Chair on Heritage Futures

Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies


Nicklas Larsen at Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies did an interview with me exploring the concepts of heritage futures and futures literacy, about decolonisation, and about digitalisation.

My conclusion at the end:

The point is to promote and provoke thinking in different ways. That we become aware of our baggage, the things we take for granted because we were born at a particular time and place. Many people have difficulties with that, as they feel passionate about certain traditions that are considered so important that they seemingly need to continue forever. But they might not, at least not in the way they are perceived today, and another strategy may be asked for in the future. To me, futures literacy is that kind of liberating skill where you increasingly become aware of these limitations in your thinking.


Heritage as Reuse


For two days in February 2022, I contributed to a workshop at the Italian Politecnico di Torino, entitled “Designing the future of the past” and discussing contemporary theories of conservation. The participants were some 15 PhD students in Architecture and Design. The responsible organizer was Matteo Robiglio, founding director in 2017 of the University’s Future Urban Legacy Lab. Robiglio is an architect interested in adaptive reuse. Among others, he authored the book, RE-USA: 20 American Stories of Adaptive Reuse. A Toolkit for Post-Industrial Cities (Jovis, 2017).

This is a topic close to my own interests. For one thing, my own Doctoral research project was about reuse of megalithic architecture in the distant past (adaptive or not). For another, I would be inclined to argue that designated cultural heritage constitutes in itself a form of creative reuse of objects inherited from the past. And this is where Robiglio disagrees – why?

In RE-USA (pp. 177-8, 192-3, 203, 214-5, 219), Robiglio contrasts people creatively re-using inherited structures in any suitable way with others who are carefully documenting and meticulously conserving a fragmented heritage of the historic past. Whereas the former, for Robiglio (inspired, among others, by Viollet-Le-Duc and Halbwachs and in contrast to Ruskin and Morris), is an expression of living traditions pragmatically creating something for their own time, the latter is an ever-growing aberration that led to the sanitization and commodification of the ‘heritage industry’. He goes on to state that whereas in heritage preservation, locality is inherited and must be preserved, in adaptive reuse, a new form of locality is being produced within the same spatial frame. Overall, Robiglio ends up with a dichotomy that looks about like this:

I would argue that the left column becomes nothing but a caricature as soon as heritage is recognised for what it is: a particular response to older structures that emerged at a certain time in modern history and is connected with a body of creative ideas linked to notions such as National Romanticism. Since then, the authorised heritage discourse has been changing continuously, incorporating ideals of education, development, and community engagement, among others. Indeed, there is a discernible transition from an initial focus in heritage management on safeguarding tangible remains to one on negotiating multiple societal values and now increasingly to ensuring important uses for communities. Heritage, too, constitutes a creative change from how the remains of the past were seen before, and it has brought about various hybrids between past and present, incorporating new ideas and meanings, often fairly pragmatically, and with a noticeable agenda for a future to come.

I suspect that Robiglio presented a different analysis in RE-USA first and foremost as a pragmatic move to establish a creative contrast between conservation and reuse, benefitting his agenda of promoting adaptive reuse. The concept of heritage futures recognizes that heritage, too, contributes to future-making. This is now increasingly becoming explicit, e.g. in the Foresight Initiative of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) exploring how to apply strategic foresight for thinking about cultural heritage and the contribution it can make to people’s lives in the decades to come.

Indeed, the past is becoming an active force for shaping the future – which is what Robiglio’s PhD workshop in Torino explored. I am looking forward to more collaboration!

Designing the Future of the Past


Cornelius Holtorf was invited as a keynote speaker and presented on “Futures Literacy: How to Bring World Heritage Up To Date” for more than 20 participants in the international Doctoral student seminar entitled Designing the Future of the Past held at the Politecnico di Torino, Italy (17-18 February 2022). – His first trip after the pandemic to meet colleagues and students abroad!

The agenda of the seminar was very exciting indeed. It involved to present

the contemporary discourse in the conservation field across the emerging theories of Critical Heritage Studies, Counterpreservation, Curated Decay, Negative Legacies, and Ruination. Such novel theories challenge an unquestioned relationship between design practice and preservation, considering the past as an active force for shaping the future, and opening new options for intervention (or not) on preexistences.

Heritage and Foresight


Since 2021, I have been advising the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in their Heritage Foresight initiative.

This is why foresight matters to ICCROM:

The events of the last few years have demonstrated time and again that the world is rapidly changing, and with it, the cultural heritage sector. Out of mounting global uncertainties rises an urgent need to reconsider how strategic planning can help us better prepare for the future. Within this context, we explore the concept of strategic foresight and highlight ICCROM’s recent investigation into the future of cultural heritage.

We see enormous value in applying strategic foresight to how we think about cultural heritage and the contribution it can make to people’s lives in the decades to come if properly safeguarded. As an organization charged with promoting conservation in all corners of the globe, we have an obligation to proactively identify external forces and address their potential impacts, and also put forward a compelling vision for a future in which the benefits of cultural heritage are fully harnessed. Through foresight, we can begin to form this bigger picture.

Here is ICCROM’s short explanation of strategic foresight (on youtube):


Where Heritage Meets Violence


An essay series curated by UNESCO Chair Postdoctoral Fellow Annalisa Bolin, “Where Heritage Meets Violence“, has recently launched at Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, a publication of the Social Science Research Council (New York). Each week during February and March 2022, this series publishes an essay by scholars around the world focusing on how cultural heritage and violence intersect and what we can learn from the dynamics between heritage and different forms of violence, both past and present. The series opens with Bolin’s introduction, “Violent Encounters: Cultural Heritage and Contemporary Dynamics of Violence“, which examines contemporary discussions and recent research on the connection between cultural heritage and violence—physical, symbolic, and structural.