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Project Lead: Professor Sandra Kemp, Senior Research Fellow s.kemp@vam.ac.uk

Human civilisation is built on ideas of the future. We all anticipate – whether through prediction, imagination or planning. Art, architecture and design provide a cultural context for ideas of the future, both as radical alternative and as objects of science and governance. Diverse craft traditions, design practices and technologies interact with political and social contexts, resulting in objects that hold our ideas of the future. The futures revealed in such material forms embody the perspectives and the values of the societies that produced them. Imagining new futures involves drawing on historical precedents, and notions about the future are a pervasive material presence in our everyday lives. But there has been little research to understand how the future is embedded in artefacts, and how cultural institutions and others use them to advance knowledge.

The V&A’s futures-related research project, ‘The Future is Our Business’, and series of ‘Visionaries’ podcasts, was funded through an exploratory award from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It explored diverse forms of expertise in projecting and predicting the future across centuries and cultures, with a focus on the visual. The project initiated a number of cross-disciplinary avenues of research from medieval depictions of the future as divinely revealed, through increasingly instrumental and secular attempts to control the future, to contemporary future-orientated works of art and design.


Following successful completion of this exploratory award, I am leading research in partnership with other museums and galleries, universities, industry and government agencies on how cultural institutions use the past to shape our ideas and provoke debate about the future.

The Scenario project includes both the historical dynamics behind the imagination of futures, and current methods of futures construction in a range of institutions in partnership with Professor Jenny Andersson, CNRS Research Professor, Center for European Studies, Sciences Po, Paris and Co-Director at the Max Planck/Sciences Po Center on Coping with Instability in Market Societies; Professor Mary Ryan, Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Nanoscience at Imperial College London; and Dr Elena Formia and Manuela Celi, Advanced Design Group, University of Bologna and Milan Polytechnic.

Soirées and Conversaziones: Showcasing the Future

This collaborative research with co-investigators Dr Mat Paskins, Aberystwyth University, Dr Tim Boon, Science Museum, Professor Graeme Gooday, University of Leeds; and Keith Moore, Royal Society, includes exploration of imagined futures in those exhibitions of arts and sciences known as ‘soirees’ and ‘conversaziones’, and the public lectures and events associated with them.

Soirées had their heyday in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and provided opportunities for men and women to think about the future as embodied in new goods and technologies at the more experimental stages of their development. The novelist H. G. Wells characterised known as ‘soirées’ and ‘conversaziones’ as occasions at which ‘imminent change was made even alarmingly visible’ (Ann Veronica, 1909).

In the wider empire, too, soirées appear to be events intended to promote a culture of colonial modernity which brought together science and art, commerce and discovery, designed to promote trade. John Lockwood Kipling sponsored soirées at the Lahore Museum – partner of the South Kensington Museum (Pioneer, 16th December 1877).

The project examines the link between public legitimacy and commercial viability in the soirées’ promotion of inventions that promised to transform modern living through industry, travel and communication. The transience of these events equipped them to register the shifting demands and expectations of an age in transformation, an age in which the purpose and value of the new arts, technologies and sciences were not yet self-evident and were in need of repeated public performance to establish their legitimacy.

Through study of how changing ideas and design movements were expressed by display, the project explores the soirées’ permanent legacy in the development of national museum collections.

Universal Histories and Universal Museums: a transnational comparison

This research, with co-investigator Professor Hervé Inglebert, Professor of Roman History at the University Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, explores the role of the museum in building knowledge about the future through collections, display and relations with publics. Through transnational perspectives on museum collections, the project will examine how history is made, displayed and disseminated through the uses, legacies and representations of the past.

The first phase of the project combines critical investigation through four workshops and two historical case studies, based in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Musée du quai Branly. This phase will consider the influence of social knowledge practices on the structuring of universal knowledge and how thinking about the past helps us to prepare for a global future that incorporates more diverse universalities. What kinds of history do we want or need today?

The project’s second phase will consolidate the first phase in a conference, publications and digitisation of key archival resources timed to align with the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi - a contemporary universal museum.

Intended outcomes of the Scenario projects

This project is in the process of seeking Research Council funding and has already secured generous industry support. Envisaged outputs will include publications, exhibitions and events across diverse partner organisations.

Relevant links

AHRC Care for the Future
AHRC Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past and Labex Pasts in the Present: History, Heritage, Memory
Les passés dans le présent
Project Anticipation
Urban Center Bologna
Passes-Present (PDF)


Showcasing the Future (PDF file, 137 KB)


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