Preserving the past, shaping the future
How will we remember the present in the future? What should we preserve? And what should we let go?
Heritage Futures is a four-year research programme (2015-2019) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) which aims to develop a broad, international and cross-sectoral comparative framework for understanding 'heritage' in its most expansive sense.
The project began with the premise that heritage is fundamentally concerned with assembling 'futures'.
It is built on the understanding that the many different ways we select and manage what to preserve from the past and present for the future – from nuclear waste disposal, to museum collecting and the curation of family heirlooms – all have much to learn from each other. Rodney Harrison, Professor of Heritage Studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, AHRC Heritage Priority Area Leadership Fellow and Principal Investigator on the Heritage Futures research programme says the aim is to foster creative and innovative knowledge exchange across different fields of heritage conservation practice, in particular across natural and cultural heritage.
“What we had noticed was that it didn't matter what branch of heritage management we were looking at – whether it was preserving DNA, seeds, endangered languages or historic landscapes and buildings – they all operated somewhat in isolation and rarely talked to each other about common themes and shared interests,” he says.
“We wanted to bring all these different fields together and provide a context in which they could talk to one another to see what forms of innovation might emerge from these conversations. We also wanted to look in detail at what actually goes on in each of these fields, and the different kinds of futures they could each be said to resource.”
The project looked beyond heritage to other areas concerned with material or discursive legacy—such as nuclear waste management and deep space messaging. “That helped us broaden the heritage field in interesting ways,” says Professor Harrison.
This year the University of Manchester Museum has taken the themes raised in the research and turned it into an exhibition that will run until 2021.
For the last two years, the Heritage Futures research team have been collaborating with Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester. Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester University Museum says: “When I came across the Heritage Futures research project, it was clear that the project had tremendous potential, both to develop thought-provoking exhibitions and events, and to sharpen our focus in achieving our mission, of building understanding between cultures and a sustainable world. I participated in knowledge exchange events as part of the project, to get to understand the research and get to know the researchers.”
As a result of the collaboration, the museum has developed an exhibition, Heritage Futures, drawing on the themes of the research, and an adjacent Heritage Futures Studio as a co-curation and co-production space.
Heritage Futures Exhibition
The Heritage Futures exhibition, co-curated by Professor Harrison and Henry McGhie with the assistance of the 14 other members of the Heritage Futures research team, explores four challenges faced by people involved in creating futures with heritage: profusion, diversity, transformation and uncertainty. These concepts are explored through the Museum’s huge collection of 4.8 million objects and specimens, including ancient clay tablets, a Giant Tortoise, hundreds of insects, an Albatross, a Lake District sheep, and a replica of the gold record that was sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft
The exhibition concludes with a message of empowerment, and an invitation for everyone to participate in future-making: “We can’t be certain what the future will be like, but through Heritage Futures, we can at least try to ensure that the decisions we make today help provide people with the things they might need and want in the future”.
Professor Harrison says “one particularly interesting aspect of the exhibition was the way the Museum used the project’s research as a starting point to reflect on its collections. While there are aspects of the research included in the exhibition, it is much more about the museum's own reflection on itself in the light of the research and their own work. It has been really encouraging to see how this has been done.”
Heritage Futures Studio
The themes of Heritage Futures are further explored and brought to life in a Heritage Futures Studio. Wendy Gallagher, Head of Learning and Engagement within the Learning and Engagement departments at Manchester Museum, who led the development of the Studio, says Heritage Futures has encouraged the museum staff to think carefully about how they programme for the future. Rather than continue to rely solely on museum specialists – such as curators, educators and artists – to put together programmes, they can now start to include other ideas and voices and create “amazing spaces to bring people together to discuss and debate,” says Gallagher.
“We are using this as an opportunity to invite other people in, whether they are activists, researchers, community groups or practitioners to contribute to our vision of a sustainable future. We are looking for people to reflect our values about being imaginative and caring. It's about being more inclusive and diversifying our audience. By giving up some of the control that we have to people outside our organisation we hope to get more people to take their own steps towards responding to our collections on their terms. Hopefully, this will also bring in new networks of people.”
Shaping the Future
The Heritage Futures exhibition had been intended to be shown for three months; this has been extended to two years, as the Heritage Futures Studio will be a changing and developing response to the themes raised by the Heritage Futures research. This approach enables AHRC-funded research to connect with more people, and for them to engage with the research in personally meaningful ways.
Professor Harrison says that one particularly interesting aspect of The University of Manchester Museum exhibition was the way it used the team’s research as a starting point for the museum to reflect on its collections. “It's been really encouraging to see how this has been done,” he says.
Professor Harrison said “the Heritage Futures project has really helped the Museum re-think how they engage with civil society and the heritage sector, and how they engage with a much more future-focused way of working.” He also enjoyed seeing the way that the museum has been able to use the project to think about what they do, and their vision, as well as the way they relate to other people: “Of course, it's always exciting to see your research forming part of an exhibition,” he says. “But it's what they've done with it that has been most inspiring. I feel like Heritage Futures has had a real impact on both the audience and the organisation hosting it.
“Heritage Futures shows how the arts and humanities can play an active role in shaping the future.”