Articulating Loss: Understanding and Communicating the Loss of Coastal Heritage
Historic England has teamed up with the University of Exeter to support a collaborative PhD project researching methods of communicating the physical and emotional impacts of coastal heritage loss.
Climate change is already affecting a wide range of heritage assets all around the coast. Some of these will be lost as the coastline changes. As heritage professionals, how we understand, process and communicate this loss to the wider public is of paramount importance; if we cannot save these important sites how instead do we 'lose them better'?
The threat to coastal heritage
All over the world past societies have left their mark on the landscape. From where I’m writing this in Cornwall I frequently come across the remains of crumbling chimney stacks and old engine houses. They line the roads and perch on the edge of cliffs, remnants of an industrial past. A past that has been recognised as a World Heritage site since 2006. The legacy of these heritage asset can be seen not only in the cultural landscape but also, and much more insidiously, on the climate record itself. In the UK climate change will mean warmer wetter winters and warmer drier summers, and this is already causing stresses to a range of heritage assets “from built to buried” (Croft, 2013; Heathcote et al, 2017).
As the impacts of a changing climate begin to be felt more acutely, not least in threatening the longevity of the very built heritage that contributed to its acceleration, policy within Historic England has changed from one of fighting against change to trying to adapt to it (Fluck, 2016). Part of this policy specifically addresses how to manage sites that will inevitably be changed or lost, while also contributing meaningfully towards wider conversations on the important role that heritage has to play in conversations surrounding climate change (Fluck, 2016; Heathcote et al, 2017). This article is based on a framework created as part of an ongoing collaborative PhD project between Historic England and the University of Exeter. The framework looks at the loss of heritage assets through the lens of four distinct themes described below, with the aim of better understanding and communicating the loss of coastal heritage.
Loss and the heritage sector
The heritage sector has a long and complicated relationship with loss. On one hand the need to protect has led to a fear of losing which underlies the current UK legislation for heritage protection (Schofield et al, 2011). On the other hand, loss occurring through destructive techniques such as excavation is welcomed even celebrated for its ability to unlock knowledge of the past and increase our understanding (Fluck and Wiggins, 2017). Indeed, avoiding all aspects of loss is neither achievable nor, arguably, desirable. Loss can help to continue collections, create value and even renew interest in history (Holtorf and Kristensen, 2015; Fluck and Wiggins, 2017; Morgan and Macdonald, 2018). Though the majority of the literature on climate change and heritage still focuses on methods of managing and conserving heritage assets to prevent or mitigate against loss, more recently there has been an increased focus on exploring the more transformational aspects of heritage loss and on the potential for value to emerge through accommodation of these natural processes (DeSilvey, 2017; Fatorić and Seekamp, 2017; Harrison et al., 2020).
Yet even with these new perspectives there is still an uncomfortable relationship between the acceptance of loss and heritage professionals especially as heritage sites are seen as a finite resource (Holtorf, 2015). These new ways of thinking still have to move from the more academic space to practical operational heritage management. When faced with the potential loss of heritage assets there seems to be an overwhelming professional anxiety based in fears of perception of mismanagement. This concern is exacerbated by uncertainty about the rate and scale of change acting on heritage sites. This isn’t to say that loss should be blindly accepted without consequence. Instead, when faced with the transformation of coastal sites that can’t be stopped to instead try and allow places to decay in a thoughtful and controlled manor intended to alleviate professional anxieties which can cause a breakdown of communication with them and the wider public.
The language of loss
Currently practitioners don’t have the language needed to talk about and explain the physical, emotional and mental challenges associated with the loss of heritage.
Nor has there developed a dialogue exploring the opportunities presented by its depletion. This is why the project’s framework was developed; to give loss a language by creating a method of describing the physical and emotional aspects linked to four discrete themes of loss that may be encountered within the historic environment.
- Invisible loss, which engages with heritage yet to be uncovered or assets that have gone unnoticed or overlooked. This theme concentrates on the potential release of value through the process of discovery and recognition;
- Adaptive loss, which recognises the transformational nature of a place, and allows for continued evolution of form and function;
- Inevitable loss, which involves the loss of heritage over an extended but unpredictable time period and provides opportunities for renegotiation of cultural and social relationships;
- Radical loss, which requires the consideration of future histories, the histories we leave behind for future generations, which are associated with landscape scale change. Importantly this these incorporates the loss of both heritage and non-heritage assets.
(Venture et al., 2021)
By breaking loss down into these four themes the framework is designed to help understand and compartmentalise this otherwise overwhelming issue. But, these themes are not meant to be overly prescriptive. This isn’t an exercise with a correct answer. The type of loss that you assign to a site might be different to how I would assign it, and neither approach is wrong. The important aspect is deciding what narrative to follow; what conversation to facilitate while keeping people that make up the various stakeholders at the heart of the discussion.
Loss is messy and this framework actively encourages that messiness, in the different narratives that maybe encountered even within the same site. These themes are designed to be flexible, flowing in and out of one another. As funding or interest fluctuates a site may transition from adaptive to inevitable back to adaptive. This allows for sometimes contradictory perspectives to emerge though open ended conversations which encourage the flexibility and collaboration needed to tackle the challenges head on.
Heritage professionals are in a unique position to use their intimate knowledge of cultural landscapes to help broad audiences understand historic and prepare them for future change (Dawson, Hambly and Graham, 2017; Harkin, 2018). Groups like the Climate Heritage Network formed in 2019 bring together a diverse group of heritage professionals, business owners, government officials and cultural practitioners to help connect the issues of cultural and climate change and to take action (CHN). Communicating about difficult subjects in thoughtful and emotionally-intelligent ways is of paramount importance in gaining acceptance and trust and in establishing the cooperation needed to face the challenges presented by climate in the future (Cumming and Norwood, 2012; Olson, 2015; D’Ancona, 2017).
As the climate changes so too will our way of life and relationship to the past. Heritage can be a great tool for preparing people for that change and that will include accepting some form of loss (Smith, 2006). But, loss is not the end of the story, in many cases it is just the beginning. The themes explored in this framework aim to help guide the conversations providing heritage professions with the tools to confidently address the challenges and take advantage of opportunities of a changing coast.
These themes, briefly described above, are not meant to be overly prescriptive. This isn’t an exercise in assigning heritage assets to one of these neat, fixed boxes but instead the aim is to facilitate conversation. Through breaking loss down into these four themes the framework is designed to help understand and compartmentalise this otherwise overwhelming issue, making it more manageable and providing the confidence needed to address challenges and take advantage of opportunities, whilst leaving room for reaction when unexpected things occur.
About the author
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD student
Tanya is Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) PhD student working with the University of Exeter and Historic England. She is based at the Cornwall campus and is currently working on innovative methods of communicating inevitable archaeological change on the coast using interactive documentaries. This article was based on ongoing PhD work and is explored in more comprehensive detail in the paper (Venture, T. et al 2021).
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