Review by Gilmara Benevides

09:26 by Cornelius Holtorf

HOLTORF, Cornelius, HÖGBERG, Anders (eds.) Cultural Heritage and the Future. London/New York: Routledge, 2021.

Reviewed by Gilmara Benevides, PhD. Professor of Law at Faculdades Integradas do Ceará (UniFIC), Brazil. E-mail:

The field of Cultural Heritage Studies is vast, multidisciplinary and diversified. The issues are usually rooted in events that took place in the past and the interpretation of the consequences of these events in the present time. However, in the book Cultural Heritage and the Future, nineteen authors chosen among academics and experts in the areas of human and social sciences enter into the association between cultural heritage and the future, through different theoretical analyses on heritage management and conservation, archaeological theory and political archeology.

The preface and introduction are written by the book’s editors, archaeologists Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg. Following on from the introduction “Cultural heritage as a futuristic field”, the book is divided into four sections: “The future in heritage studies and heritage management” (Section 1); “The future in cultural heritage” (Section 2); “Re-thinking heritage futures” (Section 3) and “Heritage and future-making” (Section 4). The book contains seventeen short chapters and ends with “Final Reflections: The Future of Heritage”. The book is designed to reach academics and students in the fields of cultural heritage studies, museums, archeology, anthropology, architecture, conservation, sociology, history and geography.

Despite bringing case studies from various parts of the world (Europe, China, Japan, North America, South Africa, Australia and others), the book is based on the scientific understanding of “cultural heritage” and the “future” as per the worldviews of mostly Western researchers, aware that their research will reach an academic audience that is largely found in the countries of the Global North (developed countries). Particularly, as a Brazilian historian, anthropologist and jurist who studies cultural heritage, I was interested in reading the book after learning that one of the book’s editors – Cornelius Holtorf – had published an article in Revista de Arqueologia, a scientific journal in Brazil and is known by renowned researchers in Brazil such as Rita Poloni and Pedro Funari.

Specifically, Rodney Harrison’s article, “Heritage practices as future-making practices”, on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) caught my attention. In my view, global food shortages are already an urgent problem for current generations. Here, in this study, it is possible to see that there is already some anticipatory seed storage strategy, whose ultimate goal is to maintain duplicates of seeds for the long-term conservation of a genetic bank of plants all over the planet. Brazil, a country known for its great natural wealth and biodiversity, has already sent three batches of seeds to the SGSV between 2014 and 2020.

On the other hand, it is clear that there are specific artifacts left behind that, despite being symbols of human futuristic progress, cause countless problems today that still do not have a long-term solution. For example: space junk, according to the discussion in “Future visions and the heritage of space: Nostalgia for infinity” – a very interesting dialogue between Alice Gorman and Sarah May. The excess of artifacts can go from being a cultural asset to being a disaster for the future.

In turn, nuclear waste is seen as a particular kind of cultural heritage of the future, as revealed by Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg in “What lies ahead? Nuclear waste as cultural heritage of the future”. Radioactive heritage is also an object under analysis in “Radioactive heritage of the future: A legacy of risk”, by Marcos Buser, Abraham Van Luik, Roger Nelson and Cornelius Holtorf. In a very specific way, these two articles dialogue with each other and bring a warning about the dangers of this legacy for the next generations, although without imposing a tone of apocalyptic prediction. After all, no one can predict how future generations will manage this waste.

In the last chapter, “Final Thoughts: The Future of Heritage”, Anders Högberg and Cornelius Holtorf discuss the results of an earlier study in which they conducted more than 60 interviews with professionals in the cultural heritage sector. The study showed that professionals found it difficult to think about what kind of future they were working on. Instead, they held back in the present, in the short term, given the lack of opportunities to think about the future at a deeper level. They concluded that this difficulty stemmed from the lack of shared professional strategies on “how to deal with the future in heritage management or how to think about the future of heritage”.

As an alternative, Högberg and Holtorf present some possible strategies: the first is a way of applying “expiry dates” to future decisions about cultural heritage in the short, medium or long term. The second possible strategy focuses on “empowering future generations” in various ways.

As for the third possibility, it concerns the future of heritage and education. The idea of ​​creating a curriculum for cultural heritage specialists struck me as very interesting. I was completely ignorant of the idea of ​​“futures literacy ”, so I needed to get extra information about this concept, elaborated by Riel Miller.

The concept of “futures literacy” has been developed within UNESCO as one of the competences for the 21st century: “the universally accessible skill that builds on the innate human capacity to imagine the future, offers a clear, field tested solution to poverty-of-the-imagination.” The use of this concept seemed very adequate, with regard to the future of heritage and education.

Finally, it is possible to say that the book Cultural Heritage and the Future, despite bringing together intellectuals from different areas, has a considerable balance of ideas. Perhaps, in the near future, Anders Högberg and Cornelius Holtorf will feel the need to elaborate a new book, this time about the future of heritage post-2020, to think about the future of heritage from this new collective perspective.

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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