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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 is 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 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.

This website is structured around the four themes of our research, each of which 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?

We will be posting short Dispatches on fieldwork and ideas that link our work to contemporary issues and events. We will also keep you up to date with our Interventions – publications, workshops, exhibitions, and talks. Through our Lexicon we explore the significance of key words and concepts across the project. And you can also find out more about our People and Partners.


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 considers 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 will expand the notion of heritage in creative and productive ways. Our research will provide intellectual and practical templates for alternative ways of thinking about and managing heritage and other conservation targets. It will highlight the advantages and problems of particular approaches and show what can be done otherwise. It will also open up the question of what we mean by ‘heritage’ and how this might be understood in the future.

Within the 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. 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.

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.

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