Project: Heritage Futures

Heritage Futures will employ innovative interdisciplinary arts and humanities based research methods to understand a range of practices which are undertaken across a number of fields of heritage practice.

We refer to these different fields of practice as heritage 'domains' to draw attention to the ways in which these fields tend to operate relatively autonomously.

About the project

Project Members: Cornelius Holtorf (Lnu), Sarah May and Anders Högberg (Lnu)
Participating Organizations: Svensk Kärnbränslehantering AB, One Earth: New Horizons Message, Memory of Mankind and University College London
Funding Organizations: Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK)
Timetable: 2015 - 2019
Subject: Archaeology

Project aim

The Heritage Futures project aims to:

  • document and analyze the practices by which the past, present and future are assembled in a range of different domains in comparative perspective;
  • understand and theorize the values which are generated by the 'work' which is undertaken in caring for the future within each of these heterogeneous domains;
  • explore how those practices of assembling and caring for the future might be creatively redeployed to generate innovation, foster resilience and encourage sustainability within other domains, and,
  • develop and disseminate a new, expanded perspective of heritage and the work it does in assembling and designing the future.

Our goal is to deliver a toolkit of methods and concepts which will facilitate a more democratic and informed dialogue between and across various heritage 'industries' and their publics. Heritage Futures will produce a shared and comprehensive understanding of the ways in which current speculations regarding what (and how) to conserve in the present actively shape our material, ecological and social futures. The project is distinctive in the way in which it addresses itself to a range of alternative practices of heritage-making and brings them into conversation with more conventional ones; by its breadth and internationally comparative perspective; by its methodological innovation; and its advancement of new theoretical perspectives which will directly inform heritage policy-making.

Research questions

The research programme is driven by a series of interlinked questions which require further investigation if heritage is to be reconceptualised as part of an expanded field of practice and made relevant in the light of contemporary social, economic, political and ecological concerns. What is the range of different professional and quotidian practices involved in caring for the future? How are the past, present and future assembled within these various fields of practice? What values are generated by the 'work' which is undertaken in caring for the future within each of these domains?

Further, the programme considers a number of applied research questions which aim to explore the practical implications of working with an expanded field of heritage which is produced in acknowledging this range of different ways in which the future is cared for as forms of 'heritage'. Which models of assembling, valuing and caring for the future native to one cultural context or domain of practice could be productively applied to others? How are the processes of categorising, curating, conserving and communicating shaped by these different domains, and how might insights from one be repurposed for others? How might this transportation of new models of heritage-making from one domain to another point towards more sustainable practices of managing heritage? And how would an emphasis on process rather than permanence help us to rethink dominant paradigms of conservation and preservation?

The research programme is grounded in comparative study of a series of four generic processes which underlie the practices of heritage and other forms of future-making across a diverse range of domains of practice:

  • Categorising (identifying, documenting, nominating, listing, recovering, enumerating);
  • Curating (collecting, selecting, attributing value);
  • Conserving (caring, preserving, storing, archiving, managing);
  • Communicating (using, interpreting, exhibiting).

Work packages, processes and practices

The project is led by Rodney Harrison (UCL) and involves four work packages.

Cornelius Holtorf will be co-ordinating Theme 1 on Uncertainty. This work focuses on how the uncertainty of the future is conceived of and managed. It will link organisations with responsibilities for the deep future such as the management of nuclear waste and the formulation of a message from humanity for a deep space probe with formal heritage organisations such as ICOMOS and probe how conceptions of uncertain futures condition how we value materials in the present.

Heritage is often said to be the human legacy preserved for the benefit of future generations. However, it typically remains unclear precisely when these future generations will live and how we can make the right decisions in the present with their best interests in mind. The main challenge lies in how to prepare for the future's inherent uncertainty. Heritage managers work with material that is testament to structural and enduring change. This perspective makes it possible for them to envision futures as different from our present as the Palaeolithic. Cultural and technological developments such as spaceflight and nuclear waste move our engagements with such futures from the conceptual to the strategic. Change and uncertainty provide a counterbalance to heritage tropes of stability and continuity.

This work package explores the processes and practices by which heritage of the future is currently assembled in some conventional and unconventional sites of heritage-making.

  • We will work with the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Co. (SKB) to understand how they care for nuclear waste in the very long-term, manoeuvring in a jungle of legal obligations, commercial interests, political values, scientific knowledge, health-related risks and public concerns.
  • We will research how the global One Earth: New Horizons Message project selects and communicates a message to be sent into outer space so that it inspires human-beings around the globe.
  • We will work with various heritage agencies to understand how they conserve designated heritage by managing the risks of on-going societal change and promoting the role of culture for sustainable global development.
  • To this end, we will also explore specifically how a specific World Heritage Site operationalises such visions of uncertain futures.

Our work will explore both how our understanding of our pasts contributes to the futures we assemble; and how those futures alter the heritage we value and how we use it. It will encourage heritage managers to envision the futures that they are planning for. The aim is to capitalise on the creative potential released by the common acknowledgement across these organisations of an uncertain future, with the intention to conceive of heritage differently. What happens when we come to see nuclear waste as heritage? How can a space message transform the human legacy? Can heritage help us reduce risks of future development on Earth?


Cornelius Holtorf, "Heritage Futures: How the Future is Made Through Heritage", Linnaeus University, Sweden (Kalmar, 2 November 2016)