Review

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