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Teaching Heritage

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excerpts from Graeme Davison’s discussion of the meanings of ‘heritage’

Davison, G. & McConville C. (eds) ‘A Heritage Handbook’, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards NSW,1991

excerpt one

‘Heritage’ is an old word, drawn from the vocabulary of those old societies in which primary values derived from ancestral relationships. In its original sense, heritage was the property which parents handed on to their children, although the word could be used to refer to an intellectual or spiritual legacy as well. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as new nation-states fought for legitimacy, people began to speak of a ‘national heritage’ as that body of folkways and political ideas on which new regimes founded their sense of pride and legitimacy. Australians, who modelled themselves upon the new nations of Europe and America, thus created their own national myths based upon the ‘pioneer heritage’ or ‘the heritage of Anzac’. Only in very recent times, however, and especially since the 1970s, has heritage acquired its present more specialised usage as the name we give to those valuable features of our environment which we seek to conserve from the ravages of development and decay. In our time heritage has come to refer to things both more tangible, and more fragile, than the imperishable ideals of our ancestors.

The founders of the postwar preservation movement sometimes appealed to the idea of heritage, but they usually saw sites and buildings as reinforcing a national or spiritual heritage rather than as comprising a heritage in themselves. Thus in 1948 America’s National Trust for Historic Preservation referred to historic sites and structures as tangible remnants of the past and monuments to the national democratic heritage. In its Criteria for Evaluating Historic Sites and Buildings, it saw significance residing in those places ‘in which the broad cultural, political, economic or social history of the nation, state or community is best exemplified, and from which a visitor may grasp in three dimensional form one of the larger patterns of the American heritage’.

By the 1960s the two ideas – heritage as ideals and heritage as things – were becoming more closely intertwined.

In 1960, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) defined cultural property as ‘the product and witness of the different traditions and of the spiritual achievements of the past and… thus an essential element in the personality of the peoples of the world'. It was the duty of governments to ensure the protection and preservation of the cultural heritage of mankind, as much as to promote social and economic development’. ‘Cultural heritage’ was a concept well adapted to the purpose of an international agency such as UNESCO. It enlarged the concept of heritage from a familiar or national setting to an international one. By employing an anthropological understanding of ‘culture’ as embracing both values and the objects in which they were embodied, it strengthened the moral claims of the would-be custodians of cultural property while side-stepping difficult distinctions between its ‘high’ and ‘low’, popular and elite forms.

One of the important uses of ‘heritage’ was simply as a convenient omnibus term for all those miscellaneous items – objects and sites as well as buildings – which were in danger of being lost. In 1963 the Victorian branch of the National Trust emphasised its concern not only for buildings, but for hitching posts, Aboriginal rock paintings, fountains, graves – anything, in short, ‘whose destruction would be an important loss to Victoria’s heritage’.

ln the 1970s, the new usage was officially recognised. A UNESCO Committee for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted the term ‘heritage’ as a shorthand for both the ‘built and natural remnants of the past’. The concept soon spread among Australian preservationists, especially those who participated in UNESCO conferences, although for a time it competed for popularity with the idea of ‘the National Estate' – the term which Gough Whitlam, following the example of John F. Kennedy, had adopted to emphasise the responsibility of the national government to conserve the natural and man-made environment. In its report on the National Estate (1974) the committee of enquiry headed by Mr Justice Hope made sparing use of the term ‘heritage', preferring more precise and neutral terms such as ‘built environment', ‘cultural resources’ and ‘historic buildings’ Labor Ministers for the Environment, Tom Uren and Moss Cass, and David Yencken, later to head the Australian Heritage Commission, also preferred the idea of National Estate, perhaps because it provided a more solid foundation for a radical programme of state intervention. But the statutory body belatedly formed under the Fraser government was called the Heritage Commission.

In a period when ‘quality of life’ had become a leading public issue, ‘heritage’ was becoming a key word in the environmentalists’ lexicon. When the Victorian government introduced its Historic Buildings Bill in 1973, the Leader of the Opposition, Clyde Holding, referred to the need to defend ‘Melbourne’s heritage in the form of historic buildings', but ‘heritage’ still competed in the rhetoric of debate with a host of other phrases – 'historic landmarks', ‘historic legacies', ‘buildings redolent of a by-gone age’. By 1977 and 1978, however, when the New South Wales and South Australian governments introduced similar legislation they naturally described their new councils as ‘Heritage Councils’ and the Acts themselves as ‘Heritage Acts’. In 1981, David Yencken, Director of the Australian Heritage Commission, introduced The Heritage of Australia, the illustrated register of the National Estate, with some remarks on the new terminology. ‘Heritage', he wrote, ‘carries connotations of buildings and monuments; conservation suggests natural environments’. But even he was not consistent, referring elsewhere to the ‘natural heritage’.

The users of this newly-popular word were often more confident of its acceptability than of its precise meaning. In his perceptive review of The Heritage Industry the British writer Robert Hewison quotes Lord Charteris, Chairman of Britain’s National Heritage Memorial Fund, as saying that heritage means ‘anything you want’. Its value, in fact, lay not its analytical precision, but in its psychological resonance. It hinted at a treasury of deep-buried, but indefinite, values. It invoked a lofty sense of obligation to one’s ancestors and descendants. And it secured the high ground of principle for the conservationists in their perennial battle against the improvers, developers and demolishers.

excerpt two

The process by which Australians came to identify old objects, buildings and landscapes with a sense of national heritage long preceded the specialised use of the word ‘heritage’ itself. The naturalists, painters and anthropologists of the nineteenth century, like the twentieth-century promoters of national parks and pioneer monuments, were engaged in a systematic and more overtly nationalistic attempt to imbue the land with patriotic significance than the postwar heritage movement. What was new in the movement of the 1960s and '70s was not its nationalistic focus, but its progressive redefinition from a spiritual to an essentially material concept. In this respect, as in others, Australians were following wider trends. The early 1970s was the heyday of the international environmental movement and the creation of the National Estate and the Museum of Australia might as readily be seen as an indirect creation of UNESCO as a symptom of Whitlam's new nationalism.

Heritage is, above all, a political concept. It asserts a public or national interest in things traditionally regarded as private. "Heritage belongs to the people, not to the owners", remarked Evan Walker, Victorian Shadow Minister for Planning in 1980. He did not mean that because a building or place was part of ‘the heritage’, its owner ceased to have legal title to it. Rather he was insisting that the public retained a right to ensure its preservation that overrode the owner’s right to alter or destroy it.

Opponents of heritage legislation sometimes argue that if, indeed, heritage belongs to the people, then the people should help the owners pay for its preservation or upkeep. The government, as the people’s representatives, should either pay the costs of restoration or repair, or it should pay compensation for the development opportunities which the owners of the listed building have had to forego in order to preserve it.

Even in the prosperous 1970s, when ‘quality of life’ issues were to the forefront, Australian governments were loath to grasp the nettle of compensation. The grants paid in assistance to owners seldom equalled the costs of preservation. The provisions contained in some state legislation to allow the remission of municipal rates or land taxes to the owners of historic buildings have seldom been used. In 1987 the Australian Council of National Trusts and the state ministers for planning jointly petitioned the Commonwealth Treasurer to adopt, as a Bicentenary gesture, the American practice of allowing owners of certain listed buildings to claim the costs of restoration as an income tax deduction. But so far the Treasurer has not agreed.

Some leftist critics, on the other hand, welcome heritage legislation as a minor victory over the sacred rights of private property. They look back nostalgically to the days of the Green Bans, when conservationists and trade unionists made common cause against the onslaughts of the developers. Chris McConville maintains that buildings, once presented as heritage, are no longer simply pieces of capital to be exploited for the greatest possible profit. The left-wing of the conservation movement deplores the National Trust’s timidity towards propertied interests and the readiness of governments – Labor and non-Labor – to compromise community values for economic development.

Beyond the strict question of property rights, however, the idea of heritage also encouraged a sense of psychological or spiritual ownership over those buildings or objects brought within the National Estate. When a squatter’s homestead, a miner’s hut, a Catholic church or a suburban town hall is identified as part of the heritage it ceases to be in exclusive possession of a family, church or local community and becomes ‘ours’. ‘Heritage conservation’, writes Jenny Walker in South Australia’s Heritage,is not for governments alone; it is for us all to cherish and nurture the heritage so briefly entrusted to our care’. It is a concept grounded in the first-person plural.


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