The Future is Our Business: A Visual History of Future Expertise

Engraved Talisman, Arabian, 15th century. Museum no. 1066-1869, © 
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Engraved Talisman, Arabian, 15th century. Museum no. 1066-1869, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

March – December 2013

V&A Departments: Research

Partnered with the University of Sussex, the Royal College of Art, the University of Leeds

Sponsored by The Arts and Humanities Research Council

Nearly all cultures have developed models of how to project and predict the future. Ways of thinking about the future range widely: from diviners and alchemists, through urban improvers and insurance companies, trend forecasters and risk assessors, and to film-makers and novelists. Projections of the future engage, whether explicitly or implicitly, with their own present. They may critique an existing state of affairs, or simply offer the promise of a better world.

There is in one sense an inherent contradiction in the premise that expertise in projecting and predicting the future is possible. By their very nature, claims about the future are unverifiable at the time they are made. This places high rhetorical demands on self-proclaimed futurists or experts in the future who must demonstrate their superior insight through spiritual, statistical, or scientific means.

Neri Oxman, Armour/Corset, 
2012. © Neri Oxman

Neri Oxman, Armour/Corset, 2012. © Neri Oxman

This project investigates what societies at different times and places have considered constitutes expertise in the future, and how this expertise has manifested itself visually, exploring a number of cross-disciplinary avenues of research in a range of cultural contexts.

Most work in the field has emphasized text as the primary instrument of the futurologist. As a recent BBC radio documentary on the topic suggests, there is popular fascination with the predictions of future experts, from the Oracle at Delphi through Nostradamus and the science fiction authors of the twentieth century, and a rich literature on such expertise exists. The visual analogue to this tradition tends to be used as an adjunct to verbal description, with notable exceptions, such as the oeuvre of Leonardo da Vinci. This project sets out to adjust this balance, drawing together projective, predictive, divinatory and utopian art and design from the middle ages to the present.

As part of its analysis of future expertise, this V&A-led project also examines less canonical visual material of a technical nature, such as patents, diagrams, maps, charts and graphs.  Together, the physical artefacts and the models they represent constitute the hopes and fears of past and present.


13 - 14 June, 2013 ‘The Future of Future Expertise’, Wellcome Collection. 

16 September, 2013 ‘Matters of Thought: Models and Knowledge Production in the Early-Modern World’, The Royal Society.

17 September, 2013 ‘Early Modern Projectors and Technologists’, Italian Cultural Institute.

18 - 19 September, 2013 ‘Technocracy, Expertise and the Future’, Goethe Institut.  

V&A staff are involved in a diverse range of research activities. Further information about these activities can be found in the V&A’s ResearchPlan and Research Reports.