Heritage Planning for Sustainable Cultural Impacts

Protest with people holding signs.

By Douglas Worts, AASLH Sustainability Task Force member

In a recent column for History News, President and CEO John Dichtl states that the heritage sector can and should embrace climate change as a focus for our public engagement efforts. Similar to how our sector has focused on the vital topics of equity, diversity, and justice in our society, climate change belongs on that list of essential issues of our time. Extreme weather events threaten to damage the physical fabric of museums and other cultural facilities. Protecting existing properties, collections, archives, and other assets is important.

Such activities however, need to be seen within the larger context of the leadership role that our sector can play as catalysts of cultural change and adaptation across society.

The critical process needed to manage the complexity and scope of current challenges and opportunities is the effective use of “systems thinking.”

Climate destabilization, like racism, inequality, and injustice, is a symptom of bigger and deeper problems. The situation is not unlike going to a doctor because you have trouble breathing. After some tests and a confirmation that pneumonia is present, it is relatively straightforward to treat the illness. However, It is vital to determine whether the lung disease is a primary or secondary condition. If there is an underlying cancer that caused the pneumonia, it is essential that all efforts are taken to treat the cancer at the same time that the pneumonia is being treated.

As humanity grapples with the prospect of widespread climate destabilization, humans have a few options:

  1. dramatically reduce our energy consumption;
  2. find a substitute approach to provide energy, specifically renewable energy; or
  3. continue business as usual and make the world uninhabitable for humans.

If existing energy corporations embraced the option of transforming the global energy system (e.g. through a transition to renewables), then a huge amount of time could be secured to rethink how humanity can live successfully on this planet. Since oil companies and their investors, as well as governments and many customers, do not seem prepared to exercise this leadership option, a crisis simply gets more serious. It is like ignoring an underlying cancer. Who would have thought that so many people in our world would be so resistant to recognizing a crisis, especially with all the scientific evidence being clear? Bridging this gap between reality and understanding/belief is fundamentally a cultural challenge: not the kind that cultural organizations are used to, but increasingly the one that must be addressed.

The heritage sector has the ability to foster conscious cultural change as demonstrated by its many amazing attributes. The heritage and cultural sector:

  • extends across the country and around the world
  • operates in virtually every community
  • enjoys close links to the general public
  • maintains a very high level of public trust
  • is solidly rooted in many disciplines that are based on rational, evidence-based knowledge and continuous improvement through research
  • is the custodian of a large quantity of culturally significant tangible and intangible heritage, all of which is invaluable for catalyzing and guiding our constantly-evolving culture.

If heritage and cultural organizations are seen as having potential as catalysts of cultural adaptation, then it is best to have a map of how to aim for two general types of positive impacts. As John has suggested, one refers to “inner” transformations and impacts, while the other refers to public strategies that lead to “outer” transformations and impacts. My goal with the model above is to offer a planning approach for heritage organizations to:

  • identify ways that will make existing resources as resilient as possible (inside), and
  • offer a framework for how individual sites, in concert with a wide spectrum of potential values-aligned partner organizations (including progressive businesses, foundations, governments and so on), can become catalysts of public engagement and cultural change (outside).

One of the notable aspects of this model is that the heritage sector, along with all of humanity, is contained within the natural environment. So whatever is done by any part of human society has direct impacts on nature, all of which need to be understood and incorporated into the strategies. One example is that any organization that relies heavily on tourism for attendance generates a large carbon footprint simply by its relationship to tourists and how they travel.

Our sector has complex relationships, which provide challenges, but also great opportunities for cultural impacts. I hope that this model generates discussion and creativity on the question of ‘”How can heritage organizations help facilitate adaptive cultural change, in a fast-changing world?”


Douglas Worts is a culture and sustainability specialist living in Toronto, Canada. He has been a museum professional for over forty years, focused variously on interpretive planning, audience research, education technologies and teaching museology. Since 1997, his main interest has been in the cultural dimensions of humanity’s unsustainability, and the potential role of museums to foster cultural and adaptive change.

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