Yesterday I was at NESTA’s Future Fest, the theme of which was ‘Occupy the Future’. I was happy that the programme included a bit of heritage occupying the future, and to hear Caitlin deSilvey speak. This was in a session called Curated Decay, led by the AHRC Heritage Futures programme. Caitlin is someone I’ve been much inspired by through her writing on ‘anticipatory history’ – taking a nuanced and ecological approach to conservation and curation of heritage. Her work (and that of her colleagues) suggests that although we are well supplied with scientific information about environmental change, we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully and to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.
This work resonates with me because I think we fret too much about small losses when nature takes its course while ignoring massive losses due to the actions of accumulators of wealth, developers and grabbers of land, and delayers of climate action. You can see here slides from my talk on why we need to do much more anticipatory work, and resources to imagine possible futures for cultural organisations.
Caitlin talked about a Cornish tin mine that had been beautifully clothed in ivy but then stripped in its ‘restoration’, and about the ‘creative wake’ held by the community for Orfordness Lighthouse which is on the brink of falling into the sea from coastal erosion (made more rapid by climate change). I had been in touch with Caitlin when I developed a project called Lighthouse Songs, part of this creative wake. Yesterday, she talked about the media overreaction to the idea of ‘managed retreat’, interpreted by reporters as abandonment. Rather than abandonment, she proposes ‘palliative curation’, which is caring for something as you let it transform through loss, while capturing what matters so that others can be safe, or learn or benefit in the future.
In Lighthouse Songs, I chose to work with children from Orford Primary School as carriers of what matters into the future. Together with former lighthouse workers and museum staff, building on my own family history and some archive material, we cared for those stories and translated them into a song cycle performed at a concert in Orford church.
During this project, I reflected a great deal on time, and how these children born in 2008 would fare as climate change hits home in the coming decades. Or perhaps only years, not decades. When I was staying in Orford, I heard that my grandma Nancy was lying ill in hospital in Canada, but fully believed that she was back as a little girl in Orford. (My great grandfather was a coastguard on the ness, and she used to stay the night sometimes in his lookout, next to the lighthouse.) She had projected her self back into a time when she was happy, rather than into a possible future. Part of the ‘managed retreat’ process for the lighthouse has been to remove its light. Perhaps when you are dying, or when something precious has to be let go, you go inwards to the light, to keep it warming and guiding you for as long as possible.
But before that there is a phase of resistance, of ‘raging against the dying of the light’. In terms of the whole biosphere and its threats from climate change and other breached planetary boundaries, I’m still raging.
On my walk back from Tobacco Dock, which is incidentally a heritage warehouse building restored into an events venue, I came across a wonderful ruin which has a possible future.
This little building, with no roof and trees growing out of its brickwork, still bears the sign of the Nature Study Museum.
Here’s what an interpretation panel tells us, splashed with bird poo…
This felt poignant. In 1903 or thereabouts, museum staff envisaged a possible future for children in London’s East End, and believed in the value of learning about nature. And teachers and parents must have valued it too as 1000 a day would visit. Just a few metres away from this little (tiny) museum was the tobacco warehouse, full of imported nature: tobacco, spices, wool and animal skins. And also nearby was Charles Jamrach’s Exotic Animal Emporium. This little place offered an opportunity to get close and to understand, rather than to be entertained by or to profit from consuming nature. As Caitlin deSilvey suggested in her talk: In order to care for heritage as subject to natural processes of decay and change, we have to get up very close and to really understand it.
I wonder where plans are to restore this, and whether it will have functions of educating children about nature when and if they do. I wonder whether nature inside is more informative than nature explored outside. In the Future Fest, a garden had been constructed in a dark basement room, with weedy plants transplanted to seem to be growing in the gloom. It felt uncanny. Indeed, natural history museums feel uncanny too, and although they do valuable work of collecting and educating about biodiversity, they are not immune from ethical questions, or above their own histories linked to colonialism.
These are all thoughts that will inform what’s to come with Climate Museum UK. This will, I hope, help people come up close to nature while also taking an expanded perspective on the possibilities of the future.