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Review by Giovanni Boccardi

Tuesday, June 15th, 2021

Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg, eds (2021) Cultural Heritage and the Future. London and New York: Routledge, London.

Reviewed by Giovanni Boccardi, Rome, Italy

In their recent book on Cultural Heritage and the Future, Högberg and Holtorf shed light on an inherent contradiction of the heritage sector: allegedly working for the benefit of future generations, the stated beneficiaries of todays’ cultural heritage conservation efforts, but giving little or no consideration to what the real future might look like and what those living in it may actually need. They find this contradiction paradoxical, since the heritage sector, of all human enterprises, should be especially aware and conscious of the dynamics of history and its transformative effects on societies.

The book makes a bold claim: we cannot say for sure that future generations will continue to appreciate and need what we today consider a valuable asset, i.e. our heritage, in the same way that they will need clean air, water, food, shelter, health or peace. This goes counter the prevailing rhetoric of the authorised heritage discourse and long-standing efforts to secure heritage a legitimate place next to other sustainable development concerns. The implications of this statement are far reaching and disquieting. Perhaps, through our work as heritage professionals, we are conserving too much of our environment, or the wrong things. Perhaps our efforts will be of no use to our children and grandchildren or, worse still, actually harmful to them since, as E. Avrami puts it in one of the books’ chapters: “conservation…is a creative destruction of alternative futures”. These ideas become especially relevant, the authors argue, in a world driven by powerful change factors such as globalization, demography and climate change, suggesting, if anything, that the people of tomorrow will have very different values from those that we hold today.

Building on this premise, the book sets out to explore – through a series of stimulating chapters – how heritage work could look like if it took seriously the challenge of factoring the future in its policies and operations. Two main potential strategies are identified: 1) improving conservation practice by integrating in it “scenarios of change”, developed through a variety of foresight techniques, which would also require the development of new competencies among heritage practitioners; and/or 2) adopting new types of adaptive decision-making processes that imply periodical reviews, allow for the participation of many stakeholders and thus can “best adjust to changing conditions of the future”. An obvious example would be setting a timeframe for heritage listing, after which a reassessment should be conducted.

Högberg and Holtorf make a valid point in suggesting that the heritage sector focuses too much on the present (called “presentism” in the book) and does not give adequate consideration to long-term future scenarios. Of particular relevance, in a context of climate change and demographic growth, is the discussion about the ever-increasing accumulation of heritage stock “for future generations”, which may become unsustainable and pose a real challenge to the societies of tomorrow.

At the same time, one may argue if it would be possible, or even fair, to expect from the heritage practitioners of today a concern for a future that, as the authors admit, is far from certain. To do so, to a certain extent, betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of heritage conservation as a pure cultural construct, very much determined by the “spirit of the time”. Regardless of its claim to work for the benefits of “future generations”, indeed, heritage conservation is, and has always been, very much about the present. Since the beginning of the heritage movement, in the 19th century, its purpose reflected the urge of societies for a sense of continuity and psychological security in a radically transforming world, an urge that was – and is – felt at the present moment.

Attempts to justify our actions by inscribing them within a grand scheme of higher principles and eschatological vision are a constant of human endeavours, from the founding of cities to geographic discoveries and to religious wars. Heritage conservation, a relatively recent cultural phenomenon in human history, makes probably no exception.

One should however not take these justifications too literally. In reality heritage work serves a very present concern and reflects the visions of the past and of the future we need to live now. Ultimately, it does not really matter what the real future will turn out to be. This is a problem for those who will be there when this future comes, and at that point, as Rudolff and Buckley put very clearly (quoted in one of the chapters of the book), “the future will take care of itself”.

There might be no point, thus, in trying to make heritage future-sensitive for the sake of heritage conservation itself. For what we know, heritage is a cultural phenomenon that has emerged at one stage in history and may well disappear at some point, like certain religious cults. In fact, it would be truly interesting to explore the possible implications for heritage of a certain number of key future drivers and trends, such as migration, climate change, globalization, technological progress, pandemics, and so on, something that the book touches upon but does not address specifically.

The real question is rather whether the heritage sector is doing the right thing, at present, in order to ensure that “future generations will be able to meet their needs”, quoting Brundtland’s famous definition of 1987. Avrami’s chapter on “Sustainability, equity and pluralism”, in this regard, makes a strong and convincing case for an integration of a concern for sustainability within heritage practices and for a shift from product to processes. A related question is what the heritage sector might provide, in terms of useful lessons, to help us facing some of the toughest challenges our societies will meet. The book addresses this in its enlightening chapters on the management of radioactive waste, stored in facilities that should last for thousands of years and convey the same messages over many hundreds of generations.

Overall, “Cultural Heritage and the Future” is an important book that opens up a number of critical questions for the heritage sector and for society in general, at a time when a growing sense of an impending “discontinuity” in our history seems to define much of our debates.

June 2021

Heritage Processes and Nuclear Waste

Monday, June 14th, 2021

Cornelius Holtorf presented at the second capacity-building workshop of the Expert Group on Awareness Presentation, which is part of the Nuclear Energy Agency’s Working Party on Information, Data and Knowledge Management at the OECD. Even Anders Högberg participated.

During the session, held on 14 June 2021, the 30+ participants discussed the significance of understanding human behaviour in all its complexity. In relation to mechanisms of awareness preservation we will need to shift focus: from creating to consuming, from intentions to impacts, and from assets to outcomes. This requires understanding social and cultural processes, and entering the realm of the human sciences, including anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc.

In each specific context anticipated, we need to be asking questions such as

  1. What’s happening?
  2. Who’s involved or affected?
  3. In what socio-cultural context?
  4. With what socio-cultural consequences?

In a second step, we need to learn how to manage processes changing over time: how can we today facilitate certain socio-cultural processes in novel futures which will be changing further with time? This will require not to be creating continuities but to be facilitating discontinuities (constituting meta-continuities). How this can be achieved is a difficult question and there are no ready answers.

Review of Deep time reckoning

Sunday, June 13th, 2021

My review of Vincent Ialenti’s (2020) Deep time reckoning: how future thinking can help Earth now, MIT Press, has now been published in the journal Time and Mind.
Open access for the first 50 who click here!

All change please!

Wednesday, June 9th, 2021

Cornelius Holtorf presented a paper on “All change please: cultural heritage and sustainability,” for a virtual conference on International collaboration in a digital era – Fostering innovative minds for the future as part of the Swedish-Japanese co-project MIRAI 2.0 (9 June 2021). One of the aims of this initiative is to strengthen collaboration between Swedish and Japanese universities.

In his talk for ca 40 attendees, Holtorf emphasised the significance of culture and cultural heritage for sustainability and innovation.  The other contributions in the Sustainability section were from the natural sciences or dealt with policy and technology concerning the natural world. The other sections of the conference were about Ageing, Artificial Intelligence, Materials Science, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

It is time for the humanities (and the field of culture) to enter larger contexts of discussion about important issues!

Museum directors’ view on museum-entrepreneurship

Friday, June 4th, 2021

Anders Högberg published (with Marina Jogmark) a study in which they explore how Swedish museum directors think about museum-entrepreneurship.

 

You can find the article, in Swedish with an English abstract, in the journal Nordic Museology

https://journals.uio.no/museolog/article/view/8826/264]

 

Of special interest for the UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures is the section on various forms of collaboration between researchers and museums. Among others, Högberg and Jogmark suggest that collaboration can develop by creating new forms for co-operation.

UN Initiative “We the Peoples”

Wednesday, May 19th, 2021

Cornelius Holtorf took part in the “We the Peoples” digital consultation of the United Nations. 

Building on the UN75 global conversation, the consultation invites stakeholders from different sectors to develop practical recommendations to: accelerate delivery of the commitments made in the UN75 Declaration, together with the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Climate Agreement; and to respond to new and emerging challenges.

He made two specific contributions:

Addressing Challenge 1: How can decision-making take more account of the future?, he suggested to “Enhance the capacity for futures thinking (futures literacy) among decision-makers.” 

Much decision-making about the present assumes unexamined that conditions will remain the same in the future. But based on all past human experience, this is not going to be the case. We can improve people’s ability to imagine alternative futures and design new strategies to act in the present in order to bring about novel futures.

Addressing Challenge 5: How can we build trust between people and institutions?, he suggested that “We need to learn more about people’s cultural meanings and values as they determine trust in society.”

Trust between people and institutions is an outcome of specific cultural meanings and values. It is easier to trust people and institutions that make sense in what they do and whose values you share.
Strangely, the realm of culture is vastly underappreciated in society, maybe because ethnology and social/cultural anthropology are very small subjects and not many decision-makers have much understanding of how human culture works.

Futures Literacy and Nuclear Waste

Monday, May 10th, 2021

Anders Högberg presented at the first capacity-building workshop of the Expert Group on Awareness Presentation, which is part of the Nuclear Energy Agency’s Working Party on Information, Data and Knowledge Management at the OECD. Even Cornelius Holtorf participated.

The session, held on 10 May 2021, was dedicated to Futures Literacy and featured even a keynote lecture by Richard Sandford (UCL) who concluded with the following slide:

During the session, the 37 participants began to realise how they were using the future in various ways to inform specific actions and started to examine their own anticipatory assumptions regarding long-term communication of nuclear waste disposal sites. They also started to understand that the uncertainty of the future is not something that can or must be controlled but that it is instead important to learn how to embrace uncertainty in our present in order to reduce future uncertainty.

A next step is acquiring the capability of how to imagine alternative futures, and so the discussion will continue…

Chernobyl – becoming a World Heritage

Thursday, April 29th, 2021
Cornelius Holtorf comments in Swedish Radio. Chernobyl – becoming a World Heritage (after 26 minutes) sverigesradio.se/avsnitt/1698661

Swedish Museums’ Spring Meeting

Tuesday, April 27th, 2021

The theme of the 2021 Spring Meeting of the Organisation of Swedish Museums was “Contribute, Collaborate, Impact – together we come longer” (27-29 april 2021). 

The programme featured an interview with Anders Högberg and a conversation including Cornelius Holtorf on the topic of the gathering. Anders presented his latest work on Museum Entrepreneurship, whereas Cornelius discussed the experiences of our Research School GRASCA.

Due to the pandemic, some presentations were pre-recorded this year.

 

International Day of Monuments and Sites

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

18 April is the International Day of Monuments and Sites, coordinated by ICOMOS. This year the theme is “Complex Pasts – Diverse Futures”.

Our UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures participates in the International Programme, representing Sweden, with a digital exhibition entitled Balloon Head: Iran’s Constitutional Revolution Reconfigured and curated by Leila Papoli-Yazdi.

Focusing on Iran’s Mashrouteh (Constitutional) Revolution, Ali Roustaeeyanfard’s paintings reconfigure historical photographs of complex historic events and processes at the beginning of the 20th century.

By adding colourful anachronistic details to the original motifs of the photographs his work depicts unimagined futures and the need to re-narrate the past in every present. The paintings illustrate that there are unexpected and diverse futures, both of the past and of the tangible heritage that reminds us of the past in the present. Roustaeeyanfard’s hope is to revive the forgotten heritage and history of voiceless people in order to fulfil their original dream of achieving freedom and progress through the Revolution.