Future proofing heritage decisions

A few weeks ago I was persuaded to watch a documentary called “Into Eternity”.  In contrast to my interest in all things historic my husband has an interest in all things future, especially when it comes to future energy needs.  The documentary was about a place called Onkalo, currently under construction in Finland and being built to contain and isolate nuclear waste for 100,000 years.  To put that in context the human species as we know it today is thought to have been around for 100,000 years, with the oldest cave paintings known being around 30,000 years old.

Settling down with my cup of tea I wasn’t expecting much, however I found my self drawn in, and especially when watching it in the context of the discussions we’d had a few weeks before at the first workshop.  It was also particularly precient after reading Tim’s post “Not for us in our present?”, discussing the intentions of the creators.  Part of the Onkolo project was considering the perception of the site for future generations, mainly from a safety point of view, but I couldn’t help pondering the implications and future interpretation of the site from a heritage viewpoint.  It seemed without knowing it they were making heritage decisions which needed to address all considerations for the next 100,000 years.

It was interesting to see the scientists, politicians and constructors of the facility wrestling with the philisophical question of how people would react to and value the site in the future.  Whether it should be allowed to be lost under the forest, will it continue to be documented, whether it should be marked on the ground and if it is marked how to do this considering that it has to be able to be interpreted over the next 100,000 years. 

The key thing which seemed to be lacking in the considerations was the understanding of inherent human curiousity.  One scientist noted that he would expect that if someone stumbled across a concealed entrance and found it blocked with concrete beyond they would understand that they shouldn’t go any further as it may be dangerous.  This was contrasted with an ancient stone with writing on which, once translated, said “do not move”.  The first thing the archaeologists did was move it!

What the documentary really brought home is that we have no idea what will be important over the next 100,000 years.  We don’t know what will survive (apart from nuclear waste!), we don’t know who will be around to appreciate it, what they will value and what their language or level of cogniscence will be.  Also we have no idea about what will happen between now and then.

It made me feel slightly arrogant about making decisions which dictate what is significant and what should be kept and protected.  It made me question who are protecting these things for and are we just putting off the decision for later generations?  How do we future proof our decisions?  Indeed do we want to, will our decisions about our heritage become part of the heritage of the things we are trying to protect?

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