New Year, old mindset: how heritage can change the way we see the future

Happy New Year!

A change of calendar year is always a good time to think about the future. Planning abounds as the pages of a diary spread out, virgin white, before us; resolutions are made as we consider how we want to meet the future and what we want to put into it.

But why, as a heritage blog, am I talking about the future? Heritage is, by its very nature, about the past: from stone arrowheads to Rolling Stones album covers, our past shapes us, but the future is a void of the unknown.

This post really comes to you courtesy of a friend who shocked me during a round of “If you could visit any time period…” As a historian, of course, my answer was simple, and precise almost to the decade.* Archaeologists often want to travel further back, to get answers to those tantalising puzzles that are usually put down to forgotten rituals. The Regency period is always a popular answer – blame Jane Austen. But for the first time I can remember, someone around the table said “any time period? The future.” I cannot remember if a particular time was specified – perhaps a century or two from now. My real shock was that it had simply never occurred to me that time travel could encompass the future.

Old fashioned Penguin book cover for George Orwell's 1984
Big Brother is watching you… from

Perhaps it is because the past is so present in our… present. We can look back at the centuries unfolding behind us, and recognise the famous leaders, writers, artists, buildings, even fashions. The past is coloured in by historical texts, images, films and books. To travel there is to visit a land we have heard of but never experienced.

To go to the future, on the other hand, is like boarding a plane (or a TARDIS, if you prefer) with no idea of its destination. The possibilities are open to our imaginations.

From 1984 to the Hunger Games, the future has been a blank sheet which writers can use to show the dystopian possibilities of current situations. Yet apart from dire warnings about the consequences of climate change, government surveillance, and rebellious AI, the future is unpeopled, blank where the past is vivid scenery.

Heritage managers are often particularly good at planing ahead, being familiar with timescales of centuries rather than months – the Heritage Futures project has highlighted ways in which this long-term scope applies to a variety of fascinating situations. But in many ways, I think one of the most interesting things heritage can offer is an attitude towards time periods we will realistically never experience. Just as the past is full of people, places, stories with which we can empathise and which have the power to move us, so the future will be diverse, fascinating, full of people living their lives and creating their own stories. We may never know them, but we ourselves are shaping them. The future is not a void – it is only another step on a long road.

A major – but common – error in historical writing is known as teleology. It is when one assumes that a history leads inevitably towards its final outcome; that the present is the end point of all the stories of the past. This is false, of course; we are only one point of many possibilities. We are not even leading to a future conclusion, simply to another point, and then another. It is up to us now to decide what these points look like.

So, hard as it is to conceptualise a future which will lead to our deaths and then carry on beyond us on the same endless trajectory, it is important to remember that the people of the future will have lives shaped by our choices. Thinking of the future as we think of the past – with interest, empathy and a sense of personal involvement – may be a way to help guide us towards leaving a better future.

If you were to travel to the future, what would you hope to see?

*England in the late sixteenth century, in case you were wondering.

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