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Spotlight on the Decade and Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific region

Two recent conferences and a museum event focused on the maritime cultural heritage of the Asia-Pacific region, including discussions on the Decade.

On 7 September 2023, Emily Jateff (Curator of Ocean Science and Technology at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM)) and Dr Andrew Viduka (Assistant Director Underwater Cultural Heritage with the Australian Government) were co-presenters for an Ocean Decade event at ANMM, titled Underwater Cultural Heritage and the UN Ocean Decade: How does Australia stack up? People participated in an informal conversation about the future of Australian Underwater Cultural Heritage in the UN Ocean Decade. How do we define, map and preserve these sites? Are we doing enough?  If not, what should we be doing? While participants reported enjoying the event, the fact that only seven people of those attending had previously heard of the decade tells a massive and daming story when you consider that we are in its third year. The two co-presenters certainly took from this event that more work needs to be done in Australia to connect underwater cultural heritage, the UN Decade of Ocean Science and the critical impact that climate change will have on this significant non-renewable archaeological assemblage.

Dr Andrew Viduka speaks at the Ocean Decade event 'Underwater Cultural Heritage and the UN Ocean Decade: How does Australia stack up?' at ANMM.
The event was sold out on Eventbrite.

Shortly thereafter, the 2023 joint conference of AIMA-ICUCH (Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology-International Council on Underwater Cultural Heritage) was held in Canberra, Australian Capital Territory on 14-15 September 2023. It was held mainly in person but had online attendance.

The 2023 conference theme was Connected by Water, with sub-themes of the ratification of the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and the archaeology and management of underwater cultural heritage. These were selected as they “link to Australia progressing its consideration of ratification of the UNESCO 2001 Convention and pick up a key principle of the Convention regarding promotion of information exchange and shared heritage management.”

Picking up on the conference’s website: “This year’s conference is an opportunity to celebrate 40 years of Australia’s national Underwater Cultural Heritage Program and to reflect on the outcomes and achievements over that period. The conference is also an opportunity to promote and encourage broader regional uptake of the UNESCO 2001 Convention in the Pacific, Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian Region.”

“In addition, the significant threat that climate change poses to regional countries, including their underwater cultural heritage, is a salient challenge that should be met through collaboration, capacity building and training, and information exchange. The 2023 Conference will include themes reflective of Pacific Island State priorities that are echoed in Australia.” (The 2023 joint AIMA-ICUCH Conference.)

The conference was well attended: there were a significant number of representatives from SIDS and Asia present. Although the Decade was initially proposed to be part of a session, this did not happen, and there did not seem to be much discussion about the Decade, but there was a small session touching on climate change, conservation and maritime cultural heritage, but the two major foci were ratification and skills shortage/development. There was significant attendance on the submerged cultural heritage sessions, with participation of indigenous groups, and a robust discussion on the ratification of the 2001 Convention. Additionally, an ICOMOS-ICUCH meeting was held prior to the conference. One take-away from this conference is a question: how to better promote and assist in the development of working with maritime cultural heritage in SIDS?

It is perhaps therefore important to note that the UN 4th International Conference on SIDS will be held in Antigua in May 2024. It would be great if the SIDS participants of the conferences could somehow reach out to their governments during the preparation process before the conference to raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on cultural heritage.

The second was the Fifth Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage, held November 13-18, 2023, in Gwangju, Korea. The Conference Theme was The Ocean Decade Challenges and the Maritime Cultural Heritage of Asia-Pacific.

The organisers noted that “the conference theme mirrors worldwide efforts to discuss current environmental challenges, in the hope that a look into the past may open a window for the future. To do this, the APConf 5 will have as its main theme the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), a framework to deliver solutions orientated to support a well-functioning ocean. We share previous voices pointing to underwater cultural heritage as an essential asset to reach the 7 Ocean Decade Outcomes for the Ocean We Want: a clean ocean, a healthy and resilient ocean, a productive ocean, a predicted ocean, a safe ocean, an accessible ocean and an inspiring and engaging ocean.” (The 5th Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Underwater Cultural Heritage.)

Dr Athena Trakadas speaks at a panel discussion at APConf5.

A panel discussion in the opening session focused on the Decade, with one of the Decade-endorsed projects affiliated with ODHN’s Cultural Heritage Framework Programme, Indigenous People, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and Climate Change: The Iconic Underwater Cultural Heritage of Stone Tidal Weirs highlighted by Dr. Akifumi Iwabuchi; in addition to ODHN, other researchers focusing on tidal weirs in Korea and Taiwan also participated in the panel discussion, linking to the challenges being asked by the Decade.

Over four days of parallel sessions, subjects as diverse as WWII heritage and protection, lash-lug ship construction, as well as listening to traditional knowledge of waterways (and assigning them legal representation) were discussed. Two sessions specifically addressed the Decade: “3. Decade of Action, the call for Oceans’ Past to Bridge our Communities” and “19. Database, monitoring, non-intrusive documentation techniques and new technologies applied to underwater cultural heritage.”

The well-attended conference (ca. 250 in-person participants; it seems to be growing every time it has been held) was also made accessible with some on-line participation. It was noted that the conference was less “Pacific” than “Asia”, with a desire to see some change in representation in the future. The conference was closed out with a day of visits to the impressive National Museum in Gwangju and the National Research Institute of Maritime Cultural Heritage (NRIMCH, the hosts) in Mokpo, which also houses the National Maritime Museum. A follow-up dinner after the conference led to a call for a much-needed workshop on how Asian countries can better contribute to and work with the Challenges being framed by the Decade.

So – watch this space.

Written with contributions by Andy Viduka, Athena Trakadas, Dolores Elkin, Chris Underwood and Jun Kimura.