No direction home

The winter of 2013-2014 saw unprecedented damage being caused to coastlines around the UK, as storms forced the Government, as well as heritage bodies and local communities, to look again at plans to protect our coastal heritage.

Meanwhile, over 8,000 miles away, another community was facing an even more extreme situation: on the low-lying island of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, over 100,000 residents are facing permanent relocation, as rising sea levels threaten their homes.

The effects of environmental change are often measured in economic terms, but what of their impact on cultural identity? How might the loss of home and heritage affect a community’s sense of itself?

With climate change so clearly upon us, the project Troubled Waters, Stormy Futures: heritage in times of accelerated climate change has been exploring the cultural impact of environmental
catastrophe.

For project leader Sara Penrhyn Jones, who is a Senior Lecturer in Media in the College of Liberal Arts at Bath Spa University, ‘we urgently need to have an open, national conversation about which places to protect, and why. A lot of people in the heritage sector still cling to the notion that heritage means keeping things the same – but recent events show that we need to accept change. 

Climate modelling is not specific, of course – it’s rather like the way that doctors communicate with patients, saying: this is the range of possibilities. And we know that the grand narrative of climate change is experienced very locally. Coastal communities need to ask themselves what they value and most want to save, so that they can be more resilient and prepared in case of damage caused by climate change.’

The Troubled Waters project has been focusing on three coastal sites that are at risk of increased tidal flooding and coastal erosion.

Two of these sites – Porthdinllaen in North Wales and Durgan Village in Cornwall – belong to project partner the National Trust. The third, in Kiribati, shows to a greater degree the social and personal costs of climate change, as displacement leads to widespread loss of heritage, sense of place and cultural identity.

For Sara Penrhyn Jones, the project has been asking ‘who are you, if you lose your land?’ And what can be done for vulnerable communities – what are the coping mechanisms that help displaced people, for example the stories, memories, artefacts and practices that they can take with them?

‘One of the things that we have learnt from Kiribati is how much people’s attachment to the land is cultural. There, for example, a major concern regarding forced displacement was to do with the dead – family members who were buried on the island. There had been no planning about what to do with dead bodies. It shows that in responding to the effects of climate change, we need a broader
definition of heritage.

'It’s not always the obvious or spectacular things – often it’s the more ordinary or everyday that is most valuable to communities, being embedded in local history and the texture of people’s lives – the things that have meaning to people. 

'It is in this deeper understanding of heritage loss, and improved dialogue with vulnerable communities about the need to plan for climate change and adapt to it, that the Arts and Humanities have a distinctive contribution to make.’