Idrija’s Commitment to Heritage Innovation

Idrija is a small town in western Slovenia and is famous for its important mercury mining heritage, which can be dated back to AD 1490. At one point, the area was home to one of the largest mercury mines in the world, gaining the town a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In 2012 the Idrija 2020 Association was established with the aim to “transform heritage from a thing of the past to a matter of the future”.

As we reported earlier in the year, the organisation quickly established itself as a leader in youth engagement and progressive ideas, with programmes ranging from HeritageLab – a business incubator - to podcasts and workshops looking topics such as the role of Netflix in promoting cultural heritage. This forward-looking approach has not gone unnoticed, with the European Commission awarding it international recognition through the European Social Innovation 2018 competition.

Announcing HeritageHack

Boosted by the European Heritage Days Stories grant, a hackathon – HeritageHack - was announced in early 2020, as an event to create new and different solutions to the business challenges of running the town’s cultural heritage sites. A three-day event was planned, with judges looking for ideas which combined both innovation in telling heritage stories with financial sustainability.

HeritageHack was open to anyone with an interest in the future of heritage, so participants from all across the country had registered by March, when safety concerns around COVID-19 meant that an in-person event wasn’t possible. Organisers quickly took the decision to move the hackathon online, initially planning meetings through Zoom, and later hosting the main event using online events platform Hopin. Digital platforms also allowed participants to virtually meet a week before the event to form groups, research Idrija’s cultural sites and discuss ideas. And to ensure group members could bond and form connections with each other and the area, a remote social event with live music was planned on the first evening, and organisers also posted everyone some local delicacies to enjoy!

Challenges and Ideas

Idrija Hackathon - European Heritage Days Stories
The ID20 offices during HeritageHack – credit, Jan Sedej

On the first day, Matevž Straus, the President of the Idrija 2020 Association, kicked the event off with an introductory speech from the Inzaghi shaft engine room at ID20’s offices. A round table discussion followed on the topic ‘how and where to look for opportunities in cultural heritage’, hosted by ID20 and Smart Optometry, with speakers from the worlds of tourism, business and heritage, debating potential new avenues and approaches as yet untapped by the cultural heritage sector.

Split into 15 groups, the 45 participants were then presented with two opportunities focussing on the digitization of museums and galleries and the virtual implementation of festivals, specifically chosen to address the challenges of the current circumstances. Groups could choose between:

  • Spaces: merging visitor experience with new sources of income for the Idrija Mercury Mine and Smelter or the Idrija City Museum at Gewerkenegg Castle.
  • Events: reimaging the finances and audiences for heritage events, such as the Idrija Lace Festival, Laufaria carnival or the food-based Idrija Žlikrof Festival, to meet new limited in-person contact requirements.

Competitors were encouraged to think creatively and find new solutions, with mentors from ID20 and the Ljubljana Technology Park on hand to provide guidance on both heritage interpretation and entrepreneurial aspects of the challenges.

And the Winners Were…

On the final day every group had three minutes to present their ideas to a panel of expert judges, each assessing a key criteria of the plans, with spectators able to tune in online to hear the live results!

Žan Menart from Smart Optometry was looking for business viability and at the financial aspects of the plans; Boštjan Jerman, a consultant for Slovenia at the United Nations Information Service in Vienna, considered social innovation; while Nataša Gorenc, who coordinates the country’s European Heritage Days programme at the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia, was looking for how the solutions protected and presented cultural heritage.

Awarded €1000, the winning idea - A Special Castle: Full of Secrets and a World of Adventure – was designed to revitalize the courtyard of Gewerkenegg Castle, and used experiential activities to connect visitors with the mining tradition of the city. As well as being an imaginative way to present the area’s cultural heritage, the judges were also particularly impressed with the businesses sustainability of the idea and that it was adapted to meet the needs of vulnerable groups. €500 and second place went to the idea to conserve endangered mining houses, with judges noting the feasibility of a gradual approach to completing the project. Third place, and an honourable mention, was awarded to an interactive experience where visitors could see what mining life was like for themselves.

The ideas generated at HeritageHack combined visitor experiences of the area’s local cultural heritage with a focus on ensuring long-term financial sustainability. These plans, together with ID20’s goal of “taking heritage a step further”, mean that Idrija’s heritage sites and events can continue to develop and look forward to welcoming more visitors in the future.