Future Erasure is a futurescaping workshop created by CIID Research (DK) and Media, Culture, Heritage at Newcastle University (UK) to immerse and engage museums in a difficult but pressing problem: to explore and design possible futures of heritage in a world where there is no universal canon to distinguish what is worth remembering and preserving from what is not.
Based on research about current trends, indicators and technologies, we imagine a future where museums are so overwhelmed by the amount of items that should count as heritage; they can no longer keep their full collections and must delete 20% of it every year. To figure out what to delete and how this challenge would affect the museum experience of this future, on the day of the workshop, we invited a group of heritage experts from different museums to form the Deletion Bureau.
We used speculative design and design fiction methods to create materials for this future, such as newspapers, films and a series of physical prototypes, to immerse our participants in this future scenario.
Two major tasks were designed to stimulate debate and push our participants to articulate their values and visions for the futures of their institutions' heritage. The experts came from European museums, thus the activities focused around issues regarding European heritage and personalised the materials around the scenario and the problems their institutions face.
We sought to communicate and demonstrate how our participants might push their own pre-defined assumptions and have a productive discussion about the future of their institutions by using co-creation and speculative design methods. Together, we embraced the potential of speculative design to create a new space for meaningful reflection by inviting participants to tangibly interact with their visions and build new ones. The project demonstrates how futurescaping can be used as a research tool to reflect and spark discussion-- in this case about the current hopes and fears around the digital and a clear need for reshaping the societal value of museums and cultural institutions in the future.
While the workshop is specifically shaped around challenges that the heritage experts and practitioners from various European cultural institutions face, the future challenges that our scenario poses are ones that many organisations can relate to - and the structure could be reconfigured to apply to other sectors. The methodology of futurescaping and its accompanying speculative design tools allowed us to investigate how values, decisions and overall missions do or do not align - in an open, discursive and imaginative way.
Theoretical springboard (Gabi Arrigoni, Newcastle University)
Forgetting is integral part of remembering (see memory studies). Remembering and building heritage are both grounded in processes of filtering, selecting, obliterating. However, there is a long-established view of heritage practice as conservation and preservation. Indeed museums are often described as institutions of memory, not forgetting. In recent years however, scholars started recognising a problematic expansion of the definition of heritage, with increasingly more inclusive regulations (for instance at the level of UNESCO listings), and with the recognition that there is no universal and stable canon to distinguish what is worth remembering and preserving from what is not. The process of ‘heritagisation’ has started being perceived as overwhelming and unsustainable. Emerging tendencies in heritage scholarship are becoming increasingly aware of the subjectivity and changeability of values and identities. Objects valuable and representative of some groups are meaningless to others. Such awareness is suggesting an emergent reflection about the relationship between evolving community-specific values and the dominant paradigm of accumulation and preservation of heritage.
As Harrison (2013: 591) puts it:
These changes have occurred in response to the challenges that have arisen from the globalisation of official heritage practices, and the current crisis of the often indiscriminate accumulation of heterogeneous traces, places and practices of the past in the present which are actively defined, managed and exhibited as heritage. I have identified two processes that have directly contributed to this process. Firstly, the failure to reconsider previous decisions made in relation to the composition of heritage registers and lists. Secondly, the fracturing and replication of memory which occurs in the conservation of absent presences as ‘absent heritage’ [...] this process of active cultivation also requires us to make brave decisions to actively prune those forms of heritage which are inconsistent with, or hold no continuing value for contemporary and future generations, if heritage and its role in the production of social memory is to remain sustainable.
In parallel, due to the development of digitisation and storage technologies and their adoption in archival settings, digital collections are becoming ever-expanding bodies. This concerns both analogue collections transferred into digital archives, and the collection of born-digital resources, such as the content generated through social media (see discourses and projects such as the Library of Congress plan to archive all Twitter tweets). In the meantime, while the accessibility of public collections is open to online fruition, collecting is no longer a practice reserved to specific institutions but is spread across networks of personal or crowd-sourced repositories of the everyday. As Burdick et al. point out discussing digital collections, (2012) our approaches to preservation have led to an impasse: a supply of potential objects for collection exceeding the capabilities of institutions of memory to the point that erasure (consciously and selectively deleting parts of our archives or collections) becomes a possibility to take into account (ibid.). Additionally, whenever the original artefact is preserved, digitised collections can become a ‘playground’ for provocative experiments of deletion and decision-making around deletion of heritage representations (as this could still be a reversible process, since the original could be re-digitised.
Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The virtue of forgetting in the digital age. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Burdick, Anne, et al. Digital_Humanities. Mit Press, 2012.
Harrison, Rodney. "Forgetting to remember, remembering to forget: late modern heritage practices, sustainability and the ‘crisis’ of accumulation of the past." International Journal of Heritage Studies 19.6 (2013): 579-595.
Vecco, Marilena, and Michele Piazzai. "Deaccessioning of museum collections: What do we know and where do we stand in Europe?." Journal of Cultural Heritage 16.2 (2015): 221-227.