Last year I was selected to take part in a fascinating research trip to rural Slovakia. The week-long venture was organised by the Arch network, the Scottish provider of Erasmus+ knowledge exchange programs for heritage practitioners.
The trip took a small group of participants, including me, Hannah (of Tacit Tacit), a stone maison and three archaeologists to Lisov, a beautiful village in the south west of Slovakia and home of the fiercely independent Lisov Museum.
The museum was founded by Jakub Dvorsky and Adriana Patkova, with help from Grampus heritage. The couple are committed to using their knowledge of heritage, enterprise and practical skills to regenerate the village and celebrate rural, Slovakian culture.
The museum comprises of three renovated farm houses and other structures that reflect traditional construction techniques. They use the museum site to teach visitors building skills, local crafts and use artefacts, including Lisov’s unique cave houses, to explain the area’s history.
The population of Lisov declined from over a thousand residents in the 19th century, to a few hundred today. This decline was fuelled in the mid-twentieth century by communism's re-organisation of farming practices.
Traditionally the village population self organised around harvest time. People would come together to construct buildings and take care of vital pieces of village infrastructure. The local economy was diverse, with small farm steadings producing a wide range of goods and larger landowners employing seasonal workers and trading local produce into wider european markets.
Communist farming regimes erroided this ecology, forcing large scale collective farms to produce fewer goods in greater quantities across Slovakia. The inefficiencies in this top down approach to food production are widely documented. Ultimately they led to mass food shortages and rural population decline across large swathes of eastern europe and saw the marginalisation of traditional cultural practices in pursuit of modernisation.
These changes permeated every aspect of life, including the physical structures people could build and live in. In Lisov the hills surrounding the village are made of tufa rock. This material is soft and relatively easy to carve. This geology was exploited by the local Lisov population, who carved 200+ cave houses into the hillsides surrounding the village over many centuries. The cave houses are complex structures with drainage, storage and air conditioning designed in. Most of the houses are just a few rooms, but a few are extensive. One cave Manor house goes back 30 meters into the hillside.
Communism left Slovakia in the early 90s following the velvet revolution, but poverty and skill shortages have presented multiple challenges to rural communities. Villages like Lisov have struggled to create the level of employment needed to retain people leaving farm steadings empty and land neglected.
Lisov’s remarkable cave house heritage was in danger of being lost forever. Like all buildings, cave houses need maintenance. Plants and trees growing through the rock weaken the structures, with many falling into disrepair and disappearing back into the hillside.
The team at the Lisov museum recognised the significance of this unique cave house heritage. In partnership with another local not-for-profit Nový dvor Brhlovce, they have purchased a cave house and plan to painstakingly restore the dwelling, with a view to renovating it as rental accommodation and community space.
Lisov was famous for wine making from the middle ages. The bright red and blue village shield depictis a bunch of grapes in celebration of this industry, but this wine making had all but died out in Lisov until just a few years ago. The cave houses provide the perfect conditions to make and store wine. Today the museum use their own onsite cave house, tucked into the hillside at the back of the complex, to ferment wine. Jakub has re-established some vines and they share their skills with other local people who have cave houses in their gardens and on their land, reusing the structures once again for local production.
The wine is sold in the museum, generating income to support their work. Honey, textile work and timber products are also made by the museum who employ several people throughout the year to turn raw, locally sourced materials into products using traditional processes.
Jakub and Adriana place a huge emphasis on connecting people living in Lisov to opportunities at the museum. They consciously create a space for visitors to learn traditional skills from local people and throughout the week long trip meals, workshops and meetings took place in the homes of people surrounding the museum, creating a whole village approach to heritage, skill sharing, enterprise and regeneration.
The trip provided amazing insights into how community based heritage facilities can be made accessible to local people and visitors. Through the creation work and training opportunities focused on traditional skills and enterprise the museum was utilising existing building and land assets to create jobs and community.
Lisov was starting to see famlies return and houses reclaimed. There were clear and tangible benefits to the museum's work which carefully and thoughtfully reached out to local people in a way that was meaningful and inspiring. Look and learn!