The recent special issue of The Public Historian focused on public history and environmental sustainability. This issue builds on the sustainable public history theme that was the focus of the 2014 National Council on Public History conference and the digital collection Public History in a Changing Climate which appeared on the Public History Commons. The special journal issue contains a number of interesting articles on the desire to engage the public with environmental history and a changing environmental landscape.
The article “A View from Scotland’s Coast” by Tom Dawson which looks at coastal erosion and the impact of erosion of heritage sites provides a glimpse into the potential of engaging the public in issues of heritage, climate change, and natural heritage.
Dawson’s writing focuses on the work of the Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion Trust (SCAPE Trust) and highlights examples of coastal erosion’s impact of heritage sites in Scotland. For example, in Bora, a small coastal town in Northern Scotland, industrial buildings from the sixteenth century were uncovered on the coast. Beginning in 2004 SCAPE worked with the local community and organizations to excavate buildings and begin to document the site. However in 2012 a winter storm destroyed the sixteenth-century salt pans that had been uncovered. All that remained were piles of ruble on a beach below.
This and other examples of heritage sites endangered by coastal erosion reminded me a lot of my trip to Ireland. While touring the Dingle Peninsula there were a number of site that had been partially destroyed be erosion or were at risk because of the changing shoreline. I remember thinking at the time about what could be done to save such sites, particularly in a country that is filled with similar heritage structures.
Dawson argues that “being able to demonstrate the value of an asset is key to getting the item preserved, or at least recorded before it is destroyed.” Heritage sites need to advocate for the value of their existence and preservation, especially if an economic advantage to preserving the site isn’t immediately apparent.
SCAPE believes that involving communities and local populations in archaeological and preservation projects is key, “working directly with heritage gives people a greater understanding of its importance, and this appreciation spreads through the community and beyond” Additionally local residents often hold valuable knowledge which has been passed down through generations about local heritage sites, landscape changes, and past events.
SCAPE’s development of the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project (SCHARP) highlights a collaborative effort to engage communities in preservation. The project relies on the public to update and correct information collected via coastal surveys and report any changes to the sites. The SCHARP project website includes data for 12,000 coastal sites and invites the public to update information based on local knowledge. The site is relatively user friendly and interesting to explore even for those without a local connection to Scotland.
SCAPE also asks community members to nominate sites for preservation. Though the ShoreDig project SCAPE works with communities to facilitate community excavation and to encourage engagement with threatened local heritage.
Dawson’s work highlights the crucial role the public has to play in the preservation of coastal heritage. Community engagement is essential to assessment of local heritage sites and working with the public can help preserve information and sites which would otherwise be lost in changing landscapes.