The Future of the Past

I’m now embarking on a 4-year research project that investigates and compares heritage futures. Part of what we’ll be looking at is different ways to preserve, the practices and processes involved in heritage management, the issue of profusion, and the much longer term aspects of uncertain futures in heritage.

In the ‘meaningful pasts’ posts, the last question in the survey is the one that is most linked with this larger research project by proposing one version of the potential futures of heritage: “If we save more and more objects and intangible pasts, is there a danger that there will be too much past in the future?” Some of the participants were perplexed with the wording. However, the point was to provoke a response – and intimating to a danger suggested that every action has a consequence. In this scenario, so much of the past is saved and accumulated that the future is potentially littered with stuff from the past.

I’m going to highlight some of the responses here:

  • Post #7: “One shouldn’t live in the past or in a museum … We must find some kind of balance between the duty to remember, the responsibility of the present and a viable and happy future.”
  • Post #12: “The danger is in overvaluing all pasts simply because they are pasts. We have to create the poetry of the future with the past as well as the present.”
  • Post #8: “It’s not a danger, but it cannot be a weight to carry with us: we need to know the past but we cannot live in the past.”
  • Post #15 said that the questions was about “taking responsibility for what is preserved and what isn’t; recognising the paths that lead to decisions, the limitations involved in the process and the consequences of leaving in or out parts of our pasts.”
  • Post 17’s 10-year-old boy’s view is also worthy of mention: ‘Yes, cause there might be too little space for us to live in the future because museums will keep getting bigger and bigger, so there’s too much past, and there could be too much future too cause the Science Museum has a lot of future in it!’.
Living in a museum? Image shot from the Roman Forum

Living in a museum? Image shot from the Roman Forum

I think Post #9’s passionate response to the Franklin Expedition is a testimony to an ongoing tension in heritage: to keep or not to keep remnants in the location where they are found. In her view, “Stephen Harper needs to leave the Franklin Expedition boats in the frozen North!”. She asks: “We know they’re there … but why do the sited need to be picked apart and raised?”. In Rome, most if not all successful projects involving preservation is in situ. This prevents storage issues, but may also inspire architects to create new designs with the past. Post #9 goes on to indicate that the government should instead “foster the preservation of existing intangible pasts such as the language and customs of living people in the area, they have something worth keeping.” Here, there’s a suggestion that these tangibles can be ‘let go’, and stay in the sea, but that languages that are only spoken orally and customs that are practiced by a distinct group and that might eventually become extinct should be preserved. If I gathered the views of all the participants, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get a consensus on how best to deal with the Franklin Expedition.

What if there are no pasts?

This brings me to what Post #10 mentions about the lack of funds. If budget cuts often target cultural sectors, then this may resolve the issue: if there is no money to ‘save’ the past, then there might not be any museums and resources to protect and conserve pasts in the future. This is a good point, however, in many places, private developers and individuals fund or purchase the heritage assets.

The lighthouse at Orford Ness is owned by a private entity. Image courtesy of URL:

The lighthouse at Orford Ness is owned by a private entity. Image courtesy of URL:

Post #12 brings to the fore the use of technology as a means of preservation. He mentioned that computer/video games contribute to preserving intangible heritage, and that there is a need to expand the ways of keeping the past alive. I am glad someone mentioned games since I think there is merit to including forms of pop culture in heritage. Call of Duty, for instance, involves hours upon hours of research in locating episodes of the First and Second World Wars. Recently, I came across a scene in The Last of Us that involved the ruins of a museum. While the entire city of Philadelphia in The Last of Us is ruins, I was shocked when I came across the destroyed museum. For some reason, I didn’t think that was possible – as if museums are protected from natural forces and armed conflict. We often assume that what we have now will still be there in the future. Unless, of course, new technologies change our habits.

Screenshot from The Last of Us museum scene courtesy of ZackScottGames' walkthrough. URL:

Screenshot from The Last of Us museum scene courtesy of the ZackScottGames walkthrough. URL:

Post #12 now scans photos and stores them onto an external hard drive in the hopes that they will be better preserved for the future. I distinctly remember thinking the same way when Floppy Disks came out, and now those digital files aren’t accessible to me anymore.

But let me end my month on a positive note. I think that everyone who responded to the ‘meaningful pasts’ survey wants tangible and intangible pasts to be part of the future. And I think that this is representative of many people around the world. This is great news! But I also think that much more work needs to be done to understand how we achieve this responsibly and in a sustainable fashion so that in 1000 years from now, people don’t end up in some heritage version of the movie Wall-E


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