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NTS: Heritage begging to be saved

For some, Slovakia's thousands of abandoned industrial buildings are just part of an unkempt landscape. But for Martin Kováč, they represent a priceless cultural heritage begging to be rescued.
Kováč, director of the non-governmental Národný Trust Slovenská (National Trust of Slovakia - NTS), is devoted to promoting the "systematic and sustainable management" of old buildings. The process involves reconstruction and restoration of former mills, foundries and manor houses across the country - sites less resonant than castles and churches, perhaps, but no less evocative of the country's history.


The Františkova smelting works near the sub-Tatra village of Podbiel. NTS says it is devoted to promoting the "systematic and sustainable management of old buildings".
photo: Adam Vojenčák

For some, Slovakia's thousands of abandoned industrial buildings are just part of an unkempt landscape. But for Martin Kováč, they represent a priceless cultural heritage begging to be rescued.

Kováč, director of the non-governmental Národný Trust Slovenská (National Trust of Slovakia - NTS), is devoted to promoting the "systematic and sustainable management" of old buildings. The process involves reconstruction and restoration of former mills, foundries and manor houses across the country - sites less resonant than castles and churches, perhaps, but no less evocative of the country's history.

"In some ways, we're pioneers in this field in Slovakia," he said. "The situation in heritage management is very poor. Forty years of destruction of these sites [under communism], years in which the state was entirely responsible for cultural heritage, have left people without the skills to manage the property they may have recovered through restitution. What is worse, many have lost the sense of responsibility that ownership carries, and often just want to exploit their property, for example by using it as collateral to get loans."

While NTS owns only one site, the Františkova smelting works near the sub-Tatra village of Podbiel, it has handled over 250 requests for advice from owners of historic buildings since its founding in 1996.

"These owners tend to be looking for funding and advice on how to find a new owner," Kováč said. "We can help them clean up and repair their properties, and also put them in touch with a potential investor. We've found that many of the people who call us have problems in common, which is why we're now working on a united platform for what to do with these sites."

Rags to cultural riches

The NTS was founded in March 1996 on a shoestring budget of $200 and a staff of 25 volunteers. Its first project was the Františkova smelter, which Kováč had been trying to resurrect since 1991. "When we cleaned it up we discovered that it was a beautiful part of our industrial heritage, but it had been completely abandoned and no one knew who owned it," he said. [Famous Slovak film maker Juraj] Jakubisko used it twice for film shoots, which speaks volumes for the scenic value of the site. Slovakia is very rich in such buildings, and we felt it was important to integrate them into society. But we also realised we couldn't do this on a sporadic basis."

By 1999, the Trust's turnover had risen to $50,000, and it had been given a collection of 70,000 pictures and slides of Slovakia over the last 50 years taken by amateur photographer Ladislav Noel. The NGO uses the photos to buttress its role as a shaper of social attitudes towards heritage preservation (a recent photo exhibition of 1940's Bratislava closed on November 30).

But Kováč is convinced there is more to heritage preservation than keeping the past alive. Money injected into such sites, he argues, is returned many times over through the creation of new jobs in construction, tourism and the NGO sector.

"Many villages have a manor house, for example, the reconstruction of which would mean business for the area. Once finished, it might draw more tourists, particularly as 'cultural tourism' is steadily becoming a more important part of the tourism industry."

Asked where financing might come from, Kováč replies that the money exists but is being used inefficiently. "Slovakia wastes a lot of money - just look at the work for welfare scheme [announced July 2000, in which people unemployed for over a year are put to work on public service projects - ed. note]. This money would be much better invested in heritage sites, because it would create spinoffs for tourism and small business."

But government officials are not convinced. Michal Ševčík, head of the tourism section at the Economy Ministry, said that while he appreciated the work of groups like NTS, he doubted that the solution was as simple as rechanelling existing money.

"Slovakia has many cultural and historical sites in bad repair, but not enough money is being spent on reconstruction or cleaning them up," he said. "In such a state, they represent almost anti-promotion for the country. But I doubt that people on the work-for-welfare scheme could help here, because they don't tend to be very educated, and this type of restoration requires skill and craftsmanship."

Kováč, however, isn't dismayed, saying that given the lack of coordination among government ministries it was "unrealistic" to expect them to give directions.

"We need someone independent to say 'let's cooperate'," he said, "and to suggest what this cooperation might look like."


HOW TO HELP:
Contact the NTS
at Tel: 07 5542-2005 or e-mail nts@changenet.sk for more information about how you can participate in Trust activities.

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