Review by Alex Da Silva Martire

08:03 by Cornelius Holtorf

HOLTORF, Cornelius, HÖGBERG, Anders (eds.). Cultural Heritage and the Future. London; New York: Routledge /Taylor & Francis Group, 2021, 300 p.

Reviewed by Alex da Silva Martire, historian and archaeologist. Post-doc at Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Coordinator at Interactive Archaeology and Electronic Simulations (www.arise.mae.usp.br). Contact: alexmartire@gmail.com

Cultural Heritage and the Future, edited by archaeologists Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg, contains contribution of 19 authors specialized in various areas of the Humanities related to the study of heritage. It is aimed, as stated on the first page, at professionals, academics and students in the fields of museology and heritage studies, archeology, anthropology, architecture, conservation studies, sociology, history and geography. But the content of the book goes beyond these subjects and can also be read as a contribution to memory studies and indeed to Anthropocene studies.

Cultural Heritage and the Future is divided into four sections, all of which are subdivided into quick-read chapters, ranging from ten to 20 pages, on themes related to the study of heritage and, mainly, how we can get rid of the common sense that “we must preserve heritage for future generations” without thinking about what that future actually means. In this way, all the chapters, although each one dealing with its own subject, end up converging on this central theme about the concern of why and how we will transmit to the future what we currently find valuable enough to be preserved.

The four sections of the book bring many provocations, theoretical concepts and examples about the future in (and of) heritage studies. The question of future generations thought of as children is personally interesting to me. This chapter, by Sarah May, was quite provocative to me, mainly because it made me review my concepts about who we should secure the heritage for. As the author makes clear, if we “sacralize” children, it will make us lessen their roles as agents who do not need our care (as we think now), but who have their own independence, skills and concerns, in the present and in the future too. Likewise, the text by Holtorf and Högberg on the perceptions of the future present in the heritage of the Austrian city of Hallstatt made me think about how heritage will be valued when the technology of full-scale 3D replicas is good enough to produce copies of heritage which would help a lot, for example concerning rebuilding of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris or of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, both buildings destroyed by fire. However, the questions that will always remain after reading this section of the book are these: who should we print these replicas for? Would it be as important for the future as it is for the present? The section on nuclear waste makes us rethink how delicate the issue of correctly informing future generations is: the production of nuclear material today, although it has decreased, leaves traces that will not be bequeathed to five or six generations: a existence of this toxic material is long term, reaching millennia. How will future generations know about these repositories if we don’t have a constant long-term information management plan? In addition to nuclear deposits, this concern should be a constant related to any heritage, as the book emphasizes all the time. It is also interesting the point in the book that draws our attention to the fact that we tend to create an infinite list of objects that qualify as heritage, but it is necessary to filter our choices, because the physical space they will have is finite. What should we preserve? Is heritage really more important than people in the present? Should we expropriate or ban the architectural constructions that would serve the people of today due to the presence of heritage? Wouldn’t we be “damaging” the construction of the future by doing this?

Cultural Heritage and the Future challenged much I took for granted. Previously, thinking of heritage not as a past but as a future did not bother me a great deal because, as an archaeologist and educator, it was clear to me that there is a need to preserve human actions in the landscape so that future generations could have access to cultural (im)materiality. However, the questions raised in the book made me more attentive to these issues: How should we preserve? For whom should we preserve? What should we preserve? What we consider a useful asset to be safeguarded will not always be useful for the future: we have to respect and understand that future generations have a voice and agency as well. Thus, I strongly agree with one of the leitmotives of the work: the future (and the preservation of heritage) is an ongoing process.

A very negative aspect of the book, in my mind, is the total exclusion of digitization technology from the topics covered: there is no chapter that deals with the fact that we digitize heritage and, above all, that this process generates an immense amount of data that must be physically stored in some place and also need constant maintenance and updating: how are we going to deal with this problem? If, as the book suggests, not everything should be physically preserved as heritage, why don’t we digitize cultural heritage before any destruction?

The book offers very interesting examples of what heritage is and how we should deal with it (for example, the case of nuclear material deposits), but unfortunately it ignores the existence of digitization/virtualization of sites, monuments and artifacts, which for every day that passes becomes more common in areas linked to human history. Nevertheless, Cultural Heritage and the Future‘s contribution as an ensemble is invaluable to the field—a must-read and necessary for everyone who cares about the future and what we will bequeath to those who come after us.

Cornelius Holtorf
In 2017, Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden, was awarded a UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures. This is one of eight Chairs in Sweden, and the only one within the cultural sector. Cornelius Holtorf, holder of the UNESCO Chair, alongside his team, will continue to generate ideas through this forum.

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