The future as imagined circa 1951

We Must Prepare for the Future of Heritage! Captain Rocket Issue #1 Nov 1951 by P.L. Publishing Co.

It’s not a sci-fi dream of laser beams and self-monitoring monuments. It’s not yet-to-be-invented gee-whiz, ground penetrating imaging that makes excavation unnecessary—or fully multi-sensory time-travel through virtually reconstructed open worlds. The future of heritage will not be based exclusively on mechanical ingenuity, aesthetic authority, or the ability to halt physical decay. It will be based much more on building relationships between people, within groups, and between the individual and society.

Four years ago, Gustavo Araoz, Angela Labrador, and I established a partnership called Coherit Associates to coordinate a 14-nation Caribbean cultural heritage initiative for the Organization of American States. Both the name of the firm and the goal of the project were meant to signify that inheritance should be shared by many people and that heritage management might benefit in tangible ways by a public engagement paradigm. And in the course of a regional needs assessment survey in which hundreds of people from public, private, NGO, and academic sectors were contacted—and in the still ongoing implementation phase of the project, dealing with five priority areas that the survey identified (networking, legislation, inventories, tourism, and education)—we have experienced how certain elements of traditional heritage practice are not easily reconciled with the realities of a globalized and economically stratified world.

Regional meeting of Heritage stakeholders discussing the future of Caribbean Heritage Management, Bridgetown, Barbados, 2013

Heritage stakeholders discuss the future of Caribbean heritage management at a regional meeting in Bridgetown, Barbados, 2013

To be sure, the foundations of heritage practice will—and should—never be abandoned, but they do not address the serious socio-economic challenges of the 21st century that John Ruskin, Viollet le-Duc, or even the drafters of the 1964 Charter of Venice and the 1972 World Heritage Convention never had to face.  For ours is now a world where heritage sites have become targets for destruction; where less, not more, public funds are devoted to culture; where profit or at least economic sustainability is considered paramount values; where local communities, ethnic groups, and diasporic peoples are demanding rights to designate and control their own heritage places; and where heritage-themed urban revitalization projects often have far reaching impacts on local property values and residents’ quality of life.

The terrific mass tourism impact on the historic city of Venice, February 2009, illustrates the present and future strain on heritage resources as sites become anchors for tourism and urban revitalization. Photo: Alessandro Giumelli/World Monuments Fund

A sign of the future? The mass tourism impact on the historic city of Venice, February 2009. Photo: Alessandro Giumelli/World Monuments Fund

Though conservation science is steadily evolving to deal with the physical challenges of historic preservation, new tools are clearly needed to deal with the socio-economic concerns of 21st century society. Those tools are likely to be digital and they are already emerging—not as already-familiar 3-D reconstructions or multimedia attractions, but as powerful tools for planning, management, and public engagement.

The future of heritage isn't just gee-whiz tech...Visitors to the El Born Cultural Center. Barcelona, December 2015

The future of heritage isn’t just gee-whiz tech…Visitors to the El Born Cultural Center. Barcelona, December 2015

Introducing a new series about the future of heritage management

The series of blog posts that we’ll post in the coming weeks, “The Practical Guide to Next Generation Tools for Heritage Management,” is intended to describe and demystify the range of tools now available or just now emerging that may well revolutionize the scope and objectives of cultural heritage practice in the coming decades. New participants, new relationships, and new attitudes toward both past and future will supplement and likely transform long-debated issues of physical conservation, significance, and authenticity.

We’ll begin with the changing landscape of heritage activities and the need to see our challenge as managing, not stopping change. From there, we’ll explore the increasingly important issue of digitized heritage data—both that which has accumulated through decades of research and meticulous documentation and that we need to start to intensively collect. We’ll describe the tools and their benefits and offer insights into their weaknesses and strengths. We hope that our predictions and evaluations about “new generation” tools for cultural heritage management will be both eye-opening and useful to all who are concerned with cultural heritage as a medium of cultural identity.

So stay tuned!

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