We are used to focusing on the future impacts of climate change, so it may come as a surprise that our past is also under threat. A new project at the Google Arts and Culture platform demonstrates how caring for the past also means caring for the future.
Heritage on the Edge is an attempt to highlight the changes to which key historical heritage sites can be exposed due to a rise in sea levels, droughts, heatwaves, and other climate-related threats. The project invites us to explore the interplay of climate change and cultural heritage by showing the fragility of our culture even to small changes in the global ecosystem.
The initiative features five different cases from across the globe, each accessible in a variety of formats: an introductory story, AR experience, 3D visualization, a YouTube video, and a virtual tour. Each case highlights the historical significance of a site, its current status, the threats it faces and what is done to deal with them.
For example, Edinburgh Castle, which is visited by 2 million people every year, is threatened by groundwater flooding and slope instability. To deal with the challenges Historical Environment Scotland has developed an integrated plan, which includes local climate action, research on impacts and potential measures. It also includes the gradual repair of damaged buildings using a zero-waste approach and even reducing the impact of tourism.
The other featured cases are Kilwa Kisiwani Port Town in Tanzania, the ancient city of Chan Chan in Peru, Rapa Nui statues on Easter Island and Sacred Domes in Bagerhat, Bangladesh.
Ongoing efforts are aimed at preserving these sites, but many others receive less attention. The project’s creators hope that focusing attention to those other sites can elevate our collective feeling of responsibility, inspiring wider engagement with climate change and its impacts.
“Heritage is really the cumulative memory of humankind and the memory of communities… It is something we from we derive our identity. It gives us grounding in the world,” Andrew Potts, coordinator of the ICOMOS Climate Change and Heritage Working Group, explains.
The gradual disappearance of our cultural heritage means that our unity and social bonds may come under stress. Conversely, by working to preserve sites of global cultural heritage we can inspire greater action on both cultural heritage and climate change.
The project creators have shunned overly scientific rhetoric, instead highlighting real-life examples and physical realities with a wider public in mind. Their hope is that the effort will help “humanize the conversation and make it people-centered”.
On a practical level, the preservation of historical sites and buildings can foster respect towards nature and culture, both past and future. The project’s website notes that “understanding and preserving our past has forever been integral to our future.”