Review by Ana Sladojević

09:29 by Cornelius Holtorf

Cultural Heritage and the Future, edited by Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg, Routledge, London and New York, 2021.

Reviewed by Ana Sladojević, PhD in Theory of Art and Media, independent curator. Email:

Cultural Heritage and the Future is a welcome and, in some terms, groundbreaking criticism aimed at heritage field theory and practice. However, while all the current heritage future thinking keywords are present in this edition, they do not seem to function as well together as we might expect. It may be due to the methodological approach that does not prioritize the criticism of highly problematic and ideological frameworks of knowledge production within heritage. Namely, the book skips to more clearly emphasize as to why the heritage field continues to fail the task of thinking about futures: for its own projection of the future, the one created within the paradigm of progress, modernity, and universalism, failed us.

All the while the editors recognize that the heritage production field does not have to encompass only heritage professionals – and this may be its greatest potential at introducing the change in thinking about future(s) in heritage – they still fail to act upon their own advice and to consistently apply this in their approach. There was no place in the book for the whole array of roles and responsibilities that individuals involved in heritage production beyond this field have in future thinking. Even more, the editors’ comment that they were not able “…to commission papers of high quality from additional world regions” (Holtorf and Högberg, 2021, p.2), says a lot about the current state of affairs within the academia and heritage field, where numerous professionals and thinkers outside the mainstream – whom I am sure would have a lot to say about this topic – are rarely if ever included, resulting in the field remaining closed and almost homogeneous.

The book paints futures marked by uncertainty, fear of loss, and the inability to let go of control, not over future generations’ futures, but over the possibility of some post-mortem traces that would testify about us being here in the first place. The examples of underground structures, vaults, repositories and other tomb-like (post)apocalyptic constructions, betray universalist heritage thinking. The epistemological move towards nuclear waste and space junk is meant to place this book within the wider perspective of time (the time of the nuclear waste toxic activity) and space (the extra-terrestrial space). However, such attempts to establish control over time and space can be linked to the highly problematic hegemonic ideology of heritage as we know it, which often ignores knowledge production and transmission beyond the dominant, Western (or Global North) paradigm.

Individual contributions pose some important questions in problematizing the very thinking about future/s, among them the recurrent problem of infantilizing the “future generations“ (May, pp. 46-58), as well as the assumption that we can today even anticipate the needs of the future. (Holtorf and Högberg, pp. 1-28) Important conclusions about heritage as process (Avrami, pp. 198-216; Sandford and Cassar, pp. 245-263), maintenance activities emphasized as central to and not a by-product of human endeavour (González-Ruibal, pp. 87-102), or “palliative curation“ (DeSilvey, pp. 217-229), pointing at – among other things – ideological constrictions of current heritage practice, do not seem to weave consistently throughout the book. The placement of the only text that focuses on decolonization, Decolonizing the Future, Folk art environments and the temporality of heritage, by Alfredo González-Ruibal (pp. 87-102), within the overall tone of the book, sends the message that decolonization of heritage field and academia is something that has to happen somewhere else – on the fringes – and not in the midst of the dominant production of knowledge.

In times of environmental calamity, a dire humanitarian crisis reflected in strict migration policies and the legally confirmed difference in value of one human life over another, as well as a major health emergency of Covid-19 that pointed even more at the inequalities around the world – the book links only the material outcomes to the imagining of future/s (apart from the chapter on intangible heritage by Luo Li, pp 72-86), almost completely leaving some more socially relevant and communal issues aside. Namely, to address the organic fragility of life and the uncertainty of survival, cannot be done without addressing current policies of bio- and necropolitics. To think about the global/universalizing aspect of the survival of the human species cannot be done without introducing a more nuanced experience of the world, that has been influenced and stratified by hierarchies of wealth, different communal needs and ways of social embodiment.

In summary, I believe that editors could have addressed more strongly – and therefore link to future thinking:

  • a criticism of the production of knowledge in heritage;
  • the diversity and nuances of possible future approaches to heritage, as the field of heritage is represented as more coherent than it actually is or need to be;
  • the difference between heritage and legacy, as community-based affective heritage vs. shared responsibility for the outcomes of certain past practices.

And finally, the active and changing roles of communities in thinking of heritage and future/s have not been addressed more substantially, among possible topics being:

  • the decentralization of future heritage(s) decision-making, use and care;
  • a current and potential displacement of constituencies;
  • transformations of socially and legally recognized roles of individuals and groups, or introduction of previously unrecognized, individual (i.e. non-binary) or group, formal or informal participants, that would affect how both past and future will be construed.



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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