Heritage, Petroculture, and the Green Transition

12 Min Read

June 21, 2024

Nélia Dias is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the Instituto Universitário de Lisboa. Rodney Harrison is Professor of Heritage Studies at University College London. Dolly Jørgensen is Professor of History at the University of Stavanger. Gertjan Plets is an Associate Professor in Heritage Studies in the Cultural History section at Utrecht University. Colin Sterling is an Assistant Professor of Heritage, Museums, and the Environment at the University of Amsterdam.

In 2023, the European Union adopted a set of proposals to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels), and to become the first ‘climate neutral’ continent by 2050. This initiative, dubbed the European Green Deal, will require wide-ranging transformations to energy infrastructures and their associated institutional, political, and economic systems. Less obvious but no less significant will be the social and cultural transformations that precede, underpin, and emerge from this ‘green transition’. As recent protests across the continent have demonstrated, however, the steps required to become climate neutral are far from politically neutral. Indeed, it is now increasingly clear that a democratically supported green transition requires much more than technocratic solutions and innovative policies. As readers of this site are acutely aware, the cultural dimensions of the energy transition are profound, touching on history, memory, community, aesthetics, desire, and many other issues besides.

In December 2023, we started a new four-year project to explore how the cultural heritage field might empower citizens to collectively tackle the many challenges on the road to a climate-neutral society. PITCH (short for Petroculture’s Intersections with The Cultural Heritage sector in the context of green transitions) brings together academic and cultural partners in six European countries to undertake research on the ways in which museums, heritage sites, cultural institutions, and art spaces can support communities and organizations in the transition away from fossil fuels.

Geodesic dome at E-WERK Luckenwalde during the event Burn Out, July 1, 2023. Photo by Colin Sterling.

Support in this context carries a variety of meanings. In the first instance, we are interested in making visible the deep and enduring impact of fossil fuels on cultural heritage practices, from curating to heritage tourism. Based on this, we aim to develop new interpretive models that historicize and contextualize fossil fuel culture, leading to alternative heritage narratives and experiences that foreground the entanglement of energy systems and cultural change. Lastly, the project team will develop tools and guidelines focused on the social, cultural, and historical dimensions of the green transition for heritage practitioners and policymakers. In so doing, PITCH aims to introduce new practices and conceptualizations across Europe's museum and heritage field to narrate and contextualize the legacies of the fossil fuel era, ultimately providing new ways to imagine and shape a post fossil fuel society.

The heritage sector has largely responded to the threat of climate change with a renewed sense of moral purpose to continue doing what it has always done—document, collect, plan, manage, conserve—even in the face of what we now know to be a planetary emergency that renders such approaches potentially meaningless and trivial. In contrast, this project aims to explore the potential for heritage and museums to become agents for radical forms of climate action and to find alternatives to present practices.

To do this, the project will bring heritage and heritage studies into conversation with energy humanities, energy history, and the anthropology of energy. While there has been a lack of academic work bridging these fields, grassroots protests and activist movements have highlighted the connection between heritage and petroculture, not least in the sponsorship of museums by fossil fuel companies. Organizations such as Culture Unstained, BP or not BP, Fossil Free Culture Netherlands (now Disobedient Futures), and Just Stop Oil have engaged in direct action against financial support, but they have largely failed to reflect upon the integration of petrocultures with more fundamental cultural heritage concepts and practices. We urgently need transnational reflection and new practices that constructively explore and reimagine these intersections.

It is now increasingly clear that a democratically supported green transition requires much more than technocratic solutions and innovative policies. The cultural dimensions of the energy transition are profound, touching on history, memory, community, aesthetics, desire, and many other issues besides.

The research for PITCH will be grounded in pilot interventions developed with four cultural partners across Europe: Lusto, the Finnish Forestry Museum; The Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin; E-WERK, a contemporary art space located in a former power station in Germany; and EPIQ, a documentation center about natural gas focused on the Groningen gas fields in the Netherlands. At each site, we aim to identify and (re)interpret the intersections of heritage and petroculture, whether this be the use of industrial machinery in forest stewardship, the amassing of vast collections of technological artifacts in national museums, or the transformation of industrial sites into cultural destinations and heritage ‘experiences.’

Entrance to E-WERK Luckenwalde. Photo by Colin Sterling.

As well as critiquing current ‘heroic’ narratives tied to progress, economic growth, and local or national pride, PITCH seeks to highlight the potential for alternative forms of curating and storytelling to transform the relationship between people, their heritage, and fossil fuels. Crucially, however, we are interested both in the symbolic dimensions of this relationship and in the structural conditions that make such narratives and experiences meaningful. Especially in oil-producing nations, the energy sector holds a strong influence over the cultural field through its corporate funding for museums and arts. We aim to explore the different funding mechanisms across the six European countries represented in the project (the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Finland, and Norway) and highlight the structural conditions that influence particular stories about petroculture. This approach will form part of a wider comparative inquiry into the “national styles” that make up European petrocultural heritage.

 

As the project unfolds over the next four years, we hope that PITCH will offer a unique opportunity to develop pioneering curatorial and policy approaches that complicate familiar narratives of the green transition

Our Funders

Funding has been provided by the EU Horizon Europe program (project no. 101132385) and UK Research & Innovation

Views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union, Horizon Europe, or UKRI. Neither the European Union nor the granting authorities can be held responsible for them.

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