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Motivation & Hope after My First Climate Crisis Conference

Author: Kate Fugett


Stemming the Tide Conference, March 5th & 6th 2020.





On March 5th and 6th of this year, I travelled to Washington D.C. to attend Stemming the Tide: Global Strategies for Sustaining Cultural Heritage through Climate Change at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). Upon arrival, I had no idea what to expect but was excited at the prospect of learning more about how I could incorporate sustainability into my work as a museum objects conservator. The two day conference was organized on ICOMOS’s 2019 publication The Future of Our Past which identified six types of cultural heritage as risk due to climate change: Museums and Collections, Archaeological Sites, Built Heritage (Buildings and Structures), Cultural Landscapes and Historic Urban Landscapes, Cultural Communities, and Intangible Cultural Heritage.


Day 1 included opening and keynote speakers as well as six speakers, each addressing one of the identified types of cultural heritage at risk due to climate change. Dr. Scott Miller, Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support at SAAM, opened the conference by asking what type of collecting institutions can do to document climate change for the future and if this can inspire change. He was followed by Ken Kimmel from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who delivered the opening keynote. I found this keynote to be incredibly inspiring as Kimmel laid out succinctly and clearly how we already have the technology and solutions to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and halt climate change, we only need to implement them.


Ashley Wilson, Grand Gund Architect at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, spoke on Cultural Landscapes and Historic Urban Landscapes. She gave several examples of innovative solutions the National Trust has devised to preserve their properties for the future. She also spoke about how art and cities can make changes to reduce their impact. She was followed by Isabel Rivera-Collazo, Assistant Professor on biological, ecological, and human adaptations to climate change at the University of California (San Diego), speaking on Archaeological Sites. Rivera-Collazo pointed out not only how archaeological sites are at great risk due to climate change (erosion, sea levels rising, increased storm activity, etc.), but also how the loss of archaeological sites results in lost understanding about how past communities and cultures survived natural disasters, something present societies could learn from as we work to combat the climate crisis.


Carl Elefante, principal emeritus, Quinn Evans Architects presenting on Built Heritage (Buildings and Structures) spoke about how buildings not only need to be preserved but are also a source of pollution. Sustainable technology is needed to remove the greenhouse gas footprint from building materials and their construction. However, buildings can also be an incredible resource and generate clean water, food, and power. Elefante asked us to think critically about what constitutes a “green building” suggesting it is one that has already been built rather than one that is new.


Victoria Herrmann, president and managing director, at The Arctic Institute spoke on Cultural Communities and work she has done with the National Trust where she travelled across the U.S. and territories speaking with communities about how they are already being impacted by climate change. What she discovered is that people are most worried about losing their cultural heritage and not their infrastructure. She also highlighted the fact that climate change disproportionately affects women, people of colour, and low-income communities. Herrmann developed Rising Tides, a platform that connects those in need with those who have the skills to help them.


Janene Yazzie, sustainable development program coordinator for the International Indian Treaty Council, followed on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Yazzie, a member of the Dine, spoke about how indigenous world views enable resilience, provide answers, and have helped native people become leaders in the climate crisis movement. She highlighted how many native people are no longer able to turn to their cultural heritage as it has been polluted and destroyed or lost because it was once deemed illegal. This colonial history must be acknowledged as it still informs climate action and the development of green technology. She pointed particularly to the use of nuclear energy which many believe is a way to achieve renewable energy. She finished with a call to action that we must work together to acknowledge how the past informs the present and develop a people led movement.


Nicole Heller, curator of Anthropocene Studies at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, spoke about the steps taken by her museum and museums around the world to mitigate their climate impact. She shared broad ideas as well as specific examples of what museums and cultural institutions can do to create positive climate action. She also emphasized how important it is to not get stuck in the negative and to acknowledge the real mental health impact climate discussions can have. When cultural institutions create a space for visitors to share their feelings, they leave feeling much more energized to create positive change.

Finally, Allison Tickell of Julie’s Bicycle delivered an incredible closing keynote. Julie’s Bicycle has two goals: all cultural activities should be restorative, and net zero carbon and all culture should inspire action on the climate and ecological crisis. She spoke about how all creative industries must be repurposed to serve the climate crisis. Julie’s Bicycle provides tools for cultural organizations (including museums) to measure their climate impact and supports them through this process. Just by having this data, Julie’s Bicycle has observed organizations are taking steps to minimize their impact.


The day 2 breakout sessions were again organized by cultural heritage type. While I wish I could have attended each session, I attended the Museums and Collections breakout session based on my experience working as a museum conservator. This session was led by Henry McGhie of Curating Tomorrow. It was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on everything we had heard the day before. Additionally, McGhie provided a simple framework through which each group could assess ways to take action. We were asked to think about where we are, where we want to get, and how we can get there. Most importantly, McGhie encouraged us not to give up our agency and think about things we can do.


I left the conference incredibly motivated and hopeful. There is much an individual and an individual with resources and a community can do to create a positive impact. I also left with resources including like-minded organizations and the emails of speakers and fellow attendees with which I can continue thinking about and acting on ways to help create positive climate action. All the speakers were incredibly knowledgeable, and their wisdom and ideas cannot be summed up in a blog post. I encourage everyone to watch the talks which are available on YouTube.

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Sustainability in Conservation is an online network providing resources and information about environmentally responsible practices  in art conservation and related fields. Within a practice that produces so much waste, we hope to inspire collaboration and awareness to make cultural heritage a more sustainable profession. 

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