World Heritage Preservation Experts 'Face-Off' In Prague

Prague, where the streets are a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century, was the setting for an international conference this summer for heritage preservation experts from around Europe along with private sector representatives, investors and architects of successful Czech heritage projects to discuss how heritage is looked after, who is responsible for buildings and monuments of significance as well as how to fundraise in order to maintain these assets over the long term.
At the conference marking the Czech National Trust’s (CNT) fifth anniversary late this June held at the Strahov Monastery in the Prague Castle, which was founded in 1143 by Jindřich Zdík, Bishop John of Prague, and Vladislaus II, Duke of Bohemia, saw leading heritage experts address key questions.
A roster of 17 prominent international and Czech heritage and architecture experts discussed the role of heritage in the 21st century, finding new ways of financing heritage and of making it self-supporting, relevant to people and communities, as well as sustainable and values-led.
While the nation as a whole counts 12 UNESCO world heritage sites, which is more per kilometre (km) than France or Italy, there are currently estimated to be over 40,000 sites classified as national heritage in the Czech Republic today, but less than 1% (c.280) are used for tourist purposes.
And, if there was one key takeaway from the various presentations and panel discussions - heritage preservation cannot be achieved alone. As Dr Irena Edwards, CNT’s chair stated: “We don’t live in a command and control world. We all need to step up to the plate and defend our heritage.”
Since the inception of CNT, a non-profit organization, it has supported and participated in almost thirty projects in the Czech Republic and raised around six million Czech crowns (CZKm) - equivalent to c.£200,000 - from various donors across the private sector. This has been “leveraged” and managed to grow to funds to over CZK14m (c.£467,000), according to Dr Edwards, a UK solicitor and Czech advocate.
For example, the AVAST Foundation provided CZK1.5m (c.£50,000) in funds to assist with the tomb and chapel of one of the most important literary figures of the 19th century in Europe - Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach - who was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. It stands as the CNT’s pilot project in Moravia.
Elsewhere CNT raised around £23,000 at the launch of the Czech National Trust that they hosted back in June 2014 at the Reform Club in London’s Pall Mall. Add to that over CZK1.3m (c.£44,000) was given by a Moravian company, Sigma, as seed money over the first three years.
Since then and to date more than five hundred volunteers have been involved in their projects over this time, with the renovation projects being varied in size and complexity.
Commenting before the International Conference on National Heritage Preservation opened at a press conference, Dr Edwards said: “We are part of a global network of non-profit organizations, the International National Trusts Organization (INTO). Our main goal is to preserve and support our national cultural heritage with the aid of individuals, private entities and businesses.”
It was in fact INTO ( who provided key assistance politically for CNT’s establishment five years ago, serving as a “safety net” and connection to the reputable international charity and to the world famous National Trust of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, they also provided couple of small grants for putting in place CNT’s infrastructure and is regarded as invaluable as a networking platform and access to international heritage know-how. For this conference, it was CNT’s partner and contributed financially to the event and helped to introduce key speakers.
Dr Edwards added: “As an organisation based on voluntary work, community collaboration and search for new sources of funding for the preservation and restoration of national cultural monuments and values, we will co-operate with anyone who wants to co-operate with us.”
CNT wants to achieve their objectives most of all through privately funded projects. One example is with the restoration of the memorial to Maria von Ebner-Eschenbach, a classicist tomb in Zdislavice village in the Kromeriz district, Zlin region). A German-language writer, poet, philosopher and philanthropist, she was a Moravian-born duchess married to an Austrian architect who lived between Vienna and Moravia.
While a household name in Austria, she is practically unknown in her homeland. The estimated cost of the restoration of this project is put at CZK15m. CNT owns this tomb project, which included two hectares of land.
It was a first case where a private heritage charity managed to acquire a historical monument and in the process unite a municipality organisation - its former owner, the local village that had the easement of access - from the former private owner of the land who lives in Brazil and the Ministry of Culture - to save a heritage gem. Prior to CNT’s intervention all the involved parties communicated mainly through their lawyers.
Another project in the same region is an endangered 19th century Chinese Pavilion that needs CZK700,000 for finishing the rescue effort. At the time when the CNT decided to step in, this property was part of the UNESCO chateau garden in Kromeriz, which was administered by the state heritage institute, who are prevented by law to fundraise. To date 18% of the target has been raised (see:
CNT stepped in and raised enough money to kick-start the restoration. And, it continues to do so even now when the whole château and the Pavilion were restituted to the Archbishop of Olomouc. The effort illustrates just how the key aim of the CNT is to help to save Czech heritage for future generations - regardless who owns it.
Guest of honour at the conference was Tim Parker, Chairman of the National Trust (NT), an organisation founded in 1895 and considered the world leader in the care for heritage.
Indeed, the NT owns or cares for over 400 historical monuments, countless historic sites, gardens and landscapes of 1,600 miles of the British coastline. It counts 5.7m members, which is more members than for British political parties, has 65,000 volunteers and generates a turnover of over £500m a year.
Following his keynote speech, Parker, who was also appointed chairman of Post Office Limited in October 2015 and earlier in his career worked at Thorn EMI, speaking during a panel discussion said that while memberships are a “core and fundamental part” for an organisation like the National Trust, it is essential that beyond people paying their annual memberships they also need to have an “emotional attachment to heritage.”
Parker added: “We must never take for granted the wonderful buildings that we have inherited from previous generations. They are a vital part of the cultural identity of every nation. And, the Czech National Trust along with National Trusts in many other countries play a crucial role in supporting important heritage assets.”
The conference heard delegates discuss the challenges and opportunities their organisations face in keeping on top of things, maintaining their properties and generating funds.
Ben Cowell, Director General of Historic Houses, stated: “The lessons of the 20th century have taught us that the state alone cannot look after all of this heritage - much depends on the energy and enterprise of private owners, who find new wine to fill these stately old bottles. And, there is much that can be learned by bringing all kinds of owners together to share their experiences of looking after important heritage sites.”
Catherine Leonard, Secretary General of INTO, a membership organisation that brings together the National Trusts in more than 50 countries was also in attendance. Today there are 75 different national trusts across the world in all shapes and sizes, which includes the likes of Australia, Bermuda and Jersey amongst others.
“Our world is an unstable and unpredictable place at present,” Leonard said. “Governments across the globe face uncertainties and political minefields, and nowhere is there enough money. The risk is that heritage is simply too low on the agenda to count.”
On public-private partnerships she said many people view this with suspicion, adding: “Private sector money? Private sector interference! Government regulation? Sounds like more red tape! Which risks undermining the heritage cause. That is not always good news. And of course there are risks, especially if the corporate voice is stronger than the heritage voice.”
She noted though that here that were some “mixed feelings” in Rome, where conservation work at important sites has been funded by multinational companies.
The trick though according to Leonard was in getting the “right sort of partnership”, where the purpose and focus of the project “delivers for heritage, with commercial and other ambitions supporting not distorting the heritage goals.”
She nevertheless acknowledged that this was easier said than done. “But it’s a skill we must seek and learn. Because I don’t believe any of us can manage on our own.”
On that note, Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), an Italian private organisation established in 1975 that has over 60,000 members today and based on the model of the British National Trust, has helped open and renovate just over sixty sites in Italy to date.
Jiří Patočka, an economist, sociologist and one of the patrons of the CNT delivered what some might regard as a somewhat more controversial presentation. The eminent academic currently heading up the Arts Management department at the VŠE, the most prominent business school in the Czech Republic, remarked: “Historical monuments are the liver of the body. If we don’t have them we decline.”
He added: “The use value is equal to the market value, but there are different views. For example, the Austro-Hungarians liked gothic architecture, while the Communist regime simply decided to destroy everything. Today the law does not specify what we should protect.”
Posing a question as to what should be done to protect historical monuments and buildings “if we don’t want to turn our heritage into Disneyland”, Patočka pointed to new legislation and how the French have “well specified parameters” around their heritage.
“Who are the caretakers of this heritage,” ventured Patočka, owner of a chateau at Příchovice, which is located some 22km (c.14 miles) south of Plzeň (Pilsen) in western Bohemia. “Is it the State, the law or public interest groups?” he posited. And, given that the owners of public monuments have to pay for repairs, one positive thing could be the introduction of a “zero property tax” in the Czech Republic, he ventured.
“We don’t have tax assignations and benefits for our properties nor adequate laws which would encourage giving either personal or corporate to heritage,” he said.
According to well-informed sources it is understood Dr Patočka encountered some problems from the Czech Ministry of Culture and the monopoly state heritage authority regarding some of his more “radical” suggestions contained in his speech.
Nichola Tasker, Head of National Projects since 2013 at English Heritage, a former state organization that was recently restructured into a private trust in the UK, spoke about how her organisation is tackling heritage issues.
A conservation architect with dual qualifications in archaeology from the University of Oxford and a building conservation scholarship from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, Tasker has advised on range of historic estates including sites belonging to the National Trust, the Churches Conservation Trust, the Landmark Trust and private clients.
This conference certainly provided much food for thought as I walked back down the hill to The Golden Key, a boutique hotel ( where I was staying. Strolling past the Swedish Embassy one is afforded a magnificent view of the city, the Charles Bridge (first constructed in 1357) across the Vltava river (Moldau).
However, before I did so one could not miss a visit of the Strahov Library, which comprises the Theological and Philosophical halls. It is of the most valuable and best-preserved historical libraries - with a collection consisting of approximately 200,000 volumes. The oldest part of the library, the baroque Theological Hall, was established between 1671 and 1674 according to a project of architect Giovanni Dominik Orsi, who also made the ceiling’s stucco decorations.
There are approximately 18,000 books in the baroque libraries focused on theology as well as wooden carved cartouches with pictures and inscriptions above the racks indicating the type of literature in the respective departments. This is classed as the first librarian gadget. The ceiling frescoes are by Siard Nosecký and date back to the 18th century,
And, one certainly gets the feeling that Britain's House of Commons was right in the historic heart of Prague. Well, the library here was used in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale with Daniel Craig as the British Parliamentary chamber.
Having so far organized fifteen fundraising events in the Czech Republic, UK and Austria, the Czech National Trust has plans to the United States. For more information about the CNT’s activities, to get involved and/or to make a donation see their website (
About the author: Roger Aitken is a freelance writer who contributes to a number of publications and was a former FT staff writer. In 2014 he was awarded a press prize from Czech Tourism on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and has a won press prize from State Street Bank.