Fulbright scholar to explore heritage and climate change

  • Date

    Thu 26 May 22

Donna Graves looking happy outside, in front of some ancient ruins

A Fulbright scholar from the US has joined the Department of History to lead a research residency on how natural and historic heritage sites in Essex and Suffolk can be used to engage the public in the debate around climate change.

Donna Graves, an independent public historian, joins the Department through the Fulbright Specialist Program, a US Government initiative which aims to exchange knowledge and establish partnerships.

She will work with Dr Sarah Lloyd from the Institute of Historical Research and Dr Alix Green, from the Department of History. Together they will run a series of workshops with PhD students, engage heritage professionals, and host events at sites in Essex, Suffolk, Derbyshire and Manchester.

Donna previously helped develop and establish the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California and is currently writing a toolkit for the US National Park Service on engaging the public with the climate emergency.

Her Essex residency will allow Donna to explore how her work in the US could be applied in the UK, particularly in relation to industrial heritage which has a higher profile here than in the US.

She said: “Heritage sites matter to people who visit and preserve them, so they care what is at stake for these places as the climate crisis evolves. People don’t expect to hear about this topic at these places they love, so I think of bringing climate change education and action to heritage sites as a form of 'stealth' activism.”

Reflecting on the potential of heritage sites in engaging the public she added: “Heritage site stewards often assume that places 'tell their own stories' through their physical remains, but that leaves so much undiscovered. Interpretive projects and programs, especially those that engage people in dialogue, can help us connect the dots between our past and the future we are creating.”

Dr Lloyd explained the value of the project: “Climate change is the biggest challenge facing humanity today. We need to deploy every resource we can to understand its implications and to create sustainable and fairer societies in the future. Heritage sites have their part to play in explaining how we got into this situation and how previous generations have adapted to overwhelming, life-changing events.”

“Through its commitment to history in public life, the Centre for Public History at Essex offers a stimulating environment for this project. The Centre’s focus on communicating diverse histories, and its relationships with heritage organisations, enable us to explore pressing issues around climate change through the distinctive landscape and history of East Anglia,” she added.

The residency will include a number of events for staff and students including a roundtable discussion about how the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire can connect its industrial and natural heritage with climate change discussions at the Derby Museum of Making and a trip to the Suffolk coast where volunteers and staff at the Long Shop Museum will share their knowledge about the area’s history.

Donna is especially excited about visiting the Suffolk Coast where she will explore the Long Shop Museum, Sizewell nuclear plant, and the Minsmere Bird Reserve with history and creative wild writing students: “It will be such a fertile place to think together about these places and what they reveal about the past and our potential futures.”

Dr Andrew Priest, Head of the Department of History, said: "We are delighted to welcome Donna to the Department as part of this prestigious programme. As addressing issues about the climate emergency becomes ever-more urgent, it’s vital that historians understand how heritage sites can inform our work. This is especially important in a department like ours that is deeply concerned with engaging public audiences and thinking about the practical applications of studying history. So, it’s wonderful that in this series of workshops, Donna, alongside Sarah Lloyd and our own Alix Green, is helping a range of people explore how historical narratives about places and communities can help explain and encourage us to deal with the huge challenges we all face."

Since its foundation in 1946, the Fulbright Specialist Program has given more than 400,000 researchers, students, teachers, artists and scientists the chance to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international challenges.

Find out more about how heritage can inform the climate debate in Donna's blog Does heritage have a role in addressing the climate crisis?

Listen to Donna Graves, Dr Green and Dr Lloyd discussing contemporary history, public purpose and making an impact on culture and the economy with Professor Jules Pretty for his Louder than Words podcast.