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Heritage Futures: Museums, communities, and the future that is already here

Interview with Professor Cornelius Holtorf (UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures) by Mario Giagnorio (PhD student at SSI)

Cornelius Holtorf is a Professor of Archaeology at the Linnaeus University in Kalmar (Sweden) and UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures, last November 2022 he held public lectures and seminars for the students participating in the Challenge Hitchhikers’ guides, virtual Charons, and the future of cultural objects, organized by Francesca Odella (Department of Sociology) and promoted by the University of Trento’s School of Innovation and the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU).

Professor Holtorf, to begin with: what is cultural heritage?

To me, the important thing about cultural heritage is not what it is. Some people might say it must be something from the past, but to me it is important what it does. In my imperfect definition, cultural heritage is what reminds us collectively of the past – which is its function, its effect in a given social and cultural context.

Talking about the past, what is the role of nostalgia in defining the role of a museum?

Nostalgia is a sentiment that many people share, and that can be commodified. At the Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina, people might come to see and be reminded of their local past in a nostalgic way. They can reflect upon their own identity. Yet, it is controversial if this is the main role a museum should have.

So, what is the role of museums?

Museums have several roles, just like there might be different kinds of museums. Some people could call something a museum, while others would not see it the same way. The key to answer the question is rather what attracts the audience. Who goes there? For what purpose? There are several answers to these questions, and therefore different roles for museums.

If people are essential to approach these questions, what makes museums user-centred or people-centred?

Museums are user-centred when they put their audience at the centre in making decisions concerning their cultural services – from exhibitions to activities, to organising the budget. This also means paying attention to elements such as language, being aware that a museum needs to talk to different people.

How can museums and the sponsoring institutions engage with the audience?

Museums and institutions might involve the representatives of interest groups, but people are not always organised in a formal way. In this case, it might be good to try and talk directly to people – even though it’s impossible to get everyone’s view. Of course, this approach has limitations and problems. For example, people and groups bigger than others might end up making all the decisions and exclude others. It risks turning out to be a political game.

Is it worth trying?

Museums can try and balance the process. Yet, the most important thing is building up long-term relationships with those communities. This process is often difficult, especially because of limited budgets and temporary contracts: people move and it is difficult to re-start the process. But it can bring good results.

Do you have any examples?

I conducted a study in Dresden, more than ten years ago. It was not related to a museum though. A citizen initiative had seen to it that parts of the city destroyed in the war were rebuilt. There were architects and other experts in the citizens’ group who also initiated a referendum. They managed in the end to persuade the politicians – who did not want to listen to them, at first. Something like 15% of the population of Dresden supported the initiative.

Of course it was difficult. The project was taking place in the eastern part of Germany (the former German Democratic Republic, GDR), while the leading members of the initiative were from the West (the Federal Republic of Germany, FRG). These people wanted to change the city. People from the East were not necessarily against it, but politicians were not used to this kind of proactive approach.

During your visit at the Museo degli Usi e Costumi della Gente Trentina, before the seminar, you mentioned that a former Somali colleague of yours might feel at home in such a place. Can ethnographic museums help connect communities that are changing vertically (with aging population) and horizontally (with more diversity)?

Yes, they might. While working on a cultural heritage project, we visited a museum in Kalmar that had old agricultural tools and machineries that my Somali colleague could recognise. He liked that museum mostly because it reminded him of home – which reinforced beliefs in evolutionary progress, as if Somali was following after Sweden on the same historical trajectory, which is a very problematic assumption because there is no necessary progress from simple and ‘primitive’ to complex and ‘advanced’. These are assumptions about the future that need to be questioned rather than asserted.

To conclude with a note about the future, during your lectures you stressed that ‘nothing ages faster than the future’. What does it mean, when it comes to cultural heritage?

Perceptions of the future change over time. At different times, we have different assumptions about the future and thus make different decisions for the future. In that sense, the future is always changing. In relation to cultural heritage, this means what people considered at one time to be of primary importance for preservation may not be what they prioritise at another time. We therefore need to get better in heritage policy and management both at anticipation of future needs and at allowing for a change of values and uses of heritage over time.

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