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ARTeSCIENZA: Climate Change, traditional knowledge and new technologies for cultural heritage protection

Climate change will have severe impacts across all human systems. Cultural heritage is not immune and often more fragile, hence the need for its protection and preservation. Art history, traditional knowledge and new technologies to protect cultural heritage and landscapes were the core themes for the webinar series ‘ARTeSCIENZA: Climate change, ancient knowledge and new technologies in defense of cultural heritage’, organised by Senator Michela Montevecchi as a follow-up to the conference, ‘ARTeCLIMA: between emergencies and protection of our Cultural Heritage’.
Marcy Rockman was an inspiration for ARTeCLIMA and ARTeSCIENZA: “What scientists say is that adaptation and mitigation are both necessary. What they cannot say is to apply them to different human contexts. Cultural heritage can be a source of creativity and inspiration to give an answer to this necessity”.

The two webinars, held respectively on 30 November and 3 December 2020, aimed at exploring the relevance of new technologies and traditional knowledge in several professional domains that deal with climate change consequences on cultural heritage.

The first ARTeSCIENZA webinar module highlighted new research findings, technologies and techniques in the field of cultural heritage conservation. In addition, it addressed the question of what role science plays in shaping new integrated management approaches to address the threats faced by Italian cultural heritage and cultural landscapes. The second module brought attention to the value of traditional knowledge for the sustainable management of cultural heritage, as well as to the importance of artists and scientists to develop effective interdisciplinary strategies for prevention, mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Technical aspects linked to the preservation of cultural heritage from natural threats stretch over several different scientific disciplines, such as conservation chemistry, material science, geographical information systems and archaeology, amongst others. During the first webinar, most of the speakers advocated for a larger-scale interdisciplinary research effort in the field.

In her address, Ana Luiza M. Thompson-Flores, Director of UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, pointed out "the commitment of the office to improving policies and programs for the integrated management of cultural and natural resources in support of sustainable development, making use of the UNESCO designations as privileged laboratories to develop inclusive and innovative responses."

The linkage between scientific and technical research and heritage conservation has always been tight and has experienced a strong acceleration in recent decades, also thanks to the digital revolution. New technologies today represent an essential resource for preserving, expanding and renewing the function of heritage in the life of the community.

Firefighters after an earthquake in Ascoli Piceno (2016)

There is a need for a new path that embraces a circular approach in the use of conservation materials; according to Costanza Miliani, Director of the Institute of Heritage Science (ISPC) in Italy, “this should also be done with the support and safeguard of traditional and ancient practices”.

The Italian territory is amongst the areas with the highest aggregated risk indicators because of its seismic nature, frequent flooding and unrestrained land use change that has caused hydrogeological instability. Cities are the hotspot of this vulnerability due to their intense anthropic activity and population density, and likewise their concentration of cultural heritage.

Donatella Spano, a researcher from the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change, highlighted how this risk can only be prevented and mitigated through vertical governance, which implies continuous cooperation among all levels of political administration, as well as inclusive horizontal governance. Data availability is no longer an issue, but these resources should be operationalised, creating integrated participatory management plans supported by national legislation. Prevention should be central to this new management approach.

Risks in cultural heritage conservation originate not only from natural causes, but also from human-induced factors, including unsustainable fruition exceeding sites’ carrying capacity. The current pandemic led to a rise in the use of digital technologies to access cultural heritage and support cultural production. This has prompted us to rethink the relationship between people and cultural heritage, and to envision new ways of interaction through digital advances with communication, experiential sharing and co-creation as primal to the process.

As Paolo Iannelli, Director of Service II, Emergencies and Reconstruction – Cultural Heritage Security, Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism (MiBACT) said, “there is a need to transform to be able to preserve. New digital infrastructure is key to this transformation”.

Durres, Albania after the 2019 earthquake

The UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe is involved in a number of projects and activities with different actors and countries in South-East Europe related to the safeguarding of natural and cultural heritage towards climate change, thanks to traditional knowledge and new technologies. The EU Horizon 2020 project I-REACT, for instance, integrates the data collected from the population on the status of their territory into a European platform capable of providing timely information to prevent and react to emergencies threatening heritage with immediate forecasting models (nowcasting).

The digital age is being further revolutionized by the development of artificial intelligence, which can contribute to the fight against climate change and the preservation of cultural heritage. Aware of this turning point, UNESCO has recently welcomed the International Research Centre on Artificial Intelligence (IRCAI) under its auspices, with the aim of developing tools and services useful for accelerating sustainable development.

Discussions from the second webinar also focused on the adoption of an interdisciplinary conservation approach, particularly in light of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Climate action (SDG 13) is crucial in the field of heritage conservation, and it is a major priority for UNESCO.

Science plays a central role in providing accurate and timely solutions to ensure that the answers to contemporary challenges that threaten our cultural and natural heritage are more effective, holistic and sustainable. UNESCO has been leading the international commitment to protect and promote cultural diversity for 75 years, and will continue to welcome and support the efforts made at all levels to strengthen the central role of culture and science in order to guarantee collective well-being and sustainable development.