Review by Tadej Curk

06:07 by Cornelius Holtorf

Holtorf, C. and A. Högberg (eds) 2021. Cultural Heritage and the Future. Routledge.

Reviewed by Tadej Curk, PhD student in Heritology at the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. E-mail: tadej.curk@gmail.com.

During these unpredictable times and in the wake of radical social changes and uncertain political situations, editors Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg and article authors deserve much praise for their courage and groundbreaking step in connecting cultural heritage with the future. As many authors in the book point out, numerous experts in the field of heritage are unable to connect heritage and its preservation with the future. This might not be a problem were it not for the national and international legal documents about heritage and its preservation which point out the need of protecting and preserving heritage for future generations. Museums, too, justify their existence and their work with preserving heritage for the future. Despite that, a lot of them do not have a long-term vision concerning their work, and they operate in the framework of the consumer information society mostly for the here and now.

The book Cultural Heritage and the Future enables readers to start seeing the present approach to preserving and protecting cultural heritage from a critical perspective. It enables them to start differentiating between the reality when it comes to preservation for the future and over-the-top definitions and wishes of various legal documents. This is supported with well-chosen examples of good practice. At the same time, the book helps readers to take notice of a paradox when it comes to the present practice of preserving cultural heritage. On the one hand, various experts argue for the need to include the general public into preservation, for decolonized practices of preservation, for support of feminist archaeology etc. On the other hand, intentionally or unintentionally, they wish for future generations to accept uncritically their way of working and today’s practices in preserving cultural heritage. But Western cultures will continue to re-evaluate their values and understanding this is crucial for protecting and preserving cultural heritage for the future.

The authors also propose a different perspective on emerging heritage. They remind us that even today’s artefacts, cities, and buildings will one day become part of the archaeological heritage. A good example of this is radioactive waste and its storage facilities. This means that the heritage of the future is not just something which we preserve from past generations but we are also active creators of heritage, here and now.

The book reminds us that the past, written into the heritage, can generate understanding of the present and hope for a better future. In that sense, the book represents the first and crucial step in continuing in-depth studies which results in good working practices which can then serve as a bridge that connect cultural heritage, its preservation and protection with the future.

Most of the authors in the book correctly come to two conclusions: the future is (mostly) a product of the present, so there can be various futures. These futures may be diametrically opposite of each other but they are not mutually exclusive: there are multiple futures formed in the present. This is why it is surprising that the book rarely mentions the need for inter- and multidisciplinary approaches in present-day conservation and protection of cultural heritage. From the standpoint of multiple possible futures this should be a prerequisite for the conservation of cultural heritage for the future.

The articles propose various explanations and reasons for the formations of possible futures. The authors discuss these with the help of different scientific theories from various disciplines. Included is also a historic overview of presentations of the future in different sciences and art movements, different locations and different political ideologies. In a book that deals with the future, one would expect a more in-depth contribution about different (historical) visions and possible futures offering a more condensed presentation of visions of the future from different disciplines. Consequently, readers have to come to their own conclusions and their own ideas of the future. What I missed the most is a philosophical and detailed sociological overview of visions of the future from different natural sciences. After all, the progress of science and technology led to our visions of the future moving from the area of religion and theology into the framework of philosophy and science. 

The authors also rarely expand upon visions of the future which do not stem from the standpoint of the liberal West. (The editors emphasize this in the introduction and point it out as a shortcoming.) I would like to use an example from my home country (Slovenia) in order to show a different approach in forming a possible future. In the past, people imagined the future – partly under coercion – as socialist/communist, and up to this day, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek claims that the future will be either communist or there won’t be one at all. Then, they imagined the future as a common European one, and today we return to a nationalist, protectionist, I could even say illiberal, framework. How can we, then, in the course of one or two generations, create a framework for protecting and preserving cultural heritage in the future, if the future can radically change within one generation? This is something that cannot be done without understanding present-day social and political findings. One would assume that we can expect the most relevant insights from philosophers and sociologists. Changing visions of the future also endanger the conservation of heritage, which may – due to ‘incorrect’ connotations – become a target for destruction leading to abandonment and oblivion. The latter has been witnessed both in my own and in other countries that have been under a totalitarian ideology or a theocracy, now or in the past.

Only a few authors in the book discuss the cultural heritage as something other than a physical relic of the past. Many of them come to the correct conclusion that preserving archaeological and other tangible heritage ‘at any cost’ leads in the wrong direction: where heritage becomes nothing more than a burden for future generations. However, the heritage of the future is more than just a relic, a site or an object of the present. It also includes, as some authors emphasize, ideas, tradition, knowledge, spatial identity, collective memories, etc. which we need to preserve for future generations, for example, with the help of eco-museums.

If we want to preserve everything that has been listed, we need a democratic and multi-vocal interpretation of heritage in the present, with a consequent integration of inclusion and participation. This is the only way that we can enable future generations to come to independent decisions, based on their own ideas, convictions and state of science and technology. Heritage interpretation, as a key factor in conservation, is unfortunately not payed enough attention in the book, especially since interpretation enables the integration of heritage values and behaviour in present and future societies. Interpretation is also a key dimension on which a desire to preserve heritage on a local, national or international level can rest—enabling it to last longer in the future.

The book Cultural Heritage and the Future is one of the first and fundamental steps towards a deeper exploration and understanding of the relationship between (archeological) heritage and the future. Anyone who ventures into this field of research, reflection, study, etc., must read this book.

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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