Rodney Harrison: Heritage Futures

What do nuclear waste disposal, built heritage conservation, endangered language preservation, museum collecting, and the curation of family heirlooms have in common?

Heritage Futures is a 4-year research programme (2015-2019) funded by a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Large Grant based in the UCL Institute of Archaeology, and supported additionally by its four host universities and 21 partner organisations. The project is carrying out ambitious interdisciplinary research to explore the potential for innovation and creative exchange across a broad range of heritage and related fields, in partnership with a number of academic and non-academic institutions and interest groups.

Each of the four themes of our research identifies a challenge for the future of heritage and looks at a range of institutions which aim to tackle it in various ways. The themes are:

▪Uncertainty – How is the uncertainty of the deep future conceived of and managed in different fields of conservation practice?

▪Transformation – What values are associated with heritage structures and landscapes that are allowed to undergo transformation and change?

▪Profusion – How do museums and people in their homes decide what to keep in the face of mass production and consumption?

▪Diversity – How are biological, cultural, genetic, and linguistic diversity categorised and conserved, and what can one field learn from another?

Within these thematic areas, we undertake fieldwork focussing on heritage and other forms of conservation practices to understand what is done and why – including the assumptions and values of which participants might be unaware – with a range of groups and institutions who work within different heritage and heritage-like fields which address these themes in different ways. We then aim to work with these groups to identify how specific strategies and practices from each of these fields might be creatively re-deployed in others.

Our methods draw broadly on visual and material ethnography, but also incorporate documentary research, creative artistic practice, ethnographic film making and creative knowledge exchanges. Here we are influenced by the work of George Marcus and others on multi-sited ‘para-ethnography’ in which ethnographers come together with other expert knowledge producers in the development of shared, critical insights which cut across the fields in which we work. In addition to theme-specific events, we organise cross-cutting, programme-wide events, including academic symposia, collaborative workshops and experimental exhibitions. The outcomes of the project will be shared with practitioners, policy makers and academics through a range of outputs, including training and capacity building resources, policy briefings, short films, books and journal articles.

Conceptually, the project is influenced by previous work on the application of assemblage and actor network theory as frameworks for investigating heritage critically. The project is also influenced by the ‘ontological turn’ in the social sciences, in particular Karen Barad’s agential realism and various aspects of Science and Technology Studies in seeing heritage practices of various kinds as enacting new realities through contingent practices of assembling and reassembling bodies, techniques, technologies, materials, values, temporalities and spaces. Central here is a plural notion of heritage ontologies-understood as the world making, future assembling capacities of heritage practices of different kinds-and the ways in which different heritage practices might be seen to enact different realities and hence to assemble radically different futures.

The project is distinctive in its comparative approach which aims to bring heritage conservation practices of various forms into closer dialogue with the management of other material and virtual legacies such as nuclear waste management. It is also distinctive in its exploration of different forms of heritage as distinctive future-making practices.

Rodney Harrison

Principal Investigator, Heritage Futures

UCL Institute of Archaeology