Getting back to the garden

23 04 2009

When I was asking around for ideas about how cultural & heritage organisations could provide more of an impetus to environmental actions, two people (let’s credit them, Ian Haynes from Cimex Ltd and Colin Hynson from Norfolk Museums Service) said that Transition Towns had a lot of potential in that it is a grassroots movement but that it could do more to connect better with education and cultural organisations in their local communities. Ian said it wasn’t engaging as much as it could with the education sector, tapping into the Sustainable Schools initiative. Colin said that TT wasn’t engaging the cultural heritage sector enough.

Having been to my first TT meeting of a new group starting up in my locality, I can see how this happens. It’s a very informal, ground-up movement that starts up in people’s houses. However, I did find the meeting very positive. One positive thing is that the funding for our group came from Lewisham Council, so it is officially endorsed, at least in our area. Also, I’ve since heard that two of our Ward Assemblies want to spend some of their £50,000 Mayor’s Fund on sourcing allotmentse and other environmental actions.

The other positive thing is the impact of the film we watched, Rebecca Hosking’s A Farm for the Future. I found this quite revelatory. For many years, I’ve been vaguely aware of permaculture and new approaches to farming, but not strongly aware of the connection to climate change. This film very clearly puts into context the relationship between climate change, oil and food. In summary, the future of farming is gardening, a new kind of gardening that is designed for maximum yield for less input and highly nurturing of biodiversity. She visits some ‘forest gardeners’ in Wales and Devon, who describe what they are doing as ‘design’ and ‘gardening’ not farming. Their intelligence glows. Their gardens are beautiful, humming with life and producing more food than their families can eat. Hosking also visits a Shropshire farm where they don’t need to bring the cows in for winter. They know their grass pasture won’t be churned up because their father experimented for years to create a mesh of 20 different grass varieties (rather than the typical three). Also, their soil doesn’t need to be ploughed and reseeded. Hosking says ‘But we’ve ploughed the soil for 10,000 years. Are you saying we don’t need to plough?’ She then shows how the mechanisation of ploughing has depleted the soil quality and also the food web that biodiversity depends upon.

To consider that we should stop what we have been doing for 10,000 years, to end our human heritage as farmers, is pretty radical. When we suggest that we need to stop clearing wilderness and restore biodiversity, the default response is ‘we can’t go back to being hunter gatherers’. This response is either accompanied with ‘You’re talking all Garden of Eden idealistic nonsense’, or ‘People have life too easy now, they would never face the hardship’.  Hosking’s film shows that we don’t need to go back to being hunter gatherers, but we must go forward as intelligent gardeners.

What does this have to do with the cultural heritage sector? Well, it raises questions about our role in preserving heritage and emphasises why our primary purpose needs to shift towards enabling social change. How can we help people learn how to become intelligent gardeners, how to eat differently and how to scale up ‘forest gardening’? Natural history museums, botanical gardens and preservation trusts have a key role to play in this. See, for example, the work of the Horniman Museum, the National Trust’s allotment campaign, and also the BBC’s invitation to museums to take part in the Green Balloon Club festival this summer.

However, supporting issues such as green land use, food production and biodiversity preservation, should be part of thinking about overarching sustainability policies for all cultural heritage organisations. Their sustainability plans shouldn’t focus exclusively on how to adapt and manage their buildings and services to reduce their carbon footprint, although this is of course important.

If Transition Towns is becoming officially endorsed by local authorities, there is an opportunity for locally funded cultural heritage organisations to support it, and to help engineer better connections with schools too.

What else do you think we can do to bring ecological practices into the mainstream in our sector?

MEMO in Dorset

14 04 2009

I’ve come across a really interesting and worthwhile project in Dorset. This is the MEMO, or the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory. Funny, the word ‘memo’ reminds me of those slips of paper we used to send round our workplaces before email. It suggests things passing, slip-iness and fragility. MEMO is like a memo in that the project is intended to remind us of what we have lost and what we should take care to preserve. But it carves the memo in stone and it tolls a great bell.

The resonances of this project are extraordinary, but it is quite unique too. The rings of reference include Stonehenge, St Pauls cathedral, heiroglyphics/Egyptian stone memorials, grafitti, James Tyrell and more. As well as being resonant with metaphor the project also seems solid in the support offered by scientists and in the provision of information about the Holocene Extinction Event we are living through.

The idea, proposed by Sebastian Brooke, is to create a circular enclosure of Portland stone, open to the sky. The stone will be carved with patterns of micro-organisms by schoolchildren and members of the public during carving festivals leading up to 2012. The chosen site is on the Eastern cliffs ofthe Isle of Portland in Dorset, the quarry for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral and overlooking the 2012 Olympic sailing events. It is an Olympic partner, but 2012 is also significant because it is the 20th anniversary of the Rio summit and 350 years since Dodos were last seen. 2010 will also be a key year in the project because this is the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity.

I wish this project the best of luck, hope I get to see it, and hope it works!

Tangled Banks

14 04 2009

This is not going to be a post about how the banks are in a mess or how entangled their corrupt dealings are.  I’m going to save that for a future post about cultural heritage and economics, though I need to do some research first, for example looking at articles from the Institute for Collapsonomics .

No, this is about Darwin’s tangled banks. The final paragraph of his Origin of Species posits an ‘entangled bank’ as a way for us to envisage evolution taking place.

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This ‘entangled bank’ is not one of the various extraordinary ecosystems that Darwin studied on his Voyage of the Beagle, but one close to his home and pretty close to many of his readers’ homes, in the home counties near London. As Easter for me is more of a time to celebrate Spring in nature rather than the Resurrection, we went on a day out to Down House, the home of Darwin for 40 years. We also wandered round the village of Downe, and looked at the church which was for Darwin the significant centre for the community. Then we walked through Keston Common, one of his woodland and heathland areas of study. See here for some photos of these places.

The house is owned by English Heritage, who have put a good deal of resource into improving the experience to coincide with the Darwin200 celebrations. This investment was also part of the bid to make Downe and Cudham (or Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory) a World Heritage Site, although that application is now withdrawn.

Overall, it’s a pretty good experience. The house is perfectly restored and the downstairs rooms highly atmospheric, especially his study. Upstairs, there is a new exhibition, Uncovering Origins, which is very informative and accessible. It includes a mock-up of his room on the Beagle with a ‘pepper’s ghost’ of him at his desk. We spent a lot of time looking at the large map of the voyage, at the family tree that showed Darwin’s entanglement with the Wedgewood family, and at the Turning the Pages treatment of his notebooks. We also spent time in the two (yes, two!) rooms aimed at children, which had some pretty good interactive games designed with a Victorian sideshow feel. We found the gardens a little bit underwhelming, although walking Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ was lovely.

The enriched interpretation in the house is really welcome, although as a family we did have some criticisms:

The provision of free PDA audio-visual guides is a good thing. But this meant that the downstairs rooms were clogged up with people taking their time listening and fiddling with their devices so you couldn’t actually see the detail in the rooms. In the upstairs exhibition, the devices were taken away from you and so in these spaces the visitors were much more able to concentrate, play with the exhibits and talk to each other. I was disappointed with the content of these AV tours as they missed the opportunity to create an ambient layer to enrich your experience of moving around the house and the gardens. I generally find recorded speech far too slow and irritating as a way of taking in information, but I do like it if it is music, sound effects, poetry or drama. A recent discussion on Twitter about audioguides sparked by Nina Simon shows that I’m not alone in this.

Our second criticism is that we would have liked a way to interact with the ideas in the exhibition. There was one video called ‘What does Darwin mean to you?’ but it only showed talking heads and we had no chance to leave our own ideas. There could be some wonderfully creative ways to engage people with Darwin and evolution, for example, by inviting them to contribute to an evolving story or an artwork.

I’ll soon make a visit to the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum and will be interested to see how it enables visitor interactions. It’s so important that we get beyond simplistic debates about evolution vs belief and extend public understanding of historic ecology and biodiversity. That’s why heritage experiences must be as interactive and creative as possible.

About time

6 04 2009

I’ve just reread a poem by Primo Levi called Almanac, written on 2 January 1987, 3 months before he fell to his death. It says “The glaciers will continue to grate, smoothing what’s under them” and “Earth too will fear the immutable Laws of the universe. Not us. We, rebellious progeny With great brainpower, little sense, Will destroy, defile…” and it ends “Very soon we’ll extend the desert Into the Amazon forests, Into the living heart of our cities, Into our very hearts.”

An almanac is an annual publication of timely events, mostly of a cosmic nature but also of sacred events in the human calendar. Levi’s is a very rebellious kind of almanac, a prediction of a time to come based on his observation of the human disregard for planetary forces. He plays on the popular notion that people are far too insignificant to affect the great forces of nature, by suggesting that despite the immutable laws of the universe there still can be change on a vast scale. And that it is the very rebellion of humanity against nature which is bringing the desert into our hearts.

Now, you might think that Levi was a prescient genius. Referring to ecological catastrophe in 1987? Surely we didn’t start to think about this until the 21st century? Or at least since late 2006 when the Stern review told us that climate change was serious and most probably caused by man? Well, genius Levi was. But, in this case not so prescient. In fact, the ‘greenhouse effect’ was noticed in 1886 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. Significant global warming was noticed in the 1930’s and one man G.S.Callendar said it was due to the greenhouse effect. Thanks to Cold War funding, scientists continued to monitor the warming climate. In 1967 (the year I was born, the Summer of Love) a report made clear that the temperature would continue to rise with serious results. The 1970’s saw the rise of environmentalism but the research effort was so dispersed and under-funded in such a complex field, that climate change was not taken up as a major concern by the environmental groups. My parents were Green as can be but lived it out through self-sufficiency, thrift and nature conservation. They rarely talked about climate except whether the drought (1976) would mean we’d starve (we went hungry) or whether the rainy winter would make the soil too clarty.

I vividly recall news reports of global warming in 1988, when I was at the University of Sussex, and it had a big impact on me. My close friends then thought the biggest cause was feminism and equality, but I couldn’t agree. We studied humanities not science. The science faculties were over the other side of campus and we didn’t mix.

Since then I have always factored climate change into my thinking about the future,  much to the bafflement of my colleagues in museums and galleries over the years. The other day, chatting to some friends, the climate topic came up and they all agreed ‘it won’t happen in our lifetimes, it’s something that will affect our grandchildren’. I was surprised yet again that the waves of understanding had not caught up even with a group of people who keep up with current affairs and think hard about them.  Today the Wilkins Ice Shelf is collapsing. Jonathon Porritt predicts a ‘perfect storm’ of climate change and economic collapse as early as 2020. When we hear such news we close our ears, turn onto it with a challenge or just freeze. We are faced with so much information that we can be selective and choose not to believe it, unlike the trust felt by the early readers of almanacs.

Meanwhile, the G20 world leaders act with amazing alacrity to bail out the economy but at a glacial pace to respond to the climate crisis. “The glaciers will continue to grate, smoothing what’s under them”. The irony is that if the leaders continue to act at a glacial pace, the glaciers, which have already started to melt, will disappear. The immutable laws of the universe mutate.


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