Contemplating places that will no longer exist

1 December 2022
The futures we once thought we had are disappearing. Here, Museum and Heritage Studies student, Lauren Poole, considers how the historic material we are working to preserve is radically transforming as climate breakdown takes hold.

By Lauren Poole, Museum and Heritage Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

For the past year, I have been writing about places that do not exist. Places that never made it further than a sketch on a page or a letter in the newspaper. Places that no longer exist, or never existed, or will never be able to exist. All spurned by a deep dissonance within heritage studies: that the historic material we are working to preserve and make meaningful is irreversibly transforming under climate breakdown, and that the disciplinary imaginaries which are grounded in those acts of preservation and meaning-making are struggling to come to terms with an uncertain and seemingly enclosed future. The seas are rising and we are still, somehow, moving our objects closer to the water’s edge.

It is a climate communication cliché to say that every beach you have ever visited is already lost, and that your years with it are already numbered. The same goes for an unfathomable amount of coastal historic sites around the world, an amount which grows with each passing year and terrifying IPCC report. Wandering around these places – bustling cities, picturesque promenades, monuments and sites still waiting to be recorded – it is hard to shake the image of what they will one day look like; how far the waters will rise. The futures we once thought these sites and places would have – stable, recognisable, changing slowly with age and our interventions – simply do not exist anymore. And yet, at the same time, each day we are bringing their new futures into being, whether by action, inaction, or sheer force of will. The long temporality of climate breakdown, and sea-level rise particularly, mean we do not get to live before or after these sites’ transformative losses. We have to live within them.

A necessary part of my dissertation has been to linger on the ontological instability of climate-transforming sites, and how we might make meaning with them through that instability. It is not a pleasant question to ask, but when do we say a transforming site is “not (or no longer) t/here”? When half its physical material has been worn away? When it is inundated but visible through the foaming tides? When it has been forgotten? And if we can pinpoint when a site becomes “not t/here”, what has it then turned into, and what does it leave behind? With all this in mind, I wanted to see if the lost futures of transforming sites could function as one way of being “not t/here”, one iteration of what a site turns into and simultaneously never was.

Wandering around these places – bustling cities, picturesque promenades, monuments and sites still waiting to be recorded – it is hard to shake the image of what they will one day look like; how far the waters will rise.

The site I chose is already a seminal climate change case study, if in a non-traditional sense. The salvage of the temple complex of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt in the 1960s is perhaps the best-known example of site relocation, an archaeological intervention where a threatened historic site is dismantled and reassembled in a safer location. Moved to escape the rising waters of the Aswan High Dam, the successful Swedish scheme to cut the stone of the Abu Simbel temples into blocks and glue them back together at a higher spot overlooking the Nile was never the only future the site might have had. Among the dozens of suggestions to ‘save’ the temples – from casting plaster replicas and covering the originals in plastic, to sealing off the entrances and tunnelling new passages from above, to lifting the temples in concrete boxes or atop floating rafts, to re-routing the Nile with atomic bombs – was a scheme by Belfast-born film producer William MacQuitty. The story of MacQuitty’s scheme constitutes just one of many alternative histories of Abu Simbel and, for my purposes, is illustrative of how we might tell stories about the iterations of historic sites which are literally long gone but which we can still engage with and make meaningful.

MacQuitty (whose dulcet tones are still available through the British Entertainment History Project) was inspired by the myth of Atlantis and his own experience as a diver to propose a scheme with all the flourish of a film set. With the assistance of architects at Fry, Drew & Partners and engineers from Arup & Partners, he proposed to build oval dam ‘membranes’ around each temple which would keep out the rising Nile and instead immerse the temples in filtered water. Visitors could not only walk around the top of dams and peer down at the submerged temples but take lifts to viewing galleries in line with the faces and toes of the underwater colossi. The more adventurous tourist could climb down into circular passages burrowed under the temple floors and find their way to glass observation domes in the great halls and inner sanctuaries – all, of course, in air-conditioned underwater comfort. With restaurants, entrance fees, and opportunities to skin-dive down the temples’ facades, the whole endeavour might even be profitable (though some chemical treatment would be necessary to stop the friable sandstone from disintegrating).

MacQuitty publicly launched the scheme soon after it was submitted to UNESCO and the Egyptian government, with a four-page spread in The Architect’s Journal on 20 March 1963. Media attention quickly snowballed, as it was discussed and disseminated by technicians and readers alike. And as more commentaries rolled in – from TIME Magazine to New Scientist – the scheme took on a life of its own, with details tweaked and members of the team behind it making media appearances and penning personal rebuttals to criticisms. The scheme was never intended, by either MacQuitty or his collaborators, to be in direct competition with the other salvage options being discussed. It was a back-up plan, should the tens of millions in donations needed to move the temples not materialise.

Moreover, it was never intended to be permanent. MacQuitty expected that the hydroelectricity generated by the Aswan High Dam would not be needed due to improvements in nuclear power, and as the dam would then recede – by his calculations, by the mid-21st century. And so the temples would re-emerge, perhaps a little hardened and worn from their time underwater, but still recognisable. They had survived burial several times before, as the complex was repeatedly covered and uncovered with sand throughout its history and (re)discoveries by European explorers.

But in the end, all that became of MacQuitty’s scheme was paperwork: the newspaper articles and commentaries, the personal and professional papers still held in archives around the world, and the photographic monograph he quickly produced about the temples (and his plan for them). The Swedish scheme went ahead and soon even the version of Abu Simbel that MacQuitty had hoped to enact his scheme upon was also gone; carefully dismembered and dragged to safety.

MacQuitty’s particular future for Abu Simbel never came to fruition; yet, by engaging with it, there is some ghostly, flickering iteration of his vision for the temple complex that lives on regardless. And in the face of overwhelming losses, when a climate-charged future bears down on us with each passing hour, perhaps that flicker is still something. Perhaps knowing that the futures of historic sites will be radically different to their histories can help us begin the work of living alongside them – and making meaning with them – as they transform.

This article is part of the SEI Student Series on Climate Futures.

Lauren Poole is a disabled writer and postgraduate student in the University of Sydney’s Master of Museum and Heritage Studies. Her upcoming dissertation explores the loss of heritage sites to sea-level rise, and her writing most recently appears in Growing Up Disabled in Australia (Black Inc. Book 2021) and GLAM@Sydney. She lives with an acquired brain injury.

Header image: Statues in front of Abu Simbel temple in Aswan Egypt via Shutterstock, ID: 1076006336.

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