During the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage, the heritage sector has much to learn from nuclear waste

by Cornelius Holtorf, UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures and Professor of Archaeology, Linnaeus University, Sweden (cornelius.holtorf@lnu.se)

2018 is the European Year of Cultural Heritage. This “unprecedented year of events and celebrations” was put under the motto Our Heritage: Where The Past Meets The Future.

The heritage sector is rather badly prepared for the future and its challenges. When our research group recently studied attitudes among more than 60 cultural heritage experts from several countries, the results were devastating (Högberg et al forthcoming). Most cannot say which future they work for, or explain how their work will impact on that future. The experts typically admitted that “We think short-term. We are immersed in our daily work, with no opportunity to think on a deeper level.”

In practice, the heritage sector expects the future to be a continuation of the present.
In the mind of heritage professionals, the future sits fairly isolated in the distance and is largely unconnected to the present – with the exception of some future risks for the conservation and accessibility of heritage that have been identified as a result of, for example, sea-level rises. There is no understanding of how present-day practices and decisions will be able to contribute to creating a more desirable future than the one we may be heading for. The challenges of meeting the needs of the future are commonly reduced to safeguarding and spreading information about the cultural heritage which the experts value most themselves.

Instead of proactively exploring how to address future needs, the professionals hide behind phrases such as “history will judge”.
This kind of passivity is not tolerated in another sector with close affinities to cultural heritage – the nuclear waste sector. Nuclear waste can have adverse consequences for human health for up to 1 million years. It is a particularly long-lived part of 20th and 21st century cultural heritage. Experts in relevant fields have for some time been investigating how to protect future generations from inadvertently exposing themselves to dangerous levels of radioactivity. The nuclear waste sector is also concerned with keeping records and assisting future memory through the construction of markers indicating the location of geological repositories of nuclear waste. Among these professionals, clear-headed analyses of risks and ways of meeting them are common place; for them, short-sightedness and “history will judge”-thinking are no alternatives.

The cultural heritage sector should learn from the nuclear waste sector about assessing the needs of the future and develop strategies for meeting them – before history will judge.
When my colleague Professor Anders Högberg and I started collaborating with the nuclear waste industry in Sweden and got immersed in the international discussions about long-term memory, we quickly noticed that the nuclear experts had something to learn from us as well. The values and meanings of past legacies, including both cultural heritage and nuclear waste, are often disputed in society and subject to change over time. We cannot assume that what is risk-full nuclear waste to us today will be seen in the same terms tomorrow (Holtorf and Högberg 2016). After all, a cultural heritage site like Stonehenge has changed its meaning drastically. The site of prehistoric ritual became a quarry, a mysterious Celtic temple, a tourist destination for Londoners and finally a global heritage icon – in the course of merely a few thousand years.

As in the nuclear waste sector, heritage professionals, too, might be able to contribute to preventing harm from future generations.
Some trends for the next several decades are already discernible now. How might cultural heritage contribute to mitigating future migrations, whether they will occur as a result of economic hardship, armed conflicts or sea-level rises? The most important task may not be to safeguard the tangible and intangible heritage that might be lost as a result of such crises. Far more important will be to ensure that displaced people embrace, and are welcomed by, a heritage of hospitality, sharing and joint future-building – rather than one of historical origins, cultural belonging and territorial borders.

Robots in every street corner, global epidemics or societal collapse – this may sound like very remote futures but it is scenarios such as these that can help present-day heritage managers to consider which cultural heritage may be most beneficial for future societies (Holtorf and Högberg 2014). Such planning needs to be systematic and diligent. The problem is that the present cultural heritage sector does not plan for any future scenario – except a continuous present. As a result, heritage experts are largely unprepared for the challenges of the future.

We need to future-proof cultural heritage in order to maximise its benefits for future generations.
The cultural heritage sector (of all sectors!) should appreciate the temporality of everything cultural. The cultural heritage sector itself has dramatically been re-inventing itself previously. Heritage first became significant in the context of 19th century National Romanticism as the nation states were emerging. But in the post-industrial societies of recent decades, heritage shifted its meaning to the realms of edutainment and cultural tourism.

During the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018, the heritage sector should get ready for re-inventing itself once again. It is deeply ironic that the future value of cultural heritage is widely taken for granted in the sector. The professionals should not be satisfied with celebrating the present values of cultural heritage. They should not wait for history to judge their work while they still have the opportunity to improve future societies, before it becomes history.

It is time to consider seriously the benefits Stonehenge and other heritage will be able to provide for the future generations we protect them for.


Högberg, A., C. Holtorf, S. May, G. Wollentz (2018) No Future in Archaeological Heritage Management? World Archaeology 49 (5), available in open access at https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2017.1406398
Holtorf, C. and A. Högberg (2014) Communicating with future generations: what are the benefits of preserving for future generations? Nuclear power and beyond. European Journal of Post-Classical Archaeologies 4, 315-330.
Holtorf, C. and A. Högberg (2016) The Contemporary Archaeology of Nuclear Waste. Communicating with the Future. Arkæologisk Forum nr. 35, 31-37.

Cornelius Holtorf is Co-Investigator in the AHRC-funded Heritage Futures research programme (http://heritage-futures.org).

Go back to top

Please discuss here

Posted February 7, 2018 by Katerina Kleinova
0 Replies