All cultural heritage belongs to each of us

نوفمبر 20, 2020

Good governance

An interview with Sanja Ivanovska Velkoska, archaeologist and conservator in the National Center for conservation of Skopje, interviewed by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator

Sanja Ivanovska Velkoska is a PhD in archaeology, employed in the National Center for conservation in Skopje. As an expert in the field of archaeology and conservation she has considerable experience as an external consultant for other institutions and sites for protection of cultural heritage. Mrs Ivanovska Velkoska wrote a lot of scientific papers, participated in many scientific conferences and was on a scientific residency in Belgrade, Serbia and Lund, Sweden. Her wide knowledge in protection of cultural heritage in theory and practice makes her an excellent interlocutor on the issues related to shared or contested heritage.

What is heritage, how does it work and what does it mean for people with different backgrounds?

Sanja: The material and cultural values we inherited from our ancestors and their ancestors are what should be called cultural heritage. Unfortunately, its interpretation in different environments is often characterised with contrasting content.

Do you think that heritage institutions should be more inclusive or exclusive? Is it important to be clear about whose stories are being presented, by whom and for which purposes? Some practices point towards an inclusive approach through the restructuration of institutions and the fostering of supportive leadership. What do you think about this approach?

Sanja: If we want the general population to know what cultural heritage is and to nurture and preserve it unconditionally, then the institutions must make it easier to access and promote it more and in a suitable manner among the wide public. The reasons for presenting cultural heritage are not important at all because it should not be owned at all.

Do you engage in cross-border cooperation with professionals from Greece and Bulgaria and do you find any difficulties in its realisation?

Sanja: In the past, we had a greater institutional cooperation with many neighbouring countries, but that practice has slowly been declining in the last eight years. This is not due to any policies, but is a result of the extremely poor management of the institution in which I work. On a personal level, contacts with colleagues are maintained regularly. Even at my own expense, in my free time I establish connections with countries with which we have not cooperated so far. But all work remains based on a personal incentive or at the level of a small interdisciplinary group that has the idea to bring new techniques, technologies and methods of cultural heritage management from all aspects (pertaining to research work, conservation/restoration, presentation and popularisation).

We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey these different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?

Sanja: Yes, it is in practice, but it should not be. Cultural heritage must never have ethnic, religious, gender or any other contextual framework. On the contrary, I believe that all cultural heritage belongs to each of us, a part of our past and affects our present and future.

Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation? 

Sanja: As a SIDA Fellow winner, I participated in an advanced training program on Conservation and Management of Historic Buildings at Lund University in Lund, Sweden, where I presented my case study on “Conservation and Presentation of the South Gate of the Archaeological Site Skopje fortress”. The approach at that time was guided by the principles of Europa Nostra, which have been observed and applied in my professional work regarding the integral protection of archaeological sites as cultural heritage.

“Cultural heritage should be treated as a precious accomplishment of people’s creativity of a certain time”

What is the impact of cultural heritage on solving issues related with shared or contested heritage?

Sanja: In practice, none. Theorists can find many points of contact and influences, but the operative is aware that in practice in our country it is just a dead letter on paper.

How we choose to remember the past and how we choose to move forward are the critical issues of today. What does cultural heritage mean in different national and regional contexts? Who can claim it as theirs, and who decides how it is preserved, displayed, or restored? How to share cultural heritage?

Sanja: The meanings are not as important as the approach and the attitude towards cultural heritage. We are aware that cultural heritage as a category of culture is always on the margins in our country. All efforts to amend that are still in the making, while in practice it is shown that various irrelevant populist manifestations receive more publicity, and thus more funds than any project for the protection of cultural heritage.

No one can say that a piece of cultural heritage belongs to someone, unless they personally inherited it from their parents. What we as a society care about belongs to all of us.Popularisation is the most important way to share the value of cultural heritage, and thus to increase interest in it. In a popular existence, any cultural heritage is much easier to manage and can even be made self-sustaining.

“What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them”, said Anderson in 1991. Do you agree with this citation and why?

Sanja: Unfortunately, this is often the case. However, there are occasional attempts to integrate the cultural heritage, which comprehensively analyses the problems, and hence the reactions to action are interdisciplinary. I repeat, this is very rare, but so far it has proven to be a successful practice. And as long as we keep treating cultural heritage from only one aspect, we will never come up with nearly ideal solutions.

When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?

Sanja: Yes, of course it can.

Do you think that the realm of words can influence the way the audience read the stories related to heritage (shared or contested)?

Sanja: Yes, I think so. As long as we use rich and cumbersome vocabulary with professional terms in cultural heritage stories, our target group will be the only group of people who can understand us. Those who do understand us are usually part of our professional circles or colleagues. In that case, we have completely missed the goal for popularisation of cultural heritage.


The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.