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She studies cultural heritage in the polar regions and polar futures

Från vänster till höger stående: Kati Lindström (KTH), Naine Terena, (Pinacoteca, Sao Paulo, Brasili
Från vänster till höger stående: Kati Lindström (KTH), Naine Terena, (Pinacoteca, Sao Paulo, Brasilien); Lize-Marié Hansen van der Watt (KTH), Leif Petersen (Sustainable Livelihoods, Sydafrika), Bruno Moreschi, (Pinacoteca, Sao Paulo University); Lizabé Lambrechts (Stellenbosch University, co-PI) Fernanda de Castro (interpreter), Framre råd: Fernanda Pitta (Pinacoteca, co-PI) och Bossiedokter Neville (healer). Foto: Kayla Peters
Published Apr 26, 2022

Lize-Marié Hansen van der Watt has a PhD in history and researches the polar history and polar futures, focusing on the intersection of environment, science, cultural heritage and critical geopolitics in the Arctic and Antarctic focusing on the people who live on the poles. She is currently researching a project on cultural heritage and decay.

Lize-Marié came to KTH to work with a colleague for two months. 

– Now it's been ten years and I'm still here, she laughs.

She examines the cultural heritage aspect mainly of Antarctica. Something that becomes extra interesting as it is a geopolitically discussed place where there have not historically been so many people.

– My interests have broadened over the years and now I focus primarily on the cultural heritage aspect. How is it possible to preserve cultural heritage in these areas? In some areas, it is very important to think about indigenous peoples and their cultural heritage and self-determination and so on. But how do you think of places where there is no population?

To keep or not to keep

Lize-Marié tells about the hut that a Swedish expedition built in Antarctica in 1899, a hut that without action will fall into the sea due to climate change.

– Then the question is what is most appropriate. Should this hut be preserved? It was originally built to last two to three seasons and then left behind. The purpose was never to invest much money in it either, but today it is an important part of Swedish cultural heritage from the site. Should we let it decay with the environmental changes? These are the consequences for cultural heritage that environmental changes bring and much cultural heritage will be lost.

Lize-Marié wonders who we are preserving and why is it there? At the moment, she is leading a broad, interdisciplinary project where collaboration has been started to address a wide range of materials from different parts of the world. The project is called Decay without mourning and is part of Global Issues - Integrating Different Perspectives on Heritage and Change, which was a joint call funded by the Riksbank's Jubilee Fund, together with the Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo, the Wallenberg Foundations and the Volkswagen Foundation.

– We started discussing what type we can collaborate on although we have such different perspectives on cultural heritage. It is a very different material with quite a lot to discuss purely theoretically, with different contexts but with the same theoretical questions that bind us together. I think it is exciting that we are many in strength and that everything from indigenous perspectives in Brazil, to music archives in South Africa, to cultural heritage in Antarctica are examined to name a few.

Broad approach with a common theory

How the project will bring together such a broad project is something that is questioned, says Lize-Marié, but explains that the challenge is facilitated by the fact that they focus on common theory.

– It is the intention that we should be able to draw broader conclusions that are applied more broadly. It is also exciting that the project leads to new collaborations.

The project collects materials in different ways based on what fits best on-site. Lize-Marié explains that they use, among other things, photovoice as a method for collecting materials.

– Not everyone is comfortable talking and writing without other ways of expressing themselves and through more visual approaches it is possible to capture visual cultures. A researcher in Antarctica will take pictures in one way, while those who work in the shantytowns in South Africa will tell a different story than what we would have done if we had just observed.

Cultural heritage with free interpretation

By giving assignments to selected participants, questions about their views of cultural heritage will be answered through photography.

– In our case, they will be questions such as what do you see as cultural heritage in decline in your area? How do you see cultural decay in your environment? It must be completely free for the interpreter and we work a lot with consent. We only have the right to use the images but they own them.

The project has just had a kick-off in South Africa where they discussed and presented their subproject and the methodology they use across the project. There, Lize-Marié discussed decay as something visible to us today, but that it does not have to be negative when it comes to the decay of culture and environment.

– Environmental changes change cultural heritage and can cause them to decay. It is not possible to save and preserve everything, but the question is about how we handle decay in cultural heritage. Can we see it as something that can be constructive and positive? Decay in English will not be the same as decay, maybe you should say decomposition? But degradation refers to the physical process. The word is negatively charged, but does it just have to be that way?

Conversations that run through many rooms

Lize-Marié highlights the joy of working interdisciplinary and that research is important, but to bring in more perspectives is to do more, not to get caught up in just talking to other academics. Her hopes with her current project are that in the future it will be able to contribute to a theoretical in-depth study of how we think about cultural heritage, purely theoretically.

– I would hope that the project can lead to and contribute to the academic field being broadened more and see that it is possible to work interdisciplinary around cultural heritage.

When it comes to the future, Lize-Marie hopes for the non-traditional aspect of this project.

– Right now, my biggest hope is to start research and stop with the paperwork, jokes aside. I believe and hope that it can be something groundbreaking for us. I hope that it will change at a local level for the individual groups we are investigating. We want to be realistic and focus locally. If we focus too much, we may not get anywhere at all. We focus instead on the levels where we can make a difference instead of trying to save the whole world.

Text: Hanna Kalla

This is the 29th article in the  School of Architecture and the Built Environment  's series of articles on selected research, education or collaboration initiatives from each department. You can find the previous articles here: Archive