15 April 2019
As a paleontologist, I've always felt a kinship with others who study the past: geologists, archaeologists, and historians of art, architecture, literature, and so many other areas of human achievement. Just as life and landscapes of the past illuminate the saga of our planet and help us better understand our changing world, studying humankind's heritage enriches our identity, warning us away from what we are capable of at our worst and inspiring us towards the transcendent acts of creativity and humanity we are capable of at our best. No one understands the value of heritage better than the French, whose word for it - patrimoine - reflects the view that the buildings, landscapes, works of art, and ideas developed by past generations are not only the legacies of their creators but collectively define who we are and what we can become. The concept of patrimoine carries with it a sense of duty to protect that inheritance and the recognition that the loss of heritage is not only a societal tragedy, but one that shakes the very foundations of that society. Knowing just how important patrimoine is to French culture and identity made it especially jarring to receive a news alert this morning that the greatest icon of French heritage was in danger, that Notre-Dame was burning.
I was lucky to be able to visit Notre-Dame de Paris early one morning on my visit to the city last summer and to have a conference commute that allowed me twice-daily views of its flying buttresses soaring above the Seine. Even if I hadn't had an appreciation for its importance to Paris, France, Europe, and the world, its status as a cultural cornerstone would have been impossible to miss. It is rooted in Gallo-Roman Lutetia, it blossomed in the Middle Ages, and it stands today in the heart of one of the world's great cities. Its history is inextricably linked with that of Paris and it stands as a shining example of patrimoine in a city and country with a unique appreciation of that concept. I can only imagine, then, the horror and sadness that Parisians must be feeling as they watch the images that have stunned us all across the globe and my heart goes out to everyone, including many of my own friends and family, with connections to the City of Lights. Even having only visited the cathedral once, the destruction wrought by the Notre-Dame fire leaves me with a deep sense of loss. It is a sadly familiar feeling, the same I felt last September when flames tore through Brazil's Museu Nacional. In both cases, fire caused significant damage to the building itself (though thankfully most recent reports seem to suggest that the firefighters of Paris were able to avert the near-total destruction of the Rio de Janeiro tragedy), but just as damaging was the loss of the many artifacts, specimens, and works of art contained within. The damage to Notre-Dame will undoubtedly be repaired and the destroyed portions will be rebuilt; like any of the great cathedrals, it already bears the marks of centuries of decay, destruction, repair, and growth and ultimately even today's catastrophic fire will amount to another chapter - not the final page - in its illustrious history. Regardless of whether you're French, European, or simply just human, though, a part of our collective inheritance was forever damaged today. The wound will heal, but the scar will remain.
Another similarity between last year's fire in Brazil and today's in Paris is that both were likely avoidable. In Rio de Janeiro, museum staff had long warned that the museum and its collections were vulnerable to damage from a fire. In Paris, repairs on vulnerable parts of the cathedral had just begun after a campaign for funding that took far longer than it should have had to. It is easy to take patrimoine for granted. Particularly in European culture, there is a tendency to view great monuments, works of art, and artifacts as permanent features on our cultural landscape. To truly appreciate our heritage, though, is to recognize that not only are we defined by it but that we are stewards of it and that without our care even the most significant of inheritances can be lost. In hopes that something positive can come out of disasters like the Notre-Dame and Museu Nacional fires, I have two requests for whoever reads this: regardless of where you live or what your background is, appreciate our shared heritage and advocate for it. Appreciation is the easy (and fun!) part. You may not live near Notre-Dame, the Pyramids of Giza, or the Taj Mahal, but somewhere near you a structure was built or a work created that has played a role in defining the human experience. Likewise, you probably live in or near a landscape or ecosystem that sheds light on the broader shared experience of Earth and life history (not all heritage is cultural, after all). Such sites are not hard to find. The gold standard of heritage directories is the World Heritage List maintained by Paris-based UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; in other words, the arm of the UN that deals with the things that make life worth living). UNESCO also maintains lists of Biosphere Reserves and Creative Cities, but even if you don't live near a site of obvious international significance, individual countries and regions maintain their own heritage registries. In the US, I especially recommend the directories of the American Alliance of Museums and the Cultural Landscape Foundation as well as, of course, the National Park Service and the state park service of your home state. Regardless of where in the world you are, opportunities abound to explore our natural and cultural heritage, and I can safely guarantee that that doing so will be immensely rewarding.
Advocacy is more difficult, but it's immensely important. Dangers to our heritage are everywhere, as exemplified by today's fire in Paris and attested to by UNESCO's depressing List of World Heritage in Danger. In some cases violence and war take their toll (see that sad cases of destruction of historic sites in Mali and Syria), and in others the more prosaic forces of population growth, economics, and public policy have taken theirs (lest you think I'm referring only to "developing" countries, note that right here in the US proposed cuts to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments threaten not only an iconic landscape but the cultural heritage of the peoples of the Four Corners region). Environmental destruction and climate change threaten not only natural ecosystems but cultural sites such the Micronesian ruins of Nan Madol that may become submerged as sea levels rise. Being responsible stewards of our heritage is more important now than it ever has been, and there are many ways that any and all of us can contribute. You don't need to be a teacher to educate others about the importance of heritage; in the age of smart phones, most of us literally hold in our hands the means the means of learning about a natural area, historic site, or work of art and sharing that knowledge with the world. You don't need to be a great philanthropist to financially support heritage stewardship; many sites are run by nonprofit organizations that you can join as a member or help fund with even a small donation (reconstruction of Notre-Dame, for example, will be driven by an international fundraising campaign). You don't need to be a historian or naturalist to get directly involved; volunteers are nearly always welcome at any site of natural or cultural importance and in a connected world we can often make contributions from the other side of the planet (for example, by contributing photos to digitally archive the Museu Nacional). Finally, you don't need to be a politician or lobbyist to affect policy; public pressure and voting may ultimately be more effective at protecting our heritage than any legal action.
Like any site or object that is part of our collective patrimoine, Notre-Dame is not only a monument to our past but a testament to the creative genius of our species that, through luminaries such as Victor Hugo and the impressionists, has inspired new visions of what we can accomplish and what we can be. Inspiration and understanding are the most valuable gifts imparted to us by our natural and cultural heritage, but this inheritance from our ancestors and our planet comes with a charge of stewardship. As today's events show, when that stewardship lapses, tragedies can occur that affect us all.
20 December 2018
19 December 2018
The Collections & The Exhibits: I've been presenting exhibits and collections separately this far, but it's impossible to do so at the University of British Columbia's Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Many museums have (correctly, I think) embraced the idea of showcasing how scientists actually work, and none has done so more completely than the BBM. That's because the museum's exhibits are, quite literally, the collections vault, with some storage cabinets containing built-in display cases. I've travelled to the museum for research twice, once to look at North American carnivores and once to look at marsupials. In both cases, I really enjoyed working in full view of the public and being able to interact and talk about my research with them. While most of the museum is underground, the main atrium of the building contains a massive blue whale skeleton that, thanks to an all-glass outer wall, appears to be "swimming" along UBC's main pedestrian mall. Cross this mall, incidentally, and you'll find the Pacific Museum of Earth, which contains a very nice Lambeosaurus skeleton from Alberta and a handful of other fossils. Also, by all means give yourself a chance to stroll around the campus, one of the most beautifully situated you'll ever see. In particular, make time for the UBC Museum of Anthropology, widely agreed to be one of the world's great museums.