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

Heritage Futures was a 4-year research programme (2015-2019) funded by a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Large Grant (‘Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage,’ AH/M004376/1), and supported additionally by its host universities and partner organisations. The project carried 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.

It is succeeded by the follow-on project Landscape Futures and the Challenge of Change: Towards Integrated Cultural/Natural Heritage Decision Making, funded under the AHRC Landscape Decisions/Changing Landscapes Follow-on Fund for Impact and Engagement Call, which runs for 12 months from February 2020. It has been awarded to a project team which includes Principal Investigator Caitlin DeSilvey (University of Exeter); Co-Investigators Rodney Harrison (University College London), Hannah Fluck (Historic England), Rosie Hails (The National Trust), Ingrid Samuel (The National Trust), and the organisation Natural England as project partner.

This website acts as an archive of the project’s web-based activity of the course of its four years. It is structured around the four themes of our research, each of which identified 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?

Over the course of the project, we posted short Dispatches on fieldwork and ideas that linked our work to contemporary issues and events. We also recorded the  project’s Interventions – publications, workshops, exhibitions, and talks. Through our Lexicon we explore the significance of key words and concepts across the project. You can also find out more about the People and Partners who were involved in our project.



We rarely consider how different ways of assembling, curating, caring for and designing the future relate to one another. Opportunities to open dialogue between and across these domains have largely been overlooked. Each domain has come to be defined by specific activities carried out by particular institutions, more or less in isolation from one another. Current global crises and transformations (from climate change to mass migration) highlight the need to develop more sustainable and resilient future making practices, and encourage different areas of interest to pursue common goals and learn from one another. By knowing more about how humans craft and conserve the varied collections which will form the heritage of the future, we can reflect upon and influence the legacies we leave for future generations.

Our research considered sets of practices within a range of different domains which are dedicated to conserving and perpetuating ideas, words, objects, places, species, persons and things into the future. We believe that a comparative analysis of different kinds of conservation and preservation practices expands the notion of heritage in creative and productive ways. Our research provides intellectual and practical templates for alternative ways of thinking about and managing heritage and other conservation targets. It highlights the advantages and problems of particular approaches and show what can be done otherwise. It also opens up the question of what we mean by ‘heritage’ and how this might be understood in the future.

Within the thematic areas, we undertook 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. We have aimed 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 organised cross-cutting, programme-wide events, including academic symposia, collaborative workshops and experimental exhibitions. The outcomes of the project have been 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.

A more detailed summary of the project may be found in the article ‘Heritage Futures’ in Archaeology International. A list of published outputs from the project may be found on our publications page.

The project’s newsletters are available in PDF format below.

Newsletter archive


A note on our project’s rationale, methods and significance