IIC Dialogue: Climate Change & Covid: What is the Heritage Impact?

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I hope to be able to convey in this blog the buoyant, humbling and stimulating atmosphere during the IIC Dialogue on Climate Change & Covid. Chaired by Dr Ewan Hyslop, head of technical research and science at Historic Environment Scotland, the conversation plunged straight into what was on many people’s minds.

Covid-19 was prominent in the Dialogue. Despite initial discussion on the pandemic’s immense disruption to business, Keith Jones, climate change specialist to the National Trust, quickly swung the downbeat undertones to that of finding silver linings. This positivity and resilience set the tone for the next 45 minutes.

Comments poured in on the chat box, sharing positive experiences and reflections on what the pandemic has brought. Some felt the respite from constant visitor streams benefitted the preservation of collections. It was mutually felt that the time away gave people a chance to re-evaluate practices and plans. One comment that resonated with me was how colleagues otherwise not involved in back-of-house operations are now involved with these tasks. I am a firm believer in harnessing the power of people to open up access and advocate for the work we do as conservators, so it was a welcome observation.

Our panel moved on to analysing the renewed meaning of how we value heritage, a theme gradually expanded on throughout the session and how challenges from the pandemic led to reaching out to new communities. There was consensus that climate change is a pervasive entity in our lives and this serious matter will shape how the sector evolves and is sustained.

As our panellists have diverse specialisms and are from different sectors, they have been impacted differently. For Lisa Westcott Wilkins, co-founder and Archaeologist of DigVentures—a born-digital archaeology enterprise built on civic participation—their audience is online and global. This meant they were already well-placed adapting to the move to digital. The main change was reaching new audiences whose experiences and interpretations contrasted existing expectations. This challenged their own perception to the value of heritage. Her advice to best engage during the pandemic is to be open to feedback and allow for a more organic development to strategic plans.

There was an undercurrent of placing people at the heart and linking global communities in conservation efforts. The notion of people and places circulated heavily in the chat.

Have climate change and the pandemic tapped into our attachment to belonging and loss?

Amanda Pagliarino, head of conservation and registration at Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art, shared how she implemented the concept of ‘collective cooperative change’ in decision-making that echoes the present sentiment of a unified voice to steer change. The resistance she encountered in pursuing relaxation of environmental parameters for storage, display and loans is felt personally in my professional capacity; to win hearts and minds to enable this change. Perhaps the ‘generational thinking’ Amanda hinted has some influence…

Alternatively, could the fixed psychological mindset that Keith referred to hinder the acceptance of change? An attendee implied insufficient time, resources and work pressures faced by established professionals attributed to these conservative stances when it comes to change. Keith reminded us that adaptation to the different states our environment and the present pandemic need embedding to guide our decision-making moving forward.

This is exciting – different states is a notion peppered throughout Congress. Could we be more open to allowing monuments and buildings to age gracefully as Martin Michette touched on in his paper during Session 4?

Would a revival of the ‘Picturesque’ be embraced?

One comment stood out on the chat, to let go of the notion that “keeping things for longer is inherently better...” thus allowing us to consider change more positively.

Timely, the Dialogue moved in a philosophical direction. The word “loss” will carry new meanings in 2020. So, how do we adapt to heritage loss?

Regulations to review standards and guidance appear to be the missing element in adapting to change and loss. An attendee remarked that poor governance and politics would affect the level of practicable change – something that has swayed decision making in all sectors.

Ewan made a good point; perhaps if larger, national organisations like Historic Environment Scotland and National Trust took leadership, adaptations to change would be slightly easier to endorse. Support was a recurring word in the chat stream with one comment going further, suggesting a need for an international response.

For Keith, he is developing an internal framework to assess acceptable change in states and decay, which will form the support structure in their conservation management. DeSilvey (2017) refers to ‘palliative curation’ when discussing the provision of care for objects allowed to deteriorate.

As Keith clearly states, doing nothing does not automatically mean neglect or divestiture; it can be an informed decision not to do anything further. Many nodding heads.

Climate change is ambiguous and nuanced. At this point, I reflected on the current floods in Sudan and Vietnam, forest fires in the Amazon and Australia, and systemic destruction of Heritage caused by civil unrest.

Managing loss and change will resonate with us all, personally and professionally.

As Amanda put it, “There's a lot of research to show how Australia is already shifted. Our winters are short. Our summers are longer. Wet spells are fewer, but more intense.”

On a slightly positive note, our panellists have successfully integrated the digital into their workflows, and so have many others according to the chat stream. However, as we gain new audiences and enhance engagement, who do we exclude? I posed this question to our attendees, as I sat tethered to my router, with a back-up Wi-Fi dongle.

It would come as no surprise that communities from lower socioeconomic standing would feel the effects more; this also includes people living in areas without internet infrastructure and those less familiar or comfortable using technology. Now not only have they ‘lost’ the physical access to heritage, but they are also faced with a new obstacle. Let us not ignore the digital paradox either, as with its predecessors, this digital era of progress is not without side effects. It is worth noting that one of the largest contributors to greenhouse emissions and consumption of global energy is the Information Technology industry, and it is only likely to grow. I know. Everything at a cost.

As the discussion continued, one thing was undeniable; the implications of climate change on the environmental, social, and economic areas will continue to stack without coordinated action in mitigation and adaptation.

Like every good dialogue, there were so many threads spun by the time we hit our allocated time.

My final thoughts: keep questioning and investigating sustainable options. Challenging the status quo is not and should not always have negative connotations. Perhaps many attendees like myself do not hold a position of authority (yet) to make higher-level decisions, but we can be accountable and take responsibility in our own way. We can do this by asking and putting pressure on suppliers regarding their climate policies and sources and request recycling schemes. Perhaps, once it is safe to do so, start documenting and mapping your local heritage. Draw, measure and photograph their transformed states to keep their stories going.

Useful Links:

Martin Michette, Heather Viles, Constantina Vlachou-Mogire & Ian Angus (2020) Assessing the Long-term Success of Reigate Stone Conservation at Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London, Studies in Conservation, 65:sup1, 225-232, DOI: 10.1080/00393630.2020.1752427

Caitlin DeSilvey (2017) Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving

Climate Heritage Network –http://climateheritage.org/

Learning From Loss – https://www.scottishinsight.ac.uk/Programmes/Scotland2030/LearningfromLoss.aspx



Riza Hussaini is a conservator at the John Rylands Library and is a preventive conservation postgraduate student