IIC Dialogue: “Climate Change and Covid: What is the Heritage Impact?"

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The Dialogue entitled “Climate Change & Covid: What is the Heritage Impact?” had a huge impact on our audience on Wednesday, November 4th. The chairman, Ewan Hyslop, of Historic Environment Scotland, posed a number of thought provoking questions to the panelists, drawing forward conversations about the role of heritage institutions at the intersection of these two global emergencies. The dialogue held between the experts (including Keith Jones, the national specialist for climate change with the UK National Trust; Lisa Wilkins, an archaeologist and co-founder of DigVentures (which specializes in digital applications for archaeology); and Amanda Pagliarino, the head of conservation and registration at the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art and author of Environmental Guidelines for Australian Cultural Collections) provided diverse perspectives to explore the theories of how heritage institutions will move forward while facing these looming challenges.

Starting the Dialogue with the acknowledgment of the immediate and severe impact of the novel coronavirus, Ewan asked each of the panelists what this global pandemic has brought to light in terms of facing multiple crises and providing an opportunity to reassess our priorities. Keith noted the unprecedented nature of what heritage institutions (and the world) are facing, both with the pandemic and record heat waves. He stated that despite the dramatic change to visitor and financial income during Covid, it has illuminated the values of the community and their desire to experience things locally as the ability to travel has been impacted. Amanda expanded on the new limitations of travel and how it has changed our perception of what necessitates in-person interaction as she described her experiences conducting virtual condition reporting with collections. She stressed that collaboration and the willingness to adapt with technology have been the keys to success in mitigating these difficult times. Lisa shared this view as she recounted the explosion of digital audiences she has experienced and the expansion of access through technology. She added that through this access, we also have new ways to engage and communicate with our audiences; to receive their feedback and understand their interpretations of the cultural heritage we are presenting. The popularity of IIC’s 28th Biennial Congress has been a wonderful example of collaboration, communication, and adaptation through technology. This, to me, has brought forth the idea of how our definitions of community have also changed during the pandemic as we come together as a global community surpassing the limits of geographical barriers.

The audience began to share their own experiences of how Covid has impacted their institutions and lives; the chat flooded with comments describing many reassessments of tasks and roles, some stating that the changes to travel have held a ‘silver-lining’ in reducing our carbon footprints, allowing for greener practices. The panelists also began to analyze how these changes have opened the doors to change for environmentally sustainable practices. They discussed how we are sometimes not in control of the decision to implement the changes we want to see, but they are encouraged that as a global heritage community we can engage and support a collective move toward change; theorizing that as the support builds, the ease of transition and acceptance of change will follow. The difficulty of accepting change was widely acknowledged among the panelists, as they each recounted resistance to the acceptance of loss while climate change continues to wear on heritage sites. Keith discussed the misconception of heritage’s permanence against climate change, while Lisa expanded on this attesting that through archaeology we have seen that change is a truer constant. Keith went on to describe the psychological barriers that we, in the conservation sector, have against change. He noted that while it is our role to bring and maintain heritage realia to certain conditions, the impact of climate change has stressed the importance of continuing to weigh the threats and vulnerabilities against our policies and threshold for loss. Amanda continued the discussion about the tensions surrounding the expansion of parameters, suggesting that we must find new ways to adapt when we realize there are things we cannot fix. The panelists acknowledged that accepting loss does not mean ‘doing nothing’, but finding the best in bad situations; finding the best ways to learn from it and preserve the knowledge and interpretation that we can.

Regarding the resistance vs. acceptance of change, Lisa enthusiastically welcomed the idea of change, sharing that “[she] immediately looks for ways to do things differently, because [sometimes] things are the way they are simply because they’ve been done that way forever.” She elaborates on this by discussing the inclusion of technology in archaeological recording, wanting to take advantage of materials that weren’t previously available. She went on to encourage a shift “back to the basics” and to question the motivation behind our current methodologies.

This subject resonated with me as it drew my mind to the rapid growth of technology over the past decade. In conservation we are constantly adapting technology from other fields to incorporate within our own; such as x-rays, 3D scanning and modeling, and laser cleaning. There is an abundance of new possibilities that didn’t exist 50 or even 10 years ago, and the academic research and discussions that have been explored throughout this Congress has been inspirational for where technology may lead us.

The Dialogue concluded with a hopeful look to the future, calling for inclusivity, collaboration, and network expansion as we seek to support each other through difficult times. The audience engaged in mirroring discussions alongside the Dialogue throughout its duration, with many reaching out for continued discussion. Many thanks go out to the experts for holding such an inspiring talk, and to all those who participated, making this event an enormous success.

Author:

Jessica Bekesi is an objects conservator from Northwestern Ontario.