Review by Andres Zarankin

09:48 by Cornelius Holtorf

Cultural Heritage and the Future. Edited by Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg. Routledge 2021, 300 pp.

Reviewed by

Andrés Zarankin (Departamento de Antropologia e Arqueologia, Federal University of Minas Gerais, UFMG, Brazil), zarankin@yahoo.com 

Many years ago, I was asked to review the book From Stonehenge to Las Vegas by Cornelius Holtorf. I remember being impressed with how the old issues it raised were seen from new perspectives, rendered interesting and challenging. One of those topics was heritage (in the broadest terms imaginable). Since then, Holtorf has been challenging us with new ideas and proposals, which could be classified as controversial, and which provoke what has traditionally been understand as heritage, the policies (or anti-politics) for its pristine (uncontaminated) conservation, and more recently the heritage of the future, the central theme of the book reviewed in this text, edited together with Anders Högberg. A volume in which Holtorf and Högberg bring a multidisciplinary set of papers (another trait of Holtorf’s approaches – gather different views and disciplines) to reflecting on heritage from non-traditional ways and future perspectives.

The book is organized in 4 sections and has 17 articles (including the introduction and final remarks). Section one is called The future in heritage studies and heritage management, and it discusses theoretical conceptualizations of the future in heritage studies. Section 2, The future in culture heritage, brings various examples ranging from craftsmen buildings to space satellites, to reflect on what kind of heritage we want to leave for future generations. Section 3, Re-thinking heritage futures, aims to bring other – less-often considered – heritage possibilities, such as the case of nuclear waste. Finally, section 4, Heritage and future making, present a discussion focusing on the problem of what we should preserve, how to make this selection, and the social implications of what once was called an industry of heritage.

As we have seen, the book deals with a wide range of issues, guided by a deep reflection on the idea of the future and its implications for heritage, as well as its impact for generations to come. As Holtorf and Högberg mention in the introduction, although the concepts of heritage and future are axiomatic (preserving the past for future generations), it is difficult to find literature discussing the implications of heritage for the future. On the contrary, despite excuses citing the future, heritage is always discussed while looking at the past from the present, and for the present.

The very fact that no one has complete control over the future is what makes this topic so interesting and challenging. Of course, there are predictions, and we must admit that most are not very optimistic (e.g. novels and futuristic, post-apocalyptic movies). In this context, thinking about heritage and the future would be similar to leaving messages in bottles thrown into the sea, hoping that, when found, in different times, cultures and places (even as extreme as extraterrestrial in the case of messages launched into space), they can be understood – from our perspective. Also taking into consideration the famous phrase by Winston, the editor in the Records Department at the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984, “who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” we can conclude that controlling heritage, generating policies to preserve certain narratives (material and immaterial), while erasing others, is also a way of trying to control and predict the future. Of course, as emphasized by several of the authors of the volume, the content may not be valued in the same way in the future, because people can change. I still wonder, will it be that in the future The 10,000 Year Clock, sponsored by Jeff Bezos, will have the same heritage value as, say, the ruins of Auschwitz? Concerning this subject, I look forward to further discussion on whether there are differences between heritage and legacy.

I believe that the book makes important contributions to deconstruct and rethink the idea of heritage, from much broader and more flexible parameters. However, despite considering myself an enthusiast of Holtorf’s ideas and proposals, which many times shake us up, helping to find different ways of thinking about a certain problem, I have an important criticism about this volume. On page 2 of the introduction, the editors say, “we have tried to present a truly global perspective in this volume”, but, if we look the list of authors of the book, many of them noted colleagues worldwide, there are no persons from peripheral regions or countries, or there is even a lack of references to them in the chapter’s bibliography. Holtorf and Högberg themselves are aware of the situation because on that same page they present a series of excuses to justify this absence, which for me do not apply, since in addition to being the usual known excuses, the authors say that the book began to be thought of in 2012. So, could nothing be done in almost a decade to improve this situation? Also, the volume includes articles with examples from places like Japan, South Africa, but based on studies carried out by foreign researchers, which doesn’t seem very consistent with new critical perspectives on heritage either. I think that at this point, we should think about problems both from global scales and, fundamentally, from local ones. In this last case, paying attention to regional particularities using the discourse (and voices) of autochthonous communities themselves. This is the only way to guarantee the construction of democratic and inclusive knowledge, or why not, futures.

I say this because, as we know, within world-power systems, institutions of “prestige” – mostly unilaterally – articulate heritage policies to validate growing inequalities between regions and perpetuate status quo relations. Given that the book brings the new challenge of thinking and building parameters for considering heritage in the future (and present), other than traditional ones, I consider it a serious failure to leave out of the discussion voices from the places that suffer the most from the current system’s imbalance.

In summary, the book brings new and important reflections to help us ponder about what may constitute heritage in the future, and with that, the foundations to consolidate a more democratic and aware society. The problem is that if we exclude the participation of groups that are always peripheral or “will be included later”, the future making of heritage seems to be just a continuation of what it has always been, where the forms can change, but not the content.

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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