Environmental Humanities & the University of Oxford National Trust Partnership

Environmental Humanities & the University of Oxford National Trust Partnership
Bredon Hill, by Edward Wilden, from the Birmingham Museums Trust

Launched in 2018, the University of Oxford’s National Trust Partnership facilitates interdisciplinary research, knowledge exchange, public engagement and training across a range of disciplines and career levels at Oxford University and the National Trust. In 2019, this has included substantial engagement with landscape & climate change topics.

As Prof. Fiona Stafford has compellingly argued (https://www.research.ox.ac.uk/Article/2019-11-04-climate-change-and-the-humanities), "climate change is now widely recognised as an all-encompassing aspect of the human condition, with implications for almost every area of research in the humanities". The same is true for the heritage sector, and researchers at Oxford are working with the National Trust to facilitate a wide range of dialogue and research that engages with these ideas.

The National Trust cares for 248,000 hectares of open space across England, Wales and Northern Ireland; landscapes which hold the voices and heritage of millions of people, and track the dramatic social and environmental changes that occurred across our nations' past. In 2019, the Trust’s National Public Programming theme is "People’s Landscapes" (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/peoples-landscapes-explore-the-places-that-have-shaped-the-nation): through events, exhibitions, and podcasts, it invites people to look again at familiar and ‘beautiful’ landscapes and to find the radical histories that lie, often hidden, beneath their feet.

Two specific events coordinated by the Oxford’s National Trust Partnership for the "People’s Landscapes" theme in 2019 have highlighted the relationship between the humanities and climate change.

The first was a series of panel discussions held at the University of Oxford in May-June 2019: "People’s Landscapes: Beyond the Green & Pleasant Land". These events brought together experts and commentators from a range of institutions, professions and academic disciplines to explore people’s engagement with and impact upon land and landscape in the past, present and future. There were four events in the series:

  • Contested Landscapes
  • Creative Landscapes
  • Living in Landscapes
  • Future Landscapes

The latter two particularly engaged with questions of climate change, environment, and sustainability, exploring landscape as a space for living, the pressures on land from population growth, and the future of British landscapes for food and farming. Speakers were from a range of organisations and disciplinary backgrounds, including: The Campaign to Protect Rural England, Waugh Thistleton Architects, the National Trust’s Historic Environment Director, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxford Wildlife Trust, National Farmers' Union, and academics in sustainable urban geography, cultural geography, and conservation science. Full recordings of these events are available to watch for free here: https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/article/watch-now-peoples-landscapes-series-with-the-national-trust.

The second event was a symposium co-convened with Oxford’s Prof. Fiona Stafford, themed around "Post-Conflict Landscapes", on 22 November 2019. The aim of the day was to bring together academics, National Trust staff, and external potential collaborators (including Historic England, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and more) to discuss the following:

"The impact of major conflicts on a landscape are immediate and obvious – in the devastation of cities, the sites of pitched battles, the ruins of castles and abbeys.  Preparations for war also make indelible marks, in the shape of forts, airfields, pillboxes, military bases, or fortified harbours. But what of the less obvious and often longer term effects of conflict on a landscape?  What kinds of action are taken by survivors in the aftermath of conflict?  Are post-conflict reactions dependent on the nature of the conflict, or can any patterns of human behaviour be seen in the erection of memorials, the erasure or preservation of signs of war, the reshaping or reconstruction of towns, coasts and landscapes?"

Particularly noteworthy was the presentation on County Durham’s mining ‘black beaches’, by the National Trust’s Jonathan Wallis and Kiki Claxton. They gave an overview of the environmental complexities surrounding the closure of Easington Colliery and the National Trust’s subsequent beautification programme of the local coastline. A key point was the importance of working with local communities to facilitate this process and navigate historical rifts dating back to the 1980s Miners’ Strike and beyond. This event was the first in what we plan to be a series of productive collaborations to develop further thinking on these themes.

The National Trust Partnership aims to continue facilitating interactions between the National Trust and academics of any discipline who engage with climate change-related topics. To learn more about the Partnership, see https://www.torch.ox.ac.uk/national-trust-partnership; or contact us (National Trust Partnership Lead, Alice Purkiss, and Support Officer, Dr. Hanna Smyth) at ntpartnership@humanities.ox.ac.uk.