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Teaching Heritage

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excerpt from Graeme Davison’s discussion of a more democratic heritage

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

Though most listings of the heritage invoke the language of democracy and aspire to some kind of representativeness, the elitist values of the heritage consultants usually show through. ‘We want to ensure that examples... of structures and remnants of each definable social group in each period, representing all important historical trends are included in the Register’, remarked David Yencken in 1981, though he conceded that ‘the search for what is representative is far from complete’. The authors of South Australia’s Heritage, an illustrated listing of that state’s Heritage Register claimed, with more justification, to include ‘not only architectural masterpieces of the past and present, but the humble along with the great, the recent with remote’.

One way of attempting to conserve a more democratic heritage is to collect items in accordance with the main themes of Australian social history, or the social history of a specific locality. Particular attention would thus be given to the identification of sites or buildings illustrative of important phases of Australia’s development or of the way of life of representative groups of people’ including the humble as well as the great and famous. In such a scheme heritage items would be selected in accordance with a general understanding of social history rather than the social history being introduced to provide a background for items collected on an ad hoc basis. Such an approach is more likely to attract social historians than architects, to whom the individual site or building, and its architectural quality, are paramount. Even the locals, who may have absorbed something of the deferential culture of the National Trust, would usually sooner, preserve a local squatter’s homestead than the soldier settlers’ cottages and derelict mining sites created by their own forebears.

Creating a more representative heritage, however, is unlikely to satisfy some critics of the movement. Indeed it is the very tendency of the idea of ‘national heritage’ to subsume and obliterate sectional relics and loyalties that is at the basis of their objections. Tony Bennett, for example, draws attention to the ways in which the National Estate and the National Museum, by incorporating relics of Aboriginal and white Australia, may unwittingly ‘back project the discourse of multiculturalism into the mists of time’. How seriously one takes this objection may depend less on the rhetoric of those institutions than their day to day practice and on how much more seriously one considers the alienation of those relics from their former custodians implied in the process of preservation itself.

The democratically-inclined social historian, therefore, will be concerned that heritage is not only representative of the people, and conserved for the people, but that it should also be identified and conserved by the people. Although the public is constantly exhorted by the experts to ‘cherish’ and ‘nurture’ the heritage, the job of identifying, classifying and ensuring it largely belongs to the coterie of heritage experts– architects, historians, archaeologists and planners. The heritage business is subject to a constant tension between the demands for bureaucratic consistency and impersonal expertise, on the one hand, and for popular participation and local autonomy on the other. Since the days of the Green Bans, the balance has swung heavily towards the rule of the expert. There is now a disconcerting gap between the arcane language and specialised concerns of the professional guardians of the heritage and its lay inheritors. Sometimes, it is true, the conservation consultant simply offers a scholarly rationale for aesthetic or historical judgements which the lay person makes more intuitively. But buildings often seem to be selected in accordance with antiquarian or scholarly criteria unrelated to the concerns of the public at large. When heritage consultants come to town they always inspect the buildings, but they do not always consult the locals. There is a danger, therefore, that the buildings they identify will not necessarily reflect the community’s own sense of its past. In historic Beechworth its historian Tom Griffiths argues the city-based experts of the National Trust and the tourists who followed them to the town were often oblivious of the town’s own sense of identity and community.

Just as the countryside became defined earlier this century as a purely visual phenomenon – to be viewed but rarely understood – so, too, had the past. Beechworth’s local past, become a thing to be visited and photographed, but seen as something quite separate from the people living there. In serving the city so, the country becomes constrained to be the past. City-dwellers who want to see ‘progress’ where they live, arrive in a country town and lament the careless destruction of quaint old things. Although they are ready to enter into debates about how the countryside looks, there is less concern about disappearing lifestyles or about existing relationships or feelings in that town.

Griffiths may exaggerate the gulf between ‘city’ and ‘country’ attitudes, and underestimate the degree to which the townsfolk, eager for tourist custom, collude with the outsiders in the transformation of their town into ‘history’. The locals’ sense of their past should surely not to be regarded as sacrosanct from the more impersonal, but illuminating interpretation of the outside heritage expert.

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