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Waikiki Beach
Nature-culture interactions: a crowd gathers to take pictures of the sunset. Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii. 2 September 2016

The Heritage Futures team attended the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in September 2016. The team took part in two poster sessions stemming from the project, and hosted a workshop titled Heritage Surgery: Building Sustainable Heritage Futures in the Anthropocene (#WCC_10310) on Sunday 4 September.

The workshop itself was structured as a ‘surgery’ where the participants were invited to diagnose the problems faced by those wanting to integrate nature and culture in their policy-making, and conservation and management practices. The HF team set up a series of provocations that were meant to challenge the audience of practitioners, professionals and academics to openly debate the nature-culture intersections from different contexts, drawing on the shared international expertise of both participants and organisers.

The open-floor provocations were the most productive part of the workshops as the HF team could then gain a better sense of the audience, and their experiences in engaging with both natural and cultural elements in their management practices.

With HF team member Dr Sarah May acting as facilitator, three provocations were posed to the audience. We highlight below those provocations, and some of the answers we obtained.

#WCC_10310 panel
Nature-Culture workshop panel. Photo by Dr Steve Brown

1. What is nature and what is culture?

Led by Professor Rodney Harrison, this first provocation included images of redwood trees – from the sequoia to the bonsai – its seeds, its habitats (in a forest, in an arboretum), and in some instances their threatened state to discuss the etymologies of nature and culture, and the relationships between the two, including the idea that the trees are witnesses to the changes evoked by the Anthropocene. The audience was asked to describe circumstances when the natural is being conserved alongside the cultural and where conservation lies.

Some of the responses included these observations:

  • Potentially, one might talk about a gradient of nature to culture: from the time when redwoods shifted from a landscape with potentially no or very few people 30,000 years ago to a domestic garden. However, given that nature didn’t know it was nature before humans came along – and it probably still doesn’t know it now – the obvious thing for the ‘when’ nature happened is when humans gave it a name. And part of the problem is that that name – nature – is too broad.
  • There was confusion over the distinctions between nature and culture, since for some in the audience, these concepts go hand in hand. For others, nature and culture are irrelevant in a lot of languages. Yet, perhaps the words ‘nature and culture’ are too crude to appreciate the relationship between nature and our emotional responses towards it. While these concepts are interesting, it might get too philosophical; pushing people outside of the conversation because it just seems to be an argument over semantics and not necessarily about more pragmatic problems.
  • Nature-culture is a dangerous distinction. The sequoias are now all in protected areas of state parks and national parks in the USA. So while fires are prevented for the protection of the species, sequoias need fire in order for seeds to germinate. By aggressively stamping out forest fires, humanity has actually changed the forest in a way that makes it very difficult for these trees to reproduce on their own. Perhaps management needs to start thinking about how to accommodate species reproduction rather than assume ‘fires are bad’.
Where is nature and where is culture?
Where is nature and where is culture?
  • If we think about sequoias as living creatures, then we can see them as doing ‘management’ too. Management might not be the right word, but nature does stuff in the world. This led to a discussion on how the human-nature relationship can go two ways. One audience member talked about a book by Michael Pollan titled The Botany of Desire. As humans, we often see ourselves as the agent, and always having this level of self-determination and influence on the world around us, and don’t always see ourselves on the receiving end and to see how a plant, by its certain qualities can, for instance, use us to propagate itself. This places us back in this entangled web of the natural system.
  • The image of seeds reminded a member of the audience about ongoing debates in Hawaii about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). This links to what we think is ‘natural’, and also what we want to protect.
  • When we think of the influence of humans in an era of the Anthropocene, in geological terms, this has happened very quickly, so that most species have taken a long time to evolve and adapt, but human influence has left many species no time to adapt.
When is nature and when is culture?
When is nature and when is culture?

2. How can creative approaches, such as film, assist in better understanding nature/culture relationships?

Here, a 5-minute film by Antony Lyons on Portugal’s Côa Valley was shown. It provides a contextual backdrop to rewilding initiatives in the area, yet focuses specifically on one person’s relationship with the land. The audience was asked whether they use creative means (photography, film, poetry) to bridge the nature/culture relationship in their work.

Some responses offered involved the following:

  • It isn’t so much film and photography as the power of storytelling. Personal storytelling is the most effective way to convey these narratives because they convey emotions, whether it’s through film, photography, poetry, sounds, writing.
  • There can be some mistrust because photography can be manipulated. Yet the interpretation of an image can be a very powerful way of demonstrating the different perspectives that are evoked (i.e. through people’s upbringing, experiences, cultural references, memories). This can be done via exhibitions, where photography, film and text are used (e.g. such as questions/provocations).

Personal storytelling is the most effective way to convey these narratives because they convey emotions, whether it’s through film, photography, poetry, sounds, writing.

3. Conservation targets and the significance of perceptions of the future

In this third segment, Professor Cornelius Holtorf asked the audience to think about their work in terms of the future: What future are you working for, and what future are you hoping to have an impact on in your work (the next generation or more?)

Responses consisted of the following:

  • One person spoke of his property outside of Canberra, Australia, which has wombats on the land. Wombats are protected species in Australia (except in Victoria). Wombats can live up to 5 years, but in captivity, they can live for up to 30 years. So, if their lifespan is longer through human intervention, maybe wombats should be captured by humans?
  • Many commented that bigger futures are imagined through smaller futures, e.g. what am I doing or what can I do in my own local environment/neighbourhood that I can do that fits a bigger picture? One audience member was concerned for the future because he feels that he has no ability to influence the real problem with the future: there are too many people on earth. So to cope with this, he has to pick something in his life that is tangible and measurable – with a beginning and an end – and try to feel happy about that.
  • Whatever we do today should be consistent with the future we desire, even if the future we desire is an idealized version of the present!
  • Speaking from a conservation architect perspective, one member of the audience didn’t have a firm idea of the future. From a buildings and cities point of view, planners attempt to predict the future, and the present is a very good example of how they don’t get the answers right. What he is trying to do is make sure that his bits of the city are still around, hoping that whatever comes afterwards will work with future citizens — rather than the buildings just being photographs on the dressing table as a memory of what was there before. So the past, present and future are somehow bound in a way that talks to one another.
Vombatus_ursinus_-Maria_Island_National_Park_copyright JJ Harrison
Wombat. Image by JJ Harrison ( - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons.

The Surgery: sharing lessons learned

The last session of the surgery invited the audience to bring all the elements discussed back into the fold by considering how we understand the entanglements of nature and culture: are they causing any difficulties in heritage and conservation management/practices or are they settled?

Some of the responses involved the following:

  • One thing that has been working well for the past hundreds of years is humanity’s interest in maintaining a record, such as the specimens of nature over time. In working in natural history museums, one audience member felt confident that their work will always be contributing somehow, providing people are willing to pay attention. But having that record over time has been, and will continue to be, important. With the help of technology, the observation data is now available with a billion downloads of knowledge per day. So it’s being used because information is being fed in a central repository. So it isn’t just the physical specimen, but the digital as well. The challenge is to continue this work and make it available on a global scale.
  • Storytelling is also a part of this since the natural history museum highlights the stories that the specimens, biodiversity and nature tell. Increasingly, stories of scientists themselves are being told to give context to what drives them to do what they do; this is what inspires people.
  • In terms of building conservation, the most depressing thing is that most building are saved because of neglect and lack of money and economic downturns: in other words, they’re saved more by negatives than by positives. The difficulty is the scale at which these things are managed, and that is the individual property scale. And this is one of the ways that nature and culture are managed. It would be interesting to consider managing culture the way that nature is managed, such as a species management across a wider area, rather than doing it on a case by case basis like ‘I’m gonna save this wombat, but not that wombat’. This would put a different spin on building conservation management. In terms of lifespan, the idea is the older the building, the longer the lifespan. It’s much more difficult to keep recently-built buildings going than older buildings. A lot of it is depends on commercial timeframes which are really short: you have to report to your shareholder on a yearly basis, and they expect to see an increase in the dividend every year. Yet we need to think in terms of centuries for a life of a building, so it’s difficult to maintain a vision of any kind across the board.
  • One audience member was thinking of ways in which heritage can persist in the future through transformation, and sometimes in a very contested way. For example, recently, there’s been a lot of deliberate destruction of heritage in conflict situations. There is a discussion in society about how heritage can be conserved through transformation – into a different physical and social context that will enable them to have different futures. Dealing with big, broad questions may be difficult because many of us are working for the present, e.g. conflict, contestation, denial of people’s rights and voices in the present – or at least a 5-minutes-from-now future.
  • To build on this, the challenge of working towards the future is that the next generation when we’re not here might decide to destroy what we see as precious (so maybe for some, the seed vault should be destroyed), so that’s the challenge of talking about the future: we can think about it up to a point, but then we have to let it go because it becomes someone else’s decision.

The Heritage Futures team wishes to thank all the participants for their engagement and insightful contributions at this workshop.

One thing that has been working well for the past hundreds of years is humanity’s interest in maintaining a record, such as the specimens of nature over time.