Talking to: Archaeologist & Rome Expert Darius Arya

| Fri, 07/13/2018 - 12:17
Rome heritage preservation

Darius Arya loves the rooftop terraces of Rome because they make you see the Eternal City’s monuments from ever new angles. Even after 18 years of living in Rome, the U.S.-born archaeologist and professor still gets excited every time he walks out the door, be it to lead an educational program for the American Institute for Roman Culture, which he co-founded in 2002, to film a TV show (such as “Under Italy,” broadcast on Rai 5), or to simply share the beauty of ancient Rome through live videos via his widely followed social media channels. As an archeologist, historic preservation expert, and long-time resident of Rome, Arya is in a unique position to engage audiences far and wide with the issue he cares most about, which is one of the major challenges Rome faces today: the preservation of the city’s vast cultural heritage, constantly under threat due to underfunding and overtourism. There is, however, a lot to celebrate too, as Arya points out, with recent openings and renovation of historic sites and museums, and more private sponsors footing the bill.

Darius, you’re very active on social media, broadcasting live every day from Rome, and you’re recognized as a top digital influencer. How can social media help educate and engage people?

First, there’s the inspirational part, which is, it’s my dream to be there and you’ve inspired me to make it happen. On the educational side, you want people who have the competency and knowledge, but you also want the accessibility. You don’t want to be lecturing or talking down to people, you want to engage people. That for me is a good educator, someone who is teasing out, fostering conversation, providing knowledge and original content, which we can provide because we’re here, on the ground.

The digital space and social media are great places to communicate the values of preservation. It’s a great way to talk to a big audience, a young audience, an international audience. There are incredible free platforms today to connect with people in a way that you could never do before. I was in fact one of the early adopters of the live streaming, kicking off the Ancient Rome Live platform in 2015, and in 2017 I was nominated 'Periscoper of the Year' in the social media Shorty Awards.

[The Pantheon in Rome.]

With regards to the theme of preserving and restoring monuments and historic sites, do you think the city of Rome is doing a good job? What could be improved?

The answer is complicated. First of all, some things are owned privately, some are owned by the state, some by the city and co-managed. On the one end, you see an uptick in donations from private sponsors, such as Tod’s with the Colosseum. Being American, we think that’s great. It’s nice to see that a whole sector of the community at large is now a protagonist, a stakeholder. Also, the monuments are now more visible and more accessible, and that’s a good start.

At the same time, you don’t have to be an expert to know that there are issues with the roads and the garbage and the cutting of the grass even. These are huge dramatic things that are basic to the citizens who live here, and they have a big impact on heritage preservation: if they can’t even mow the lawns in central parks, how can you expect them to have the attention to the monuments?

You can definitely say that there are a number of sites that are being shortchanged or neglected. But the trend is to shift from neglect and severe underfunding to huge injection of money from sponsors, case in point Bulgari which is now stepping in to re-do the Largo Argentina site. 

But the main thing in heritage preservation conversation is really about daily maintenance. It’s not what you call a sexy topic, but it is probably the most important thing, and all studies show that if you take care of a site with whatever resources you have, you are going to minimize in the long term that huge financial burden. Even if you have a limited budget. You have to think about how you prioritize the funding. Is it better to put the resources into the daily maintenance or is to have that new sign or that major exhibition?

Can you cite a few examples of success stories, of monuments that were at risk of crumbling down, were restored and now they’re getting new visitors?

The Pyramid of Cestius is one example. There were major issues, such as water infiltration, which were dramatically affecting the overall well-being of this monument, which was subsequently properly cleaned, provided with accessible ramps and beautifully illuminated at night to guarantee regular access. It was done thanks a Japanese private donor, which is not to say that the Superintendence didn’t spend any money. 

A year or two ago, they inaugurated the handicap accessible pathway through the Forum. Not everything is accessible, but it does make the place more user friendly. The new SUPER ticket is another great example of how resources were put to good use.

You see more and more sites being opened up at the Forum and the Colosseum, it means that the resources are being used not only to preserve, but also to make the sites accessible to the public.

The Via dei Fori Imperiali used to be abandoned and dark, almost scary, and with the illumination and the light projection show, it has become a fun, happening place, and you don’t even have to pay for it.

I think that you need to celebrate those sorts of things, the fact that there is progress being made. I don’t spend my time on social media being negative, I don’t think it really gets you anywhere, you’re not going to have a dialogue, so I tend to focus on the positives.

[The Roman Forum at night.]

There’s a lot of talk about some Italian destinations being overrun with tourists. One proposed solution is to divert the crowds from the most popular monuments, but it’s obvious that if you’re never been to Rome, you want – and should – see the Colosseum or the Vatican.  What advice would you give to travelers concerned with lessening their impact on the city and its monuments?

Rampant tourism is definitely a huge issue, and the attempt to promote lesser known monuments is a great idea.

Obviously, everybody wants to go to the Colosseum and the Vatican. The thing that will always work is go early or go late. The tourists don’t go at the crack of dawn. So for example I go early with my students, so we can enjoy the sites to ourselves for at least an hour before all the crowds start to come in. With my brother, when he last visited, we went to the Colosseum at 5:30-6p, we went to the Forum to pick up the tickets [it’s a cumulative ticket that gives you access to the Colosseum as well, ed. note], and there was no line.

At the Vatican, you could spend the extra money and go for ‘Breakfast at the Vatican,’ or go super late; if the last entrance in summer is at 6:30, go at 5:30, and it doesn’t cost you any extra money. In summer you can go on a Friday night, it’s a great experience, it's cooler, and not so crowded.

It's also a way to enhance your learning experience, trying to be there when there are less people.

I also think that there should be signs about preservation issues and how to be more responsible. And, lead visitors to other sites. Something like, ‘Did you like the Colosseum? Did you know that Rome has four other amphitheaters?’ Nobody is lining up to go to, say, the Museo Napoleonico, yet it’s a very important museum; no-one is lining up to go the Villa dei Quintilii on Via Appia, but, you could say, ‘hey, one of the emperors lived there, you should go check it out.’ I think people would really benefit from cross-promotion, and thus be able to have a more nuanced, more intimate experience in less crowded places. We all need to be smarter about it and influencers need to direct people into other experiences and opportunities, so that local communities can benefit too.

[Darius Arya in the Forum.]

Speaking of local communities, another major issue related to overtourism is how to reconcile the masses of tourists with the needs of the local residents. In Rome, there has been a proliferation of cheap kebab and pizza stands, chains, minimarkets (which also affects the urban landscape), of Airbnb rentals, which are said to push residents out, and several examples of bad-mannered tourists, bathing their feet in fountains or leaving trash around. As a resident of Rome, what’s your stance on this?

Nobody wants any of that stuff, but, at the same time, travel has become democratized, so you have to realize you’re getting huge waves of new groups of people, from the ultra-rich to the students who can live that dream because they’re staying in an Airbnb and eating frugally.

You have to figure out ways in which you can engage them. You can focus for example on the local ‘mom-and-pop’ places, the authentic, the historic, the lifestyle or the product that has existed  for a long time. You can try to direct people to the ‘real Rome.’  

The best way is to engage, and engage the younger audience in particular. Make them understand that if they go to a certain place rather than to the pop-up chain, they’re helping preserve a way of life, so that the authenticity that makes Rome really exciting won’t disappear. Maybe they’re spending a bit more money, but they’re helping preserve a business that has been in the neighborhood for a long time.

Are you optimistic about the future of Rome’s cultural heritage?

I am. Rome is always a big opportunity and I’m excited every day to see its potential.  Rome is arguably one of the most sustainable cities in the world. It’s gone through two empires, most places don’t do that! And Rome is still the capital of Italy. There are many exciting examples of maintenance and new museums opening. There are new ways of engaging the audience and I think we have great opportunities to communicate the values of preservation to the public.

What’s your favorite Roman monument or site?

The Pantheon, the view of the Roman Forum, Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, Trajan's Markets.

Thank you, Darius, for your time.  

Travel virtually to Rome by following Darius Arya on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Learn about ancient Rome on the Ancient Rome Live blended learning platform and stay tuned for platform update with new format and content coming later this summer!

To contact Darius, visit his website.