As explored in 1.3 What is cultural heritage? Heritage has multiple meanings, ranging from everyday objects and practices to symbolic spaces and rituals. Because these objects, spaces and practices are of value to a given community of interest, we might reason that they should be preserved in an unchanged and unchanging form—especially if they are threatened by the impacts of climate change and globalisation. But this preservationist approach is not a panacea because heritage is valued in different ways by different people over time. This section will expand on the idea of processual cultural heritage as a means of rethinking what is threatened by climate change.

Processual cultural heritage

Processual heritage recognises the multiple interactions of people with heritage objects and practices. This is seen in conservation practice, observing how attempts to stabilise or restore material decay – the practice of preservation – create new environments. This can be understood as new combinations of things used to hold materials together, and new histories – events of change – that recall events that change how the object is understood. In other words, heritage is the process through which ‘things’ become ‘objects of display’ (Harrison, 2013: 69). The process of becoming heritage is a human condition, a social process associated with memory, identity, and perception; it involves re-use, re-working, and re-interpretation (Harvey, 2001).

In the video below, David Harvey explains how we can think of heritage as a process. He explores not only material heritage, such as objects, sites, and landscapes, but also intangible values and power-relations.


Rethinking Cultural Heritage

Mainstream cultural heritage practice has increasingly incorporated the values of local groups in the act of conserving objects and landscapes. The Future of Our Pasts report, commissioned by the International Commission on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), draws attention to the role of cultural heritage, and local stakeholders, in the protection of cultural assets in the context of increased climate risk (ICOMOS, 2019). The report recognises the important role of heritage assets in reducing and compensating for loss and damage, improving adaptation through recognition of cultural limits and capacities, and drawing attention to the vulnerability of cultural heritage that has and will be lost to the impacts of climate change in the 21st century.

Heritage studies in the context of climate risk is therefore a highly interdisciplinary field, requiring the input of climate scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists, historians, museologists, artists, and disaster risk experts to name but a few. To safeguard cultural heritage for present and future generations, cultural resource managers (or heritage practitioners) will require input from each of these fields of research. As previously noted by Rowan Jackson, Hambrecht and Rockman (2017) draw attention to four pillars for addressing climate-related threats: science, mitigation, adaptation, and communication. At the upstream end, academic play a significant role in understanding how climate change will impact sites, landscapes, and communities. Practitioners play a significant role in the co-production of mitigation and adaption strategies together with stakeholder groups, as well as the communication of projected impacts on cultural heritage. A concerted effort to monitor impacts and build capacity is necessary to achieving resilient cultural heritage (Fatorić and Seekamp, 2017).

In the video below, Rowan Jackson asks: how we should conceptualise heritage risk?


Further readings & resources

  • Hambrecht, G. and Rockman, M., 2017. International approaches to climate change and cultural heritage. American Antiquity, 82(4), pp.627-641.
  • Harrison, R., 2013. Heritage: Critical Approaches. Routledge.
  • Harvey, D.C. and Perry, J., 2015. Heritage and climate change: The future is not the past. Routledge.
  • ICOMOS Climate Change and Cultural Heritage Working Group. 2019. The Future of Our Pasts: Engaging Cultural Heritage in Climate Action, July 1, 2019. Paris: ICOMOS.