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: http://www.orford.org.uk/community/orfordness-lighthouse-company-2/

The lighthouse at Orford Ness is owned by a private entity. Image courtesy of URL: http://www.orford.org.uk/community/orfordness-lighthouse-company-2

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uDS8cJyVLs

Screenshot from The Last of Us museum scene courtesy of the ZackScottGames walkthrough. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uDS8cJyVLs

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

The Tangible’s Intangibles

The title could also be The Intangible’s Tangibles. The point I want to make in this post is the undeniable bond between objects from the past and intangible pasts such as language, customs, memories and emotions that are caught up in them. While in many academic circles the tangible and the intangible are severed in order to better understand the processes involved in their making, the responses obtained from the ‘meaningful pasts’ posts reflected a much closer link.

Proust's madeleines. Image courtesy of URL: http://marzulla.wikispaces.com/Marcel+Proust

Proust’s madeleines. Image courtesy of URL: http://marzulla.wikispaces.com/Marcel+Proust

Marcel Proust’s madeleine is a common example to explain this phenomenon. In À la recherche du temps perdu, Proust recalls a memory when he has a biscuit (a madeleine) that he dunked in his tea. Academics have emphasized numerous angles deconstructing the process of memory involved in this scene: the dunking of the biscuit awakens the memory; without the teacup there could be no tea; the memory resulted from intangibles: the scent and taste, not the materials, etc. But for me, the memory occurs because of an amalgamation, a juxtaposition of both tangible and intangible elements. This combination happened in a moment, at a time that was completely unrelated to what was occurring, and the unexpected and involuntary nature of the memory has a profound effect on the emotional transformation of Proust.

Cooking was mentioned a few times in the responses, particularly when part of the customs or traditions that were important to some people was getting together for Christmas or New Year’s. In that sense, the process and practice of getting together are important here: the effort to get to the place, the planning of buying gifts and bringing goods, baking a traditional recipe, sharing, eating, spending time together. This in itself involves both intangible and tangible aspects. In other words, the Yule log as mentioned by Post #6, like Proust’s madeleine, has no meaning when taken out of context. It’s the practice and performance of doing the Yule every year, eating and sharing it that consists in the tradition that can be passed down.

Discarding to forget

Another example of linking the tangible with the intangible is how attachment can be ‘locked in’ an object; to rid oneself of the object is to attempt to rid oneself of the sentiment. This is particularly important in past relationships, mentioned in some of the posts. Post #14 speaks of ‘memory bonfires’ in order to get rid of pasts associated with attachments, with the quip that the success rate is questionable.

It’s not necessarily the end product that is the target, however: the act of burning or throwing away is a bigger part of the process of letting go. As Post #6 mentions, not retaining items from broken relationships is a way to move forward and not get ‘stuck’ in the past. The idea is to feel hope and contentment at the possibilities that the future will bring. There is a sense of taking control, and taking responsibility for one’s outlook on life.

More complicated is when children are involved. One person told me that when her father left the family nucleus, her mother threw away all the photographs of him. She grew up with no memories of him except for the one-sided versions her mother would relate. On the one hand, she felt robbed of her own lineage: she had a right to at least see her father in pictures. Yet on the other hand, she recognizes that her mother wasn’t thinking of the family legacy; at the time, she had to find a way to move forward and raise her daughter.

Tradition includes change

An interesting theme that came out in the posts is the idea of embodiment: the use of performance to preserve intangible pasts.

Couple dancing in Barcelona

Couple dancing in Barcelona

Yet song, theatre and dance suggest that both the tangible and intangible are intricately connected. To do something that ancestors did re-creates a ‘present-past’: a present movement that captures a tradition. As Post #14 aptly puts it, it’s about ‘Practice and performance. Repetition and change.’ This sequence of performing movements with each generation adding or modifying a particular move, speaks to adapting the past in the present.

Many people referred to particular dialects and expressions that they wish to pass down and preserve. Post #13 also mentions the process of language: how they’re developed and how and why some, in time, become extinct. When I first visited my grandmother’s village in Italy, I distinctly recall locals’ wonder at me – a girl born and raised across the Atlantic – speaking their village dialect. I remember feeling proud. But the dialect that was spoken and transmitted by my grandparents had slightly modified: words in québécois and in English were morphed and added to the vocabulary. I’m not sure that my and the next generation will pass down this modified dialect. Dialects need practice and repetition, they need daily use and a network of people to keep it alive. They also require a need and an urgency to continue its use. Should I feel concerned if this particular dialect spoken by an emigrated few disappears?

Some considered thoughts, ideas and beliefs to be part of intangible heritage, with a few posts intimating that thoughts can be acted upon, and that these actions have consequences, and that some of these consequences changed the course of history, such as defining borders and territory…

Let's ponder this image for a moment... Map courtesy of URL: http://www.lewis-clark.org/article/1136

Let’s ponder this image for a moment… Map courtesy of URL: http://www.lewis-clark.org/article/1136

The Problem With Value

Here are some brief statistics about the ‘meaningful pasts’ posts:

  • There were 11 female and 6 male respondents, for a total of 17
  • More than half of the respondents were in their 40s, yet the ages ranged from 10 years to late 60s
  • Respondents have different backgrounds and origins, but 40% work in the public service, and 47% live in Canada

Reading back through the answers, I was struck by the engagement everyone had with the questions (thank you to all the participants!). There is no doubt that the majority saw ‘the past’ in its broadest sense as both personal and collective. In thinking about objects that people treasure, there was a sense that personality came into the mix: some are more minimalist because they don’t like clutter or amassing boxes of stuff; others are what one person described as ‘pack-rats’. This reminds me of a conversation I recently had with a colleague: the more one moves house, the less stuff one keeps, especially when the moves are transnational.

Nonetheless, I found that the common denominator for many of the answers is value.

As Post #7 mentions, there is a process of sorting and selecting which objects to keep and care for. This suggests that on a personal level, value is usually not considered in monetary terms, but linked to emotional attachment. Some are more apt at sorting and selecting and find this activity beneficial, akin to some sort of cleansing. Others might be more inclined to delay the decision-making process and instead gather objects on shelves or in boxes that go in storage, in attics and basements (not necessarily their own).

Keep it in the family

The personal items that were mentioned were quite representative across the respondents: photos, childhood toys, school yearbooks, books, pocket watches and other objects inherited from grandparents.

A number of respondents implied that having children changed their sorting and selecting practices. For parents, this means collecting the child’s childhood (e.g. keeping a lock from the first haircut) as well as objects from their own parents and lineage. In that sense, the presence of a new generation acknowledges one’s own mortality, and collecting the memory of loved ones is part of preserving the family’s presence for future generations.

Representations of the past in the present. Cabinet featured in the 'Talking with the Dead' exhibition

Representations of the past in the present. Cabinet featured in the ‘Talking with the Dead’ exhibition

I am involved in a project on Spiritualism in the Stoke-on-Trent, and the ongoing presence of the loved ones who have passed on is a recurring theme. When doing interviews in people’s homes, there were often pictures of relatives and close friends on display. Rather than a constant reminder of death, from a Spiritualist point of view this representation of being surrounded by loved ones through tangible and intangible memories of their practices and personalities evokes the continuity of life. In our exhibition at Gladstone Pottery Museum (running until 31 October), we wanted to reflect the ongoing presence of the past in everyday life and its persistence for the future of the Spiritualist movement.

Older pasts are already ‘selected’

Value at a larger scale is much more problematic. As a society with different and differing values, is it possible to sort and select by consensus? Post #16 seems to suggest that it is being done, and indeed many countries have heritage frameworks. In a city like Rome, my conversations with planners and archaeologists suggested that it was much easier to preserve and conserve than to select. Selecting means that there is a decision being made at a given time of whether to keep or discard an object. Imagine the burden of an archaeologist who would have recorded but destroyed a material fragment, just to be blamed years later for destroying that fragment as its value would have increased over time. Hence, the practice in Italy is basically to preserve everything. One architect had jokingly told me that he hoped his Tempo garage wouldn’t be part of some heritage artefact in 2000 years.

Tensions between people’s interests and roles also come into play. On being asked if there were some objects best forgotten, Post #10 said: “Absolutely not. As an historian, it is my opinion that all must be remembered.” And yet, the 10-year-old from Post #17 has a good point: does anyone want to preserve ancient underpants? Possibly. And that’s the difficulty, especially in places like Rome where for the casual observer, as well as those involved in the ‘business of the past’, everything seems to be worthy of preservation: there’s no need to sort and select because everything ‘ancient’ already has value.

The Roman Coliseum at night

The Roman Coliseum at night

Post #10 goes on to mention that the older the time of the object, the lesser we know about that time. Indeed. So is this why we automatically value older pasts? Baudrillard (1968) discusses this ‘immemorialization’ of older pasts. He concludes that the older the past, the more it is valued because it is linked with authenticity and a time we can’t personally recollect. Would the Roman Coliseum or the Acropolis in Athens ever be purposefully destroyed? I doubt it since these structures don’t only belong to the nations under which they are located, but to a wider, global population through their designation as World Heritage Sites. But this doesn’t protect them from any future conflict as we’ve recently witnessed in the Middle East…

Meaningful pasts: Post #17

This is the last post from the responses I obtained. I will finish off the month of September with a few reflection posts on the themes that came up in the responses.

1. What objects from the past do you particularly treasure?  

My first toy.

2. Do you think that some objects from the past are best forgotten?

Yes, ancient underpants should not be kept 🙂

3. What intangible pasts (e.g. customs and languages) are meaningful to you?

Memories of dead relatives are important but also quite sad 😦

4. How is it best to preserve these intangible pasts? 

Keep them in a filing cabinet in your brain.

5. If we save more and more objects and intangible pasts, is there a danger that there will be too much past in the future?

Yes, cause there might be too little space for us to live in the future cause 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! 🙂

Year 6 schoolboy and gamer 🙂

Meaningful pasts: Post #16

1. What objects from the past do you particularly treasure?

I particularly treasure major endeavours that were done in the past, such as those in architecture, sculpture, painting, literature such as ‘The Divine Comedy’ by Dante, monuments, archaeological remnants which are numerous in Italy and in Fano, the city I live in: we are proud of the roman wall, the Arch of Augustus which was constructed by Vitruvius (a famous roman architect under Caesar), the medieval walls and the arches that divide the city from the countryside.

However, in our own homes and attics there are pasts that highlight a way of life of our ancestors: beliefs, uses, habits that link us to them (with strong emotional value). I have a pendulum clock, pocket watches, old heaters, and suitcases from relatives that had emigrated and subsequently returned… all of these objects help me reconstruct my life and those of my ancestors. I feel respect and a great admiration for those who created impressive inventions and discoveries from the past, but I also think there is substance in the smaller things of one’s life…

2. Do you think that some objects from the past are best forgotten?

There are so many, from all the sorts of weapons, poisons, scientific and technological objects used in a distorted fashion.

3. What intangible pasts (e.g. customs and languages) are meaningful to you?

I believe that oral tradition is significant, what’s passed on from parent to child, languages such as Latin, dialects, proverbs, tongue-twisters, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, fables and their morals, stories told by grandmothers (mine would tell me stories while she was sewing), and also religious traditions and cultural beliefs.

4. How is it best to preserve these intangible pasts?

Through writing – the written word never dies and it is through texts that we can acknowledge transformations in society. Also through formal education and informal education through the family.

5. If we save more and more objects and intangible pasts, is there a danger that there will be too much past in the future?

There’s no danger because the values of the past can be critically assessed:

  1. by selecting what is considered good/beautiful;
  2. by constructing the new through the legacy of the past (and learning from errors made in the past);
  3. by not erecting buildings in the name of money, power and success at all costs;
  4. by not constructing a future based on a narcissistic point of view, but for the good of communities.

Female, 60s, retired schoolteacher

Meaningful pasts: Post #15

1. What objects from the past do you particularly treasure?

I’d need to make a distinction between the past as a generic term that applies to, for example, places I visit; and ‘my’ past, in which case there are some objects that I treasure and that mean a lot to me. About the former, I take great pleasure in visiting sites that remind us of past cultures and civilizations, mostly, through buildings or excavated ruins, and these can be anywhere. More recently, I visited Gordes in Vaucluse Provence, a very unique place, nothing like anything I’ve seen before and a vivid reminder of a past that I want to know more about. About the latter, there is an illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland that my wife gave me a while ago; that is a present and book that I treasure most certainly.

2. Do you think that some objects from the past are best forgotten?

Yes. Memory has limits, which is not to say that there are things or objects that we shouldn’t remember: a question that is challenging enough for individuals, let alone groups and societies.

3. What intangible pasts (e.g. customs and languages) are meaningful to you?

Dancing. I grew up in a culture where dancing is part of how you communicate with your peers: you talk, you write, but you also dance. There’s a profound wisdom to that. Also, the memories of my parents.

4. How is it best to preserve these intangible pasts?

In the case of dance, I’m not sure you can preserve it, or at least, preserve all of it. The most effective way of doing so is by preserving traditions from, say, typical country dances to your older brother’s attempts at teaching you how to master the key salsa steps. This is the kind of conserving that is kept alive by the simple act of doing, but what is ‘done’ changes across generations. In the case of memories, the most obvious route would be oral history.

5. If we save more and more objects and intangible pasts, is there a danger that there will be too much past in the future?

There can never be too much past in the future. I think the question is about coming to terms and 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.

Male, 40s, academic

Meaningful pasts: Post #14

1. What objects from the past do you particularly treasure?  

A sock monkey named Monk.  He has been with me everyday since I was born, in some form or another.  If he isn’t physically with me I carry his picture.  He is the sibling I never had.  He currently resides on the floor of my wardrobe with a few other childhood stuffed toys.  I see him as the granddad, the wizened old man of playthings.  There are trinkets from family members and ephemera from travels that rate a spot in the metaphorical file box, but Monk is always the first.

2. Do you think that some objects from the past are best forgotten?

I have had many ‘memory bonfires’ to rid myself of objects from the past and related attachment.  The success rate is questionable.

3. What intangible pasts (e.g. customs and languages) are meaningful to you?

Tradition.  The commemoration of events (no matter how small) with an event (no matter how small).  The celebration of life, if you will, with a family twist that makes it unique and yet familiar.

4. How is it best to preserve these intangible pasts? 

Practice and performance. Repetition and change.

5. If we save more and more objects and intangible pasts, is there a danger that there will be too much past in the future?

The past is always part of the future, whether tangible or intangible.  But it is also never completely in the past.  Objects and practices and relationships to objects and practices change with time despite the best efforts of preservation.

Female, 30s, lapsed academic/mother