critics of “Saxonness without Saxons” but contradicted by the tourists. Herzfeld extends Lowenthal’s observation to include the people who are “forced—one way or the other—to live in these monumental relics. … Lacking an easy means of escape, their alienation from the sources of power marked by the otherness of anachronism, the poor inhabit an increasingly marginal space, a condition they resent for the economic limitations it imposes on them in a world where social values are increasingly defined by consumer economy.”
This is however not entirely true for the village in focus. Partly because here it is not so much the official heritage or a frozen past that are being promoted and strictly protected, but a filtered, more realistic version, continuously retold and negotiated by the heritage custodians – during community meetings, via the village mailing list and WhatsApp groups, or simply through the every-day presence of the Saxons’ heirs. Authenticity, objective and staged, is sought for in places of consumption, and the rules are willingly observed here, as long as there is little interference with the private spaces and sociability of the regular inhabitants.
In the studied site the promoters and protectors of heritage are not a distant group of bureaucrats, researchers, or nostalgic patrons but a group of people who live in the UNESCO site, share the costs and limitations on development, and employ villagers in their businesses and conservation projects. The Village Council, an informal structure for public consultation and decision-making created by the custodians, includes representatives from all village areas and stakeholder groups: from the guesthouse owners to the sock-knitters and horse-cart drivers, from the pensioneers to the young.
So, although there are clear signs and sentiments of cultural, social, economic (and even spatial) exclusion due to heritage-making, these sentiments are rarely strongly voiced or leading to conflict. Often cited as best practice in local regeneration through enhancement of built heritage, the secret of this village is not heritage alone but the way it was translated into a more ecumenic set of values. We can say that along with promoting the remains of the past for the tourists, custodians also interpreted and enacted these values for the locals.
The language of heritage-making and its interpretation at home is not built around ethnicity: custodians don’t speak of the Saxons’ ways but of “our values,” “our village,” “the traditions inherited from our grandparents,” or “the beautiful village” and its “capable people,” or “what makes us stand out.”
Local participation, the Village Council, and heritage interpretation at home might be signs that the heirs of Saxon settlers want to preserve the place not as it was but as it has become, not as a museum but a lived historical place. These largely informal mechanisms of inclusive governance and the flexibility around what version of authenticity each category can and should afford could be the reason why contestation remains dormant in probably the most famous Transylvanian village with a fortified church.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.