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Building on the past - 25/09/2008

House of Heritage, Burgundy, France

Hands-on learning centre for historical preservation praised for work with young offenders.

Many people know European heritage days, taking place every September, as an opportunity to visit monuments and sites normally closed to the public. But they are also a chance for people to find out how cultural heritage can be made relevant to modern society.

The House of Heritage, for example, is the kind of place often pictured in tourist brochures from the French province of Burgundy—a charming cluster of old stone buildings nestled among rolling vineyards. The roofs are tiled in shiny black slate and the walls are a freshly mortared mosaic of ochre and rust-coloured limestone.

The buildings haven't always looked this nice. In the 1970s, after wine-makers abandoned them, the roofs were caving in and the walls were crumbling. But since then, the buildings have gradually been restored by hundreds of volunteers, many of them young offenders. And that, more than its history or architecture, explains why the centre is winning praise at this year’s celebration of European heritage.

The House of Heritage in Saint Romain is not the only example. Other outstanding projects include a Soviet-era factory in Estonia that has been converted into a block of flats and a UK programme to involve ethnic minorities in culture heritage. An estimated 20 million people were expected to visit more than 30 000 monuments and sites during European heritage days.

For Serge Grappin, an educational advisor at the House of Heritage, historical preservation is not just about renovating cathedrals and castles. It’s also about rebuilding lives. He spent 10 years raising money to buy the derelict buildings and has supervised their restoration over three decades, a work still in progress.

Many volunteers are young people who have committed offences ranging from illegal drug use to armed assault. With their teachers, they spend two weeks at the centre, working alongside regular students.

Through their work, the volunteers learn skills – social as well as practical – that help them move on from their criminal past. They also gain self esteem from seeing how much the locals appreciate their work. Some have even gone on to careers in historical preservation.

“Heritage is an extraordinary tool for education,” says Mr Grappin. “The houses were restored – but also the young people.”

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