Research project: Universal Histories

Human civilisation is built on ideas of the future. 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 Universal Histories and Universal Museums research project centres on the historical role of museums in the imagination of the future: both the historical dynamics behind the construction of futures knowledge, and how expertise in predicting and shaping the future is developed today. This research is being led by Professor Sandra Kemp, Senior Research Fellow at the V&A.

Twitter: @UniversalMuseum

Universal Histories and Universal Museums: a transnational comparison

This collaborative research project explores the role of museums in building knowledge about the future. Through transnational perspectives on the assembly of museum collections, the project examines how history is made, displayed and disseminated through the uses, legacies and representations of the past.

In partnership with the Musée du quai Branly, research focuses on the 1876 Loan Exhibition at the V&A (then called the South Kensington Museum) and the American collections at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (1880-82). The project co-investigators are Hervé Inglebert, Professor of Roman History at the University Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, and André Delpuech, Chief Curator of Heritage at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris. The research is jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Care for the Future’ and the LABEX ‘Pasts in the Present’ programmes.

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

The Universal Histories project grew out of the V&A’s futures-related research project The Future is Our Business and series of Visionaries podcasts funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores projective, predictive, divinatory and utopian art and design from the middle ages to the present – from diviners and alchemists, through architects and designers, trend forecasters and risk assessors, to film-makers and novelists. A series of workshops gathered together radically progressive individuals who are reimagining innovation in their field in an attempt to discover the emerging trends of ‘what tomorrow knows today’.


Both the Universal Histories and the Future is our Business projects are related to Professor Kemp's wider research project, Scenario. This project considers both the historical dynamics behind the imagination of futures, and current methods of futures construction in a range of institutions, in partnership with Jenny Andersson, CNRS Research Professor, Centre for European Studies, Sciences Po; Professor Mary Ryan, Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Nanoscience at Imperial College London; and Dr Elena Formia and Dr Manuela Celi, Advanced Design Group, University of Bologna and Milan Polytechnic.

One of the chief project outcomes will be a book published as part of the Oxford University Press ‘21st century Approaches’ series on Futures, co-edited with Jenny Andersson. This collection of essays will challenge and debate the varied ways in which futures are conjured and constructed, as objects of art and imagination as well as of science and geopolitics. The book will also position the future as a question of power, of representations and counter-representations, and forms of struggle over future imaginaries.