Stemming the Tide: A Call to Climate Action for Cultural Heritage

SAAM hosted a two-day conversation that examined the intersection of climate change and cultural heritage worldwide.

Amber Kerr on April 21, 2020
Chief of Conservation Amber Kerr presenting at a podium with slide text behind her

Chief of Conservation Amber Kerr welcomes participants to the Stemming the Tide symposium on March 5, 2020. Photo by Michael Barnes.

On March 5-6, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Collections Program presented an informative, inspirational, and action-oriented two-day conference entitled Stemming the Tide: Global Strategies for Sustaining Cultural Heritage Through Climate Change. The event was part of the Smithsonian’s 2020 Earth Optimism programming in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

In 2019, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) issued a report, titled “Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action." This report outlined the untapped potential of cultural heritage to drive climate action and support ethical and equitable transitions by communities towards low carbon, climate resilient development pathways. The impact table published as part of the report outlined climate change effects on six categories of cultural heritage: Archaeological Sites, Built Heritage (Buildings and Structures), Cultural Landscapes and Historic Urban Landscapes, Cultural Communities, Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Museums and Collections. We used these six categories to guide the organizational structure of the conference.

Symposium participants discuss in a cluster and woman writes notes on large sheet behind

Stemming the Tide breakout session on Museums and Collections in SAAM’s MacMillan Education Center. Photo by Michael Barnes.

The first day of the event featured a day-long symposium that included speakers from around the globe presenting on the current challenges facing a broad spectrum of cultural heritage sectors. With 250 registrants and more than 1,000 views online representing 33 states and 25 countries from Australia to the United Kingdom, the symposium examined the impact of climate change on cultural heritage and communities worldwide, discussed the responsibilities of stewards of cultural heritage in fostering collaborative solutions, addressed urgent questions of equity and inclusion, and identified strategies that leverage cultural heritage for climate action. Providing critical lessons learned and constructive pathways forward to mitigate and manage these challenges, each speaker engaged the audience and inspired action.

The program kicked off with an opening keynote by President of the Union of Concerned Scientists Kenneth Kimmell, who provided the scientific baseline and critical goals for reducing our carbon footprint, along with five constructive stages for building the bridge that spans the raising tides ahead and constructs a pathway toward climate goals. Six experts in the representative cultural categories followed, presenting their knowledge, experience, and perspectives toward sustainable stewardship for protecting cultural heritage in our changing environments. Founder and Director of Julie’s Bicycle Alison Tickell delivered the closing keynote, sharing the partnerships in the UK to mentor cultural heritage institutions, professionals, and artists on sustainability, which set the groundwork for the following day.

Six speakers seated onstage around a small table talking to audience with slide behind

Panelists discuss strategies with the public during the concluding program, Heritage at Risk: A Dialogue on the Effects of Climate Change. Photo by Michael Barnes.

On the second day, six Smithsonian museums hosted breakout sessions, in which participants discussed current climate change challenges, resources needed to effectively mitigate the challenges, and strategies to move forward. Each session focused on a heritage category with a professional moderator facilitating the discussion points with support from the first-day speakers (explore the speaker and moderator list) as well as Smithsonian subject matter specialists. The conference concluded with Heritage at Risk: A Dialogue on the Effects of Climate Change—a free panel discussion open to the public, which featured six experts in the field of cultural heritage moderated by Julian Bickersteth, President of the International Institute of Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC).

In response to the critical need for this information, Smithsonian Scholarly Press is producing a digital publication summarizing the breakout session discussions and responses to the three directives—what is happening, where do we need to be, and how do we get there—along with the presentation papers from the conference. It will be available by the end of 2020. Email us for news about the publication.

To learn more about these critical issues, watch the recorded talks on YouTube and read about SAAM's conservators working in Puerto Rico to assess damage from Hurricane Maria.

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