Sea to Rising Sea: ProjectARCC at the Keeping History Above Water Conference

Our tour of the coastal Point neighborhood in Newport, Rhode Island covered colonial history, architecture, and a recent neighborhood concern: flooding. Heavy rainfall and storm surges in Narragansett Bay flood the streets and the basements of houses, leading some homeowners to raise the foundations of their centuries-old homes.  As activists we focus on preventing climate change, but Keeping History Above Water, sponsored by the Newport Restoration Foundation from April 10-13, presented a disorienting idea: climate change has already happened, and sea level rise is a problem now.

Preservationists, scientists, architects, activists, documentarians, public sector workers, politicians, and others addressed sea level rise from a multitude of perspectives. Adam Markham highlighted the National Landmarks at Risk report created by the Union of Concerned Scientists in partnership with cultural organizations. Attendees from the Netherlands, Iran, Italy, and Kirabati as well as towns all over the United States shared the impacts of climate change on their homes and heritage. Project ARCC presented a poster and had excellent conversations with attendees, many of whom had not thought about the role of archives in preservation and scientific efforts. You can read more coverage of the conference by checking out our Storify or the #historyabovewater hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. (The NRF Instagram featured a great image of Rose viewing one of the displays!)

Project ARCC’s mission to protect collections fits into efforts to protect built, inhabited, and natural environments. Matthew Pelz of the Galveston Historical Foundation used historical photographs and maps to illustrate how Galveston’s landscape has changed, and how a culture once incredibly adaptable and accustomed to moving houses has become more permanent and therefore less resilient.  The example of Galveston raises some questions for archivists – how can we be more resilient in our actions, and how can we better document flexible communities?

Marcy Rockman, Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for the National Parks Service, echoed Pelz’s inquiry of how people in the past dealt with environmental change. The NPS has taken a stand to “say the C word” in its planning and advocacy, publishing Using Scenarios to Explore Climate Change in 2013. Cultural heritage was not considered in major reports and frameworks regarding climate change risk until recently, but efforts such as the US/ICOMOS Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction have made strides to incorporate cultural heritage preservation into the global climate change agenda.

Archaeologist Tom Dawson spoke about his work with Scottish Coastal Heritage at Risk documenting, protecting, and even moving archaeological sites threatened by erosion caused by changing seas. Citizen science reports and 3D models are vital to SCHARP’s work. The variety of data that supports preservation projects are vast, and archivists have an opportunity to facilitate the access, preservation, and use of information by people doing this important work.

Preserving the narratives of climate change requires cultural sensitivity. Pam Rubinoff of the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center presented an image depicting houses on arks, prompting an audience member to ask, “Whose culture gets to go on the ‘ark’ of preservation?” Documentarian Sara Penrhyn Jones addressed this concern in describing her interviews with people in the island nation of Kirabati, already suffering the effects of sea level rise. She argued for the adoption of the language of human rights when discussing climate change.

The development of climate change communication and narratives is key; open communication channels must develop between different geographies and disciplines. Keeping History Above Water showed us the vastness of the spectrum of work addressing climate change, and the need for archivists to support the information and communication needs of these efforts.

— Genna Duplisea & Rose Oliveira

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