Toxic Heritage

Collaborative research

International Perspectives on Sites of Environmental Harm

Levant Mine Arsenic Works, Pendeen, Cornwall

By on December 5, 2021

Hoisting wheel encroached with vegetation at Engenuity, Ironbridge, UK

How does framing environmental harm as heritage contribute to our understanding of and reckoning with the toxic legacies of the Anthropocene? And how does attending to the environmental harm of heritage sites illuminate what we remember, commemorate, and memorialize as “heritage”?

This research explores the landscapes, residues, and histories of toxic sites and their impacts on affected communities from the lens of heritage. It considers the sites as physical places of toxicity and environmental harm, and as historic sites entangled in the complex and political processes that constitute the production of all heritage.

Six case studies in the US, UK, and EU offer an opportunity interrogate the role of toxic sites in both the informal memory practices of communities and in official heritage narratives. The investigation also considers the fields of power surrounding toxic heritage, particularly the roles of corporations, governments, and individuals in the creation and remediation of environmental harm and the activism and resilience of communities. The study also investigates how toxic heritage sites are being deployed in the broader projects of environmental and climate justice and in efforts to create more sustainable communities.

Watch a presentation of work-in-progress. Elizabeth Kryder-Reid, Toxic Heritage: Post-Industrial Sites and the Unspoken Stories of Environmental Harm Department of History, Heritage and ClassicsHistory Research Seminar. Sponsored by CHART / DePOT. Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Focusing on heritage sites in the US and UK, this talk examines the public memory of environmental harm, particularly in post-industrial sites. While narratives lauding industrial accomplishments and celebrating workers are well-known, less studied are accounts of industrial legacies of environmental harm. This research investigates the ways in which harmful impacts are presented, and explores more broadly how concepts of nature and the environment figure in site interpretation. While the histories are often site-specific, the narratives intersect in interesting ways with current discourses, particularly around climate justice, environmental justice, neoliberal politics, corporate accountability, and late capitalism. This talk deploys a critical heritage lens to explore some of the contexts and constraints of post-industrial heritage sites in contrast to other parts of the broader cultural heritage sector ecosystem. Specifically, it interrogates why, at a time when museums are turning a self-critical eye toward decolonizing their institutional practices, reckoning with slavery and racial inequities, and engaging in difficult topics, few post-industrial heritage sites or exhibits seem to be making connections between past industrial activities and their negative environmental impact.

Mashapaug Pond, Providence, Rhode Island, USA