Resilience and Cultural Heritage: Connecting the dots

Resilience and cultural heritage – Johanna Garnett 

Social media displayed an outpouring of grief following the devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral Paris. People mourned for the loss of an ‘iconic building’; sharing their ‘heartbreak’ at watching ‘a beacon of faith and human spirit’ burn; complete strangers congregated together to sing Ava Maria as they stood guard at the ruins; people wished France ‘strength as they grieve and rebuild’; world icons lit up in French colors in solidarity for the loss and millions of Euros were offered to fund a rebuild. The reaction to this event is important because it serves to remind us what people truly value and what role heritage plays in our sense of place and self, security and resilience.

The recently released report by the Department of Home Affairs, entitled ‘Profiling Australia’s Vulnerability: The Interconnected Causes and Cascading Effects of Systemic Disaster Risk’ discusses how in times of disruption, our focus may sharpen on ‘the things we value most but which we often don’t recognise because we assume they will always be there… and their value is only revealed or surfaces during or after a disaster’ and how we find value in things ‘less tangible such as connections, community identity, spirit and cohesion, traditions and heritage, and the feeling attached to particular places’ (pg. 29 -39).

Cultural heritage provides this value for communities at a local, regional, national and global level. Spennemann (1999) comments ‘humankind needs…evidence of the past as reminders. Heritage presents people with certainties…familiar surrounds which provide assurances and reassurances.’ Resilience and recovery are connected to the emotional relationship a community has with both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Following a disaster, without this tangible or intangible representation of the community, it is more difficult for members of that community, as a whole, to bounce back. Alexander, 1989 comments that cultural heritage contributes to the genius loci or ‘spirit of place’. If disaster strikes, this can weaken or destroy the genius loci, weaken the sense of identification with a place a person has and even weaken the resolve to rebuild. However, strong genius loci can inspire survivors to overcome setbacks and reconstruct. By protecting cultural heritage, the shared identity and relationships of the community, the social capital networks, are also protected (Aldrich & Meyer, 2015).

Globally, the increasing value of cultural heritage in disaster risk reduction is evidenced in the inclusion of its protection in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, for the first time, as a major objective. The Framework states the importance of protecting cultural heritage from disaster via Priority 3: Investing in Disaster Risk Reduction for Resilience 30 (d) ‘the protection or support of the protection, for cultural and collecting institutions, and sites of historical, cultural heritage and religious interest is important.’ In addition, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the lead agency in matters of cultural heritage, states in Target 11.4 in ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ that ‘strengthened efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage’ are required. However, a quick scan of State Emergency Management plans, the Australian National Strategy for Disaster Resilience and the recently released National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework shows only rudimentary linkage to the role of cultural heritage, and its’ value in resilience building and during recovery.

In 2017 the Royal Society of Canada, Académie des Sciences, Leopoldina Nationale Akademie Der Wissenschaften, Academia Nationale dei Lincei, Science Council of Japan, the Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences issued a Joint Statement at the G7 meeting entitled ‘Cultural Heritage: Building Resilience to Natural Disasters’, raising the issue that effective pre-disaster planning should allow for the prompt intervention of experts following a major catastrophe, crucial for the stabilization and survival of collections.

However, the value this expertise can add goes beyond simple collection management during response. For example, the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) sector in Australia provides a range of support to local communities that promotes and encourages resilience building and recovery measures. Personal heritage, such as photographs and treasured personal memorabilia, is of great value to people and communities affected by disasters. Conversations with recovery teams around Australia emphasise the effect that the loss of personal heritage can have on communities.

Everyone kept telling us we’re ok because we are insured but…insurance doesn’t replace photos, childhood toys, wedding dresses etc.’

‘I don’t care about the washing machine or fridge etc.- these are easily replaced; part of my soul went with the flood; a great emptiness for the loss of personal items, so sentimental to our family and irreplaceable and which insurance cannot replace’.

‘I lost all my parents belongings. It was like losing them all over again’.

‘So many people walk into recovery centres carrying bags of sodden photographs…all of which have to be binned’.

Communities often believe that treasured, irreplaceable personal heritage damaged by smoke or water cannot be salvaged or repaired. Currently the emergency management sector and members of the public have limited awareness of existing resources available, created by the GLAM sector, which inform how simple steps can ‘buy time’ for damaged personal heritage, allowing individuals the option to investigate restoration or conservation at a later date. This opportunity to restore damaged personal heritage could assist in addressing one of the underlying causes of long lasting psychological trauma associated with large-scale emergencies.

To conclude, the reaction to the Notre Dame Cathedral fire provides an opportunity to reflect on what people truly value and the role cultural heritage plays in our sense of place and self, security and resilience. These important cultural heritage resources cannot protect themselves. Further discussion is needed to unpick and respond to the relationships between the concept of resilience and cultural heritage. A strengthened relationship between the emergency management sector and the cultural heritage sector will underpin improved resilience and mitigate some of the longer lasting personal impacts of major emergencies.



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