CVAR: Culture Connects is a project to curate a cultural route in the old city of Nicosia in Cyprus. The application was made by the Centre of Visual Arts and Research. CVAR is both a museum housing a collection showcasing the diverse cultural heritage of Cyprus, as well as a research centre with resources for promoting a multi-cultural and multi-perspective understanding of Cyprus’ history, as well as supporting active citizenship and reconciliation amongst Cyprus’ communities, as explained in CVAR’s story. The building itself is located in central Nicosia, near to the Green Line which marks the country’s division into north and south as home to Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities respectively. Divided in 1974, the city is unique in that today it is the only divided capital in Europe. One of the key goals of this project was the “creation of a cultural experience that concerns Nicosia as a whole again, bridges divisions and encourages communities to co-exist, re-connect and re-discover shared spaces”, and particularly “enabling the youth to develop a more holistic and inclusive understanding of our history and identity”.

The Culture Connects project was designed as a digital app for exploring the city, with users choosing routes navigating through and across the city’s division, revealing the diversity, architecture and culture of the city. A layer of audio-visual content from the CVAR’s collections was intended to allow modern day visitors to hear stories from past residents about houses, schools and community centres, while photographs, drawings and paintings documenting the city’s history help visualise a comparison between past and present views. Organisers describe how “the overall objective of this project is to create an immersive experience of culture, interlacing the past with the present and the physical with the digital. We want this experience to be accessible to everyone and to be shared between the locals and those travelling to discover the city.”

European Heritage Days Stories 2020 CVAR
Rita Severis leads the app route walk at the official Culture Connects launch event (credit, CVAR  Severis Foundation via Facebook)

Another particular focus of the project plans has been engagement with younger generations and as a tool for education. ‘Postcards from our city’ was an activity planned for children aged 8-10 to discuss the city’s history and communities, create postcards featuring drawings of the city on one side and a story about Nicosia on the other, and finishing with a neighbourhood walk to post them. The concept was based around ‘exchange’ within the community, while being a fun and playful way to communicate and encourage children to appreciate the city’s history and heritage. Another initiative to include younger audiences was to involve 16-18 year-olds to test the app at a pre-launch event. High school students could try the app on their smartphones and give feedback to help tailor both the digital and physical experience to reflect the interests and behaviours of their age group.

Due to the restrictions of the Covid-19 response, some aspects of the project plans needed to be adapted. Uptake of some aspects such as a memory sharing social media campaign amongst adults was lower than expected, although future participation generally is expected to rise as concerns over the pandemic ease. In the meantime, the central theme of the project was able to go ahead, and organisers were particularly pleased that the educational aspects were relatively unaffected. For example, a youth conference with students from both sides of the divide went ahead in September 2021 to share their views and experiences, which the organisers describe as a “substantive step in the effort to promote cultural diversity on the island”. Postcard workshops also took place and continue to be available.

The Culture Connects app has now been developed and, in addition to the two routes originally planned, has been expanded to offer five audio-visual guides about Nicosia. They are all available in English, and thanks to translations and recordings from embassies and individuals, several are available in seven other languages - Greek, Turkish, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian - reflecting the diversity of visitors to the area. The original guide, ‘Culture Connects: Nicosia’ was the first to be released, with the official full launch announced at an event organised in collaboration with the Municipality of Nicosia on 29th September 2021. The ceremony included a presentation by Rita Severis – the founder of The Costas and Rita Severis Foundation which displays its collections at the CVAR museum, followed by tour of the neighbourhood following the app’s route.

As well as the original route, specific guides are available for ‘North Nicosia’ and ‘The Religious Monuments of Nicosia’, while the ‘Venetian Walls of Nicosia route was developed to coincide with the celebrations of the 1,600th anniversary of the founding of Venice and takes visitors on a tour around the city’s walls built by the Venetians more than 450 years ago. Additionally, a Nicosia Treasure Hunt was specifically designed for families and “follows Lady Katherine around old Nicosia in her quest to save her collection from bandits while discovering secrets of the city”. CVAR describe the app, saying “these audio-visual guided tours appear on an interactive map – and for each site the user will be able to receive audio information, together with paintings and old photographs from the museum’s collections, relevant to each site… The aim of the application is to encourage visitors to learn about the cultural, religious, political and social history of Nicosia and promote research, discussion and further knowledge.”

The app is available for iOS and Android devices and can be downloaded for free at either Google Play or the App Store. The Centre of Visual Arts and Research can also be followed via their Facebook page @CVAR.Severis, Twitter @cvar_severis or Instagram @cvar.severis.