Workshop: Climate change and its relation to cultural/natural heritage

14–15 March 2019, Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus

As the 2019 ushers in a new, powerful wave of public awareness and action to mitigate climate change, a workshop on the role of heritage was held at Aarhus University on 14-15 March and  hosted by the Coast to Coast Climate Challenge project, in conjunction with the Centre for Environmental Humanities and the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at Aarhus University. The Climate|heritage workshop brought together voices and visions of the interplay between climate change and culture/heritage. On a gloomy Tuesday morning, researchers, professionals, artists and students filled up the conference room of Moesgaard Museum. Whilst our host introduces the aims of the 2-day event, an artist translates words into traits to deliver a visual representation of what is being said.

This is not your ordinary conferencing: archaeology students sit next to museum curators, art historians speak after heritage officers; the brush follows the tone, slides blend images to music. Here a view of the visual renderings of each paper.

All driven by the C2CCC programme’s urge to create a democratic debate, rising awareness and thinking about our long-term behaviour amidst climate change. Here and now is where perspectives on how cultural-natural heritages are linked to climate change will be discussed, challenges and problem-solving thinking furthered.  Why Denmark? Here, two new C2CCC initiatives are turning talks into actions. Few miles south of our venue, in Skandeborg, AquaGlobe is creating and transferring value-knowledge about the water cycle—a model that has been replicated in 22 countries. Further afield the Danish coastline, adaptation to climate change is the focus of the Climatorium showroom is underway.

The workshop starts sound and enthusing with two papers presenting very different, yet so interlinked experiences, analyses and prospects on the place of heritage in the climate change debate. What has the human past to do with current climate change? Why is heritage relevant? Marcy Rockman (IPCC Team Lead with the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Climate Change and Heritage Working Group) takes us straight to Jamestown, deep in the colonial past of Virginia, and from here across US national parks, and onto Greenland. These places offer prime examples that heritage has always been affected by environmental agents. What climate change is now doing, Rockman argues, is to catalyse all these factors and have a dramatic toll on the cultural heritage sites across the globe:  ‘We are not the past. It cannot tell us what to do,’ but investigating the past we can find climate changes in place we did not expect it, and this is where we develop the creativity necessary to address climate change. In fact, we really need to bring creativity in the picture, as climate change is not only a problem for us: it affects the whole planet. This is the starting point of environmental historian Dolly Jørgensen, University of Stavanger, as she reminds us that we live in a special time as spectators of the 6th extinction in the natural world. What does this mean? How do we deal with a vanishing world? Jørgensen asks. One answers might be found tracing how the extinction of a little marsupial has captured people imagination and prompted creative actions—from museum exhibitions to creating a new word! This is, indeed, the tragic loss of a Tasmanian marsupial (Thylacine), which was first brought to public attention by an exhibition held at the National Museum of Australia. Visitors were welcomed to this exhibition by a print on the wall: Endling (n.) The last surviving individual of a species of animal or plant. From here, the extinction of this little marsupial enthused artists to communicate on climate change from Andrew Schultz’s Endling op. 72 for the Tasmanian orchestra and a motion video by New Zealander artist, Paula Taafee (The Enhdling). And, much, much more as we can read in a piece written by Jørgensen.

Benjamin, the last known endling (Thylacine), photographed at Hobart Zoo in 1933. Source: Wikipedia

From the power of naming, Gry Hedin, Curator ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, takes us to the power of paintings and how arts influences the way we perceive and understand nature, and its changes. This is well illustrated in a recent exhibition held at the Faaborg Museum:  ‘Down to earth: Danish painting 1780-1920 and landscapes of the Anthropocene.’ This raveling exhibit asks how landscape painting engages with object to engage with telling the story of people on earth, including, the relationship between man and soil. The land that feeds us and stores our history, the land we threaten. How can museums contribute to sustainability? By engaging the public into a dialogue, tells us Morien Rees, Varanger Museum & Chairman of the Working Group on Sustainability in the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Sustainability comes with challenges, and museums are developing pathways to win over. How? Take a look at the history of the ‘wolf island,’ Vardø. Once a major fishing port in Norway, and indeed Scandinavia, since the medieval period, this long-thriving town saw a collapse of its fishing industry in recent years. If the sales fell, the fish stock didn’t. The museum started a project few years ago to expose the cultural heritage of this once important port. Now the modern city is developing on its cultural heritage. Over the course of last 6 years, it developed a people-first perspective on cultural heritage and urban development. Historic buildings have been restored, church and city hall have all been restored.

A bird-eye view of Vardø. Source: VisitVardo.

A strong commitment to climate change and sustainability is also at the core of heritage, culture and environment in Scotland. Mairi Davies, manager of Historic Environment Scotland Climate Change. Quite similar to situations in Denmark, Mairi discusses how changes in total precipitation across Scotland since the 1960s is escalating threats to coastal environments and heritage.  How do we monitor such developments? One way is to start by mapping coastal erosion, ground instability and flooding and how the risks of these are going to increase, taking a risk assessment approach. Using GIS methods, HES has been able to map hundreds of sites, generate hazard profile for each site, then assess vulnerability to future scenarios. This data bank is now providing the backbone for local managers to develop mitigating strategies for their heritage properties. In addition to engaging local heritage sites, HES is also developing new strategies to engage the public to assess the conditions and threats to heritage sites from the Neolithic gem of Skara Brae (Orkney) to the rich urban heritage of Edinburg.

These themes, perspectives and examples fueled fruitful discussion during the second day. By creating a dynamic and inclusive platform, the workshop and its participants have initiated a new debate on heritage and climate change, engaging  different audiences and fostering knowledge sharing.