Heritage Sites and Landscapes: A Conservation Enigma?

I have a question for you:

How can we conserve something that is constantly changing and evolving like a natural/historically important landscape or site?

The environment is constantly changing. Conserving something that has been made by nature by definition should mean conserving the process that made it and will continue to make and change the environment. Change IS heritage, it is because of change that we find these different societies and landscapes. So how do we begin to get around this conundrum?

Think of a cave system, carved in limestone from millions of years of water action – the percolating of slightly acidic water into a karst landscape that eventually forms massive underground warrens where stalactites and stalagmites grow, where the water creates layers of precipitated calcite on the floors in rivers of immobile minerals. The beauty of the place is astounding, and contains secrets we want to explore. The calcite rivers contain fragments of lost societies, the bones of animals they ate, the heads of their spears and ultimately the bones of the people themselves.

We can date these bones using carbon dating and also date the caves by looking at the limestone. What age were the tiny shelled organisms that made the rock, what layer do they chronologically fit into (where geographically do they sit in relation to the land and other rocks?). We can also use other forms of chemical dating such as uranium series dating to find out the age of the rock and the relative age of the bones encased inside it. What does this tell us? It gives us another insight into the history of not just our own archaeological heritage but also the long-term history that surrounds us. Just by knowing there is limestone around it is a good assumption to say that this areas was possibly once marine – we can tell whether it was deep or shallow marine (was it part of a delta or was it sea floor) from looking at the microscopic images of the limestone up close: the types of organisms that made it up and the minute grain chemistry. Are the grains pure carbonate material or is there silicate there? If so, why and when did it form? Was the cement between the grains precipitated while the sediment was being formed or was it something that happened much later in the rock’s history? What can these facts tell us about the environment that it was made in and can it also tell us how that environment changed through time? You bet it can. The questions go on and on…and each one helps us build up a picture of a much longer and more detailed history of the area, not just when or why humans might have used it relatively recently (geologically speaking).

So, back to the question. The landscape has changed drastically since the formation of the Earth. When it really comes down to it what are we trying to do? Capture a single moment in history and preserve it? To really do this you are looking at shutting off the water supplies, eradicating the wind and putting the area in an air-tight container to stop oxygen reaching with the environment. And then, well, who is to say that even at this extent that  you will have completely stopped any change? So we have to come up with some sort of happy medium. Um…

First off, what is is that we really value about the landscape? Understanding what current humans value about something begins to help us understand what parts of it we want to conserve. But because this is an evolving landscape, then isn’t it even more likely that values will change? Or is it? A crucial point that heritage scientists need to consider is what will people value in the future? Things change, including fashion, trends, politics and the change is reflected in everything we do. Scientific research will be carried out where the money is, which is where the interest is by the funding bodies which is almost certainly governed by global trends. Predicting this is difficult, but there are ways to try for example: what questions do you have now about a site/landscape/collection/object that cannot be answered by current technology? Collections in museums can be influenced by these types of ‘future’ values by asking such questions. Maybe the Association of Professional Futurists or the Centre for the Future of Museums will have some more interesting answers – they recently carried out a project asking people to identify trends or events that they see as possibly a turning point in the future of museums and writers were then asked to put these into context in a story.

Maybe when it comes to something like a landscape the best way to conserve it is to change with it. To understand and respect the nature of the land and conserve the change itself. If it is a changing and eroding coastline then generate ideas of ways in which to evolve with it, how can we build sustainable towns in this area? Make people understand that something that they see now may not be here in 20 years time, but that this is not something to feel sad about but something to evolve alongside. We can help record and cherish what we see now so that future generations can see what it was like and also value the change that they then see: build up a chronological sequence of a landscape for others to enjoy, for example.

“An outstanding example representing major stages of the Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms, and significant geomorphic or physiographic features.”This is the statement that UNESCO designated the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site (WHS) as back in 2001. As you can see the WHS values the ‘ongoing’ nature of the processes at the site and this is something that is to be cherished and conserved in itself. The Jurassic Coast has several threats to the conservation of the site, but has a great management strategy in place:

“Our vision is that World Heritage status will inspire people to celebrate, enjoy, value and learn about the Dorset and East Devon Coast, and to safeguard it for future generations in the best possible condition. We wish to ensure World Heritage status becomes a vibrant strand of the life of Dorset and East Devon, and the wider south-west, benefitting local people, visitors and the environment throughout the area.” Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site Management Plan 2009-2014. The 8 point plan is a great example of enabling the landscape to continue in its natural evolutionary journey, extending sustainable access and support to communities and helping them generate greater understanding and appreciation of the science, nature and value associated with their heritage.

For me a basic understanding of the natural environment for everyone is crucial. If we help people to understand a landscape and the nature of change then it should be easier to help preserve it in any way that we can. If preservation involves keeping people away from a certain area I feel that this defeats the purpose of the heritage site even being there, what is the point is we cannot learn from it? People need to see and understand and value something before they can consider caring for it. I think that the best way to understand value is to ask the people involved with it on a local, national and global scale. From there we can see a range of generations and geographical locations of value which could give us a good idea of the future values too. Then we can engage these people with the environment and the concept of continual change, which makes it so beautiful.