“We need to stop being socially naïve about what heritage is”

Peter Larsen will be the CDH's Academic Guest in 2021. © Peter Larsen

Peter Larsen will be the CDH's Academic Guest in 2021. © Peter Larsen

As the College of Humanities (CDH) Academic Guest for 2021, Peter Larsen, a senior lecturer and researcher in anthropology at the University of Zurich, plans to tackle under-addressed theoretical and practical questions at the intersection of heritage, creativity, and innovation in collaboration with researchers at the CDH and beyond.

With a background in critical social theory, environmental anthropology, and political ecology, Larsen’s work focuses on natural and cultural heritage, sustainable development, and social equity. His fieldwork locations have ranged from the Peruvian Amazon and Vietnam, to Switzerland’s own Lavaux vineyards.

But across his diverse studies and travels, Larsen has noticed a common problem: conceptions and definitions of ‘heritage’ that are used in academia, public policy, and popular culture are inadequate for understanding the multiple roles that heritage really plays in contemporary societies.

“Current definitions of heritage tend to be limited to what is considered ‘significant’. For example, the Lavaux region is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but this designation doesn’t tell us about the real practices of heritage: who manages it, who benefits from it, or new meanings and creative use of heritage materiality,” Larsen explains.

“We need to stop being socially naïve about what heritage is, and get anthropologically real about how it intersects with ongoing dynamics of social, economic, and political transformation.”

Larsen therefore argues that a stronger conceptual framework is needed for what heritage is, how it is creatively used, and how people innovate over time. The pursuit of such a framework forms the basis of his CDH Academic Guest appointment, which he developed in collaboration with CDH senior lecturer Florence Graezer Bideau in the Institute for Area and Global Studies (IAGS), and which will begin in January, 2021.

“The rationale for this project is to carve out a space and time to think more clearly and systematically about heritage, creativity, and innovation. Heritage on the ground is rarely what you think it is when you read about it; it involves constantly changing landscapes, relationships, and ways of doing things. But we are not conceptually equipped to grasp these processes.”

Innovation beyond preservation

Larsen explains that although heritage is often thought of as looking towards history, and is rarely associated with creativity and innovation, this stereotype does not at all fit the reality. Digital technologies for studying and reproducing the past – as demonstrated, for example, by the Time Machine Europe project – are a particularly fast-growing area of research, but Larsen stresses that heritage innovation is not limited to tools for cultural preservation, and indeed has a crucial role to play in environmental sustainability.

“We are confronted with conceptually flawed models for public decision-making in which people and nature are separated. Long-standing interactions between people and landscapes are being ignored, and even undermined. Given the sustainability challenges we are facing, we need to develop models that bring nature and people together, and to address how heritage is relevant for dealing with climate change and inequalities. How can we connect urban landscapes of conservation, transformation, and cultivation, and how does heritage fit in?”

A hub for heritage debates at CDH

During his appointment, Larsen plans to work closely with Bideau, as well as other CDH researchers with interests in heritage, including Sarah Kenderdine (Lab for Experimental Museology), Frédéric Kaplan (Digital Humanities Lab) and Jérôme Baudry (Lab for the History of Science and Technology).

In addition to creating synergies within the CDH, Larsen hopes to open doors further afield, notably through the organization of an international conference on heritage, creativity, and innovation, to be hosted on EPFL’s campus in mid-2021. He also plans to hold a workshop for PhD students.

While the extent of Larsen’s physical presence on the EPFL campus will be determined by the evolving sanitary situation, he emphasizes that his “door is always open”, whether literally or figuratively, to new collaborations.

“I really look forward to benefiting from the interdisciplinary space at CDH, which is at the interface of what the past means for the present, and vice versa,” he says. “I would be pleased to engage with students and other scholars, so don't hesitate to approach me for a conversation. I aspire to meet as many people as possible while at EPFL!”