Review by Stanley J. Onyemechalu

08:01 by Cornelius Holtorf

Cultural Heritage and the Future. Edited by C. Holtorf and A. Högberg. Routledge, 2021.

Reviewed by Stanley J. Onyemechalu, PhD student in Heritage, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge; Assistant Lecturer in Archaeology and Heritage Studies, University of Nigeria; E-mail: .

The book is an edited volume with contributions by respected authors from different disciplines discussing the connections between cultural heritage and the future – ‘heritage futures’. In 17 chapters split within four sections, the book aims to build “capacity in futures thinking and futures literacy among researchers and practitioners throughout the heritage sector” (p. xix). Ipso facto, I expected to read how it explored the relationship between cultural heritage and a very much uncertain future, especially in the face of rising tensions and unending conflicts. If heritage is this process of negotiating what to inherit from the past for use in the present and what to transmit from the present to the future, what then is the ‘future’ of communities whose process of inheritance/bequeathing have been truncated by violent conflict (civil wars, colonialism, slavery) or natural disasters? Prott (1997) reminds us that, in the face of war and violence, the first and foremost desire of humans is to get safety for themselves and family; every other thing [read: tangible heritage] is secondary and often neglected. The book fails to properly engage case studies representative of communities in ‘unstable’ regions, where cultural heritage is at a higher risk of being misused, abused, weaponised or destroyed. Makes one wonder if ‘futures thinking’ in heritage is a privileged exercise exclusive to those who live in communities with relatively ‘stable presents’ – which is not much of the world.

In addition to the usual perseveration with tangible heritage case studies (e.g., UNESCO’s World Heritage List), the book tries to cover ‘new’ bases in heritage futures (see chapters 9, 10 & 12). The book also makes references to intangible heritage but not as in-depth as I expected. Not doing so, again, excludes certain communities, like in Africa, where oral history, beliefs and traditional creative processes are ascribed higher value and are better preserved than material objects (Onyemechalu & Ugwuanyi, 2021; Mire, 2007). Bringing back my earlier point about the incidences of conflicts and instability in many regions of the world, Holtorf (2015) in Avrami (chapter 13) notes that “physical loss does not necessarily curtail the functioning of cultural heritage”. Hence, intangible heritage – which is able to sustain the functioning of cultural heritage in the face of physical loss – is the soul of ‘heritage futures’. This means that learning about other cultures’ prioritisation of intangible heritage may afford an opportunity to formulate a wholistic and sustainable plan for cultural heritage futures. In doing so, we may not have to worry about limited spatial and conservation resources occasioned by “unending world heritage listings” (Avrami, chapter 13).

This book unfortunately lacks contributions from African and other under-represented communities. The book editors themselves acknowledged the underrepresentation of case studies from “significant parts of the world” (p. 2) and welcomed critics and other scholars to contribute to this all-important ongoing conversation. On the bright side, the book engages heritage futures with the notions of atemporality (Graves-Brown, chapter 15) and ephemerality (DeSilvey, chapter 14) in interesting ways that can shed light on the realities of many communities in the global south and their approaches to heritage. Futures making or planning within critical heritage studies should be inclusive of other voices and experiences, lest it fails to be different from the past – creating ‘difficult futures’.

Often, the discussions about the future of heritage assumes that there will be an episodic end to the present humanity and the beginning of an entirely new humanity that will meet what we have ‘kept’ for them. However, there is no clear-cut line separating one human generation from the other. The book notes the uncertainty in whether the heritage we are racing to preserve will be seen by the future generations as a gift or a burden (May, Chapter 3), but struggles to define who makes up the ‘future generation’. Is it children now, or are the ones yet unborn? Are we referring to tomorrow, next year, next decade or the next century? Where should our plans for the ‘future’ of heritage end, and why? Is it definable? These are the kinds of questions that this book set out to explore, which it did quite satisfactorily (especially in sections 1 on the future in heritage studies and heritage management & section 4 on heritage and future-making). This book reminds us that: though we cannot change the past, we can change the way it is remembered in the present; though we cannot change the future, as it were, we can try to leave a template for its change. Plans for the future of cultural heritage should not be cast in stone or locked up in vaults but should be easily accessible, amenable and open-ended. That is, allowing future generations the opportunity to exert their own will and agency over their past, present and future.

This book talks about the future of heritage in the same way that people talk about the future of the earth and climate change – since the tragedy of climate change is the destruction of heritage. While I agree that heritage is a “futuristic field”, as the book declares, it seems as though a lot of the debates about heritage futures in this book dwell too much on the future and what/how we bequeath than on the present and what/how we inherit. The notion of utility in heritage (Smith, 2006; Ugwuanyi & Schofield, 2018) is instructive here as it ensures that more caution is taken with talks about heritage futures. Our preoccupation with the future might lead to the ‘suffering’ of the present. Across many cultures, the past is embodied in elders and the future in children. That means that we can look to the children now as our insight into the more uncertain, distant future. This book superbly does this in chapter 3. We spend so much energy trying to be ‘good ancestors’, how about we strive to be ‘good descendants’ first? (Hicks, 2021).

This book may not quite contain what you expect – as it is not primarily about the future of heritage – but it is undoubtedly a significant text for anyone interested in exploring the interconnections between cultural heritage and the future.


Hicks, D. (2021) “Is a decolonial historical archaeology possible?” Keynote Address for the 2021 Australian Society for Historical Archaeology (ASHA) Online Conference.

Mire, S. (2007). Preserving knowledge, not objects: A Somali perspective for heritage management and archaeological research. The African Archaeological Review, 24 (3/4), 49-71.

Onyemechalu, J. S. and Ugwuanyi, J. K. (2021). Íhé Ńkètá and Òkè: concepts and practice of indigenous cultural heritage management in the Igbo cultural area of south-eastern Nigeria. Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development.

Prott, L. V. (1997). Principles for the resolution of disputes concerning cultural heritage displaced during the second world war. In E. Simpson (Ed.) The Spoils of War. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage (1st ed.). Routledge.

Ugwuanyi, J. K. and Schofield, J. (2018) Permanence, temporality and the rhythms of life: Exploring significance of the village arena in Igbo culture. World Archaeology, 60 (1), 7 – 22.

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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