Illustration Ragni Svensson

Illustration Ragni Svensson

Reviews Defining the future for the people. Defining the future for the people. Examining a proposed link between cultural heritage and the future

Cultural Heritage and the Future, Cornelius Holtorf & Anders Högberg, eds., (London & New York: Routledge, 2021), 256 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:4, pp 84-88
Published on on January 24, 2022

article as pdf No Comments on Defining the future for the people. Share
  • Facebook
  • Pusha
  • TwitThis
  • Google
  • LinkedIn
  • Digg
  • Maila artikeln!
  • Skriv ut artikeln!

When I received Cultural Heritage and the Future, edited by Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg, I was immediately struck by the title — heritage and the future? My first thought was: Is this not what inheritance is about? Do we not inherit from past generations with the aim of caring — in multiple ways — for what we have inherited for coming generations? To inherit means at least two things — to keep or to get rid of. Keeping is conserving, having a narrative, remembering those no longer with us, for example. Such actions might at the same time close the door for other (future) opportunities. Getting rid of is destruction, forgetting, silencing, but at the same time also means opening the door for other (future) opportunities. Simply put, there are two ways to approach heritage — to hold on to/to get rid of — not for an abstract future, but for a distinct future, a future-present when the inheritance is again reactivated. Cultural Heritage and the Future reveals some interesting reflections on this issue.

It is always stimulating to take part in Cornelius Holtorf’s thinking. He has what we in Swedish call “glimten i ögat” (tongue in cheek). Take this issue seriously, he seems to say with Högberg, but not too seriously.

Cornelius Holtorf is Professor of Archaeology and holds a UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden. Anders Högberg is Professor of Archaeology at the same university. Their introduction sets the agenda, and it is clear that the book deals with a complicated issue that cannot be addressed without caution, namely the future.

In their introduction Holtorf and Högberg try to pinpoint the fundament, the essential question, the concrete context of the relationship between heritage and the future. What is at stake?

Even in the introduction, the issues are already problematic and contradictory, which the authors try to tackle. The problem is the — contradictory? — relationship between the words “heritage” and “future.”

They call almost everyone in the global heritage sector into question for not thinking about the future, but to think about the future you need an idea of what the future might be. They give a definition: “The future is not only a temporal space to be anticipated. It is also a set of practices, to the extent that human communities contribute to shaping and bringing it into being in the first place” (p. 18).

The future

First of all, why should people in the international heritage sector have this specific definition in mind? Might there be others? Also, Holtorf and Högberg keep forgetting that the future does not exist. That is the point. Instead, the future is always a future-present. The question is: what time frame are we talking about? What present? When is when?

To be able to deal with this problem the authors need — like everyone else — to reduce the issue to the temporal relationship between the past, the present and the future. Even though they question this temporality they have to hold onto it at the same time. Historical consciousness leads to a consciousness of the future, they write, and that is of course true (p. 13). We rely on the past to navigate in the present, and that past in the present postulates our possibilities in a coming future-present.

From my perspective, the question of the future, as asked by the authors, is the most problematic part, not only in the introduction, but of the whole book. We should not try to conquer the future, because such an endeavor demands full control over the present. To be able to fully control tomorrow we need full control over today, and the past — history — which is the fascism of temporality. I am not stating that this is the case among the different chapters in the book, but there is a tendency to aggrandize one’s own perspective on the future, which I think is problematic. For me, the future is a democratic question.


Heritage and the future! What is heritage? Holtorf and Högberg explain: “By ‘heritage’ we mean what reminds people of the past, tangible or intangible, predominantly cultural but also natural. Although there is personal and family heritage, in this volume we focus mostly on collective heritage in communities and societies.”( p. 2) This is a very lackadaisical definition in an otherwise well-argued introduction. It is also important to underscore that heritage is a word, or a concept, that we recently invented.

So far we are dealing with two concepts in the authors’ introduction — the past and the future. But they also discuss what they critically call the “presentism in the heritage sector” (p. 6 ff). Such a statement is obvious in a text dealing with heritage and the future. If the sector made it clear that it is occupied with the present, the book would be pointless. In this case, the “present” finds its place in classical historical consciousness: the past, the present and the future. According to the book, the global heritage sector is too occupied with the present, but where do people reminded of the past exist in this temporal chain if not in the present? And where else can heritage exist and be dealt with? In the past, that once was, or in the future that is not yet? Heritage can obviously only be dealt with in the present by living people of flesh and blood and the same will be true in the future.

Holtorf and Högberg define heritage as something that reminds people of the past, which I have described as a rather careless definition in an otherwise well-written introduction. Against Holtorf and Högberg’s definition of heritage, I will make use of David Lowenthal’s definition for the coming discussion: “confining possession to some while excluding others is the raison d’être of heritage.”

Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg’s Cultural Heritage and the Future is an important book. It points implicitly — and of course explicitly — in many directions through very interesting case-studies, and creates space for an important debate on how we — in the future — should deal with something so complicated and — if we use Lowenthal’s definition — so dangerous and conflict ridden such as heritage.

The essays

The book is divided into four sections. The first is called “The future in heritage studies and heritage management.” Five authors address that question: Rodney Harrison; Cornelius Holtorf together with Anders Högberg; Sarah May, who is associated with Swansea University in South Wales; and Luo Li, an Assistant Professor in Law at Coventry Law School.

Harrison, Holtorf and Högberg, who have dominated heritage studies for decades, write the first chapter. Naturally, they set the agenda and the rest of the volume very much bears the signature of this group.

The second section, “The future in cultural heritage,” has four authors, or actually five, because the last chapter is a dialogue between Alice Gorman and Sarah May. Gorman is associated with Flinders University, Australia. The other authors are Alfredo González-Ruibal, James Dixon and Robert Charlotte Maxwell. González-Ruibal is associated with the Spanish National Research Council. James Dixon is a British archaeologist with a focus on public archaeology and historical buildings. Robert Charlotte Maxwell is a contemporary archaeologist and PhD student based in Sydney, Australia. The following two sections (“Re-think heritage futures” and “Heritage and future making”) have seven chapters. Högberg writes one chapter together with Holtorf, who is also co-writer with Marcos Buser, the late Abraham Van Luik and Roger Nelson in another chapter. Buser is a geologist who works with the disposal of chemotoxic hazardous waste, mostly in Switzerland. Van Luik (who died in 2016) was an American chemist. Roger Nelson has worked in the US with environmental programs for almost 50 years. Rosemary A. Joyce is an American professor in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Erica Avrami is Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University, USA. Caitlin DeSilvey is a British Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Exeter. Paul Graves-Brown studies modern material culture and lives in Wales. The last chapter was written by Richard Sandford and May Cassar. Sandford is Professor of Heritage Evidence at University College London (UCL). Cassar is the Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage.

Altogether there are 18 authors. Five come from the Heritage Futures project in which Harrison and Holtorf are leading figures and Högberg a key researcher; Sarah May and Caitlin DeSilvey are also involved in the project. Sixteen of the authors come from the Anglophone/Anglo-American language context. I would not have mentioned this if it were not for the editors complaining about their own team of researchers. They would have liked to present a truly global perspective, but unfortunately they have not done so, they write. Significant parts of the world are not included, they conclude (p 2).

This backpedaling does not help the volume. What this group of people are stating can be almost completely narrowed down to one language and one context of experience. This does not mean that the different chapters are insignificant. On the contrary! But we are not dealing with any random question. We are dealing with the future and the paradox is that the book questions exactly such narrowness and — someone might argue — biased perspectives. The whole heritage sector is accused of being biased, backward, conservative and narrow-minded — presentist — only because it does not carry with it the definition of the future that Holtorf and Högberg have decided on.

Eighteen prominent and well-known scholars from an Anglophone/Anglo-American language context are telling the whole global heritage sector what the future is all about and how we should approach it. If we were dealing with any other question, I would not have had any problems with this. I have, for example, no problems with white middle-aged male scholars. I have no problems with liberal authority. But I do have problems when a small group of people from the same context of experience is defining the future. That is a very dangerous path to take.

It becomes more problematic if we take into account what Holtorf’s UNESCO Chair is about: “How cultural heritage might help future generations to solve important challenges” (p. x). This is repeated on page one, when heritage professionals are accused of lacking insight into “how heritage actually will be beneficial to future societies” (p. 1).

Remember what I wrote earlier — don’t take it so seriously, Johan, says Holtorf. It’s fun, an experiment, not something that must be set in stone! I accept that, but even if we understand it as such, it is the future issue that remains problematic, because the question is “who defines the future?.” As I argued earlier, the future is a question for democracy and therefore there must be a democratic line somewhere that cannot be crossed in this decision-making. The book opens questions such as: What role should the past and the present represent in this decision-making? What parts of the past and the present are allowed to be part of this decision-making, and who decides? These and similar questions must be asked because cultural heritage in the future could be/will be/is dominated by fascist and far-right politics.

Eastern Europe

“Confining possession to some while excluding others is the raison d’être of heritage”

One part of the world that is not included in the book is Eastern Europe. Heritage issues from Russia to Hungary, Poland and many other Eastern European and former Soviet states are in the hands of nationalists with a far-right agenda. I know that Holtorf and Högberg are aware of this and that similar patterns exists in many countries around the world, for example in China and Afghanistan, and in Western European democracies too, but do they address such questions in the book?

Trevor J. Allen writes: “To be sure, there are important similarities among far-right voters in both regions. In this study, the effects of several demographic variables, including the respondent’s gender, education, and age, as well as attitudes toward European integration, and politicians and political parties are consistent for each set of countries. Moreover, literature suggests that the far right’s exclusionary, nativist populism is present in both regions.”

Allen does problematize this conclusion, but on a more general scale it can be argued that there are many similarities between far-right politics in Eastern Europe and in Western Europe. An earlier central work is Matthew Rampley’s edited volume Heritage, Ideology, and Identity in Central and Eastern Europe: Contested Pasts, Contested Presents.

Maybe not mirroring Western Europe, but at the same time showing both similarities and differences, Eastern Europe is engaged, since at least the beginning of the 21st century, in a growing far-right claim on national and nationalistic heritage, which is becoming an identity marker, and which stimulates an increasing nationalization of history and culture. This has created a growing problem with the European Union.

To put it simply, there is a danger in the future of the far-right domination over heritage in any form, and in history writing and cultural politics too, not only in Western or Eastern Europe, but globally. From my perspective this is a more important question than the case-studies presented in Cultural Heritage and the Future, even though they are well expressed, well-argued and very interesting, and one perspective does not exclude another. But toxic waste is one thing, toxic politics another. Is there any intention to look at the far-right complex in the book? Is any form of conflict or heritage friction identified in the text? The index is a good place to look if one wants to contextualize a text.

The Index

A focus on some words and the absence of other words show the direction of the text. One example is striking: Democracy is mentioned once but Disneyland is mentioned twice. This is a Holtorfian distinction. Disneyland is a bizarre and ironic place that can be intellectually played with. Democracy on the other hand is serious, complicated and dull. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that Cornelius Holtorf does not take democracy seriously — on the contrary — but for the Holtorfian mind Disneyland is much more fascinating, and I can buy that.

The “Hague Convention for the Protection …” is mentioned twice, “heritage at risk” is mentioned once, “equality” is mentioned twice, “ethics” is mentioned three times, and that is all. “History” is never mentioned in the index. “Historic” and “historical” are mentioned five times. The word “heritage,” on the other hand, is mentioned numerous times and so of course is a word such as “future.”

If the book lacks a discussion of future heritage-friction, and the far-right’s fixation with heritage, it also lacks a discussion on the relationship between minorities and Indigenous people, heritage, and the future. In this case, very similar to far-right claims, the heritage of minorities and Indigenous people must be static — presentist — because if these peoples’ cultural heritage and way of life did change it would risk the indignity and minority of these people’s cultures. By questioning a future — presentist — repetition of heritage the book — indirectly — endangers the identity of indigenous people and minorities.


This has not been a conventional review, I agree. Holtorf explains what his UNESCO work is: “Concerning how cultural heritage might help future generations to solve important challenges” or “how heritage will actually be beneficial to future societies.” Why such enormous claims, that everyone with a little critical capacity understands as rhetoric. I will not blame Holtorf for this. If you take on an UNESCO chair it is obvious that you will have to put up with empty phrases. The issue at stake is that the work with heritage must always be important in a utilitarian world that promotes the practical and functional, the useful rather than the attractive or the historical and political. The book Cultural Heritage and the Future is a very well-executed expression of this perspective. It fits perfectly into this instrumental world, or rather, it even takes this world a bit further, because the book is critical of the lack of perspectives on the future in present-day heritage management, i.e. of a lack of a practical and functional — beneficial — understanding of the future.

In a world dominated by teleological thinking — the past, the present, and the future — there has always been a need to control the coming future and this is partly what democracy is about. We have invented democracy to make sure that the future is beneficial for as many as possible. Exactly this is what is under severe threat from neo-fascism and far-right politics, which focus on heritage, culture/media and history writing. By controlling the past, they want to control the future.

Against this background, I would ask why UNESCO wants to control the future. Is it UNESCO that shall decide what might be beneficial in the future? What are the important challenges for future generations and when that day has come, who will be in charge — UNESCO? Is the point with the book and similar future related projects to keep UNESCO in the driver’s seat? I do not know of course. The future is the future, but one thing I do know is that we must today take on the far-right and the fascists’ move to control heritage, culture/media and history, if we do not want to have UNESCO — or our nation-states for that matter — dominated by such perspectives in the future. But who am I to predict what might happen?


  1. David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 230.
  2. Alina Polyakova, “Strange bedfellows: Putin and Europe’s Far Right”, World Affairs, September/October 2014: 36—40.
  3. Elisabeth Niklasson & Herdis Hølleland, “The Scandinavian far-right and the new politicization of heritage”, Journal of Social Archaeology, Vol. 18(2) 121—148: 2018.
  4. Trevor J Allen, “All in the party family? Comparing far right voters in Western and Post-Communist Europe”, Party Politics 2017, Vol. 23(3): 282.

  5. Heritage Matters
    , vol. 6. (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 2012).
  6. Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski & Roland Benedikter, “Poland’s conservative turn and the role of the European Union”, European Political Science, no. 16, 2017: 515—534
  7. For a more conventional review see Giovanni Boccardi

  • by Johan Hegardt

    Associate Professor in Archaeology, Uppsala University, works in the fields of art history, archaeology, museums and heritage studies, and cultural studies. Currently, Hegardt is associated with the Department of Culture and Learning, Södertörn University, Sweden.

  • all contributors

Cultural Heritage and the Future, Cornelius Holtorf & Anders Högberg, eds., (London & New York: Routledge, 2021), 256 pages.