Climate change poses serious threats to cultural heritage
Heavy rainfalls, floods, rising sea levels, untamable wildfires, droughts, and other calamities are some of the dire consequences of climate change, possibly one of the greatest challenges of our time. Besides the disastrous impacts on the environment and biodiversity, climate change also poses significant threats to cultural heritage the world over, in both direct and indirect ways.
Because of global warming, cultural monuments and sites, as well as objects hosted in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs), face the very real threat of being irremediably damaged or lost. In 2015, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee acknowledged that “World Heritage properties are increasingly affected by climate change.” Climate change has also been shown to contribute to drastic cuts in public funding for culture as well as to lead to a rise in armed conflicts, with the catastrophic knock-on effects of the destruction of cultural heritage.
As the risk of natural disasters due to climate change increases, many institutions will face a damning reality: when cultural heritage is lost, a part of humanity vanishes.
Of course, climate change is not the only trigger for the loss or destruction of cultural treasures. All too often human error or negligence is to blame for heartrending losses, such as the 2009 collapse of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne, in which 90% of archival records were buried in the rubble. Thankfully, they were partly rescued later. Another tragic example is the 2018 fire in the National Museum of Brazil, in which 92.5% of its archive of 20 million items went up in flames. As the risk of natural disasters due to climate change increases and as governments shift their funding priorities away from the cultural sector, many institutions will likely face a damning reality: when cultural heritage is lost, a part of humanity vanishes.
Preservation can mitigate the risk of loss
This is why preservation efforts by GLAMs are crucial. At the heart of their mission is to preserve and provide access to cultural heritage to the public. Digitization is nowadays the most trustworthy, effective, and efficient way to ensure cultural heritage can continue to exist for all of us to enjoy, as recognized in the 2015 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including in digital form as well as under the European Commission’s Report on Digitisation, Online Accessibility and Digital Preservation of Cultural Material.
GLAMs, like the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., are embarking on digitization projects to help preserve and share cultural heritage. Image: “National Gallery of Art” by Phil Roeder (CC BY).
Unfortunately, most copyright laws give GLAMs major headaches when it comes to digitizing the works restricted by copyright in their collections for both preservation and online accessibility. Why? Digitization is an act of reproduction, and under copyright law, this act is the prerogative of the copyright owner, unless an exception applies. Unfortunately, exceptions are all too narrow, unclear, and rare. A recent World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) International Conference on Copyright Limitations and Exceptions for Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Educational & Research Institutions made evident the unacceptably skewed balance of the copyright system towards the copyright owner to the detriment of those institutions that care for and help interpret, understand, and share cultural heritage.
This is the reason CC signed the open letter prepared by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), among others, calling on WIPO to urgently create an international legal instrument with clear rules allowing the preservation of cultural heritage collections.