Skip to content

Teaching Heritage

Board of Studies NSW

Dept House Banner
Contact Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size


excerpts from Chris Johnston’s discussion of community attachment to place

Johnston, C. ‘What is Social Value?’, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra, 1992

excerpt one

Heritage assessment–the process of defining the cultural significance of a place–seeks to understand:

  • the nature of the significance of a place, with the four terms 'social', 'historical', 'aesthetic', 'scientific' being used to reflect all aspects of the nature of significance; and
  • the degree of significance, with a variety of concepts being used from a geographical comparison ('national','state','local') to terms such as 'early','rare', or 'seminal'.

In our practice of heritage conservation–in our creation of lists of special places judged against explicit criteria–we have sought to be rigorous and scientific in our processes, seeking to make our judgements on a rational and objective basis, in the hope of achieving both community and political acceptance of our results.

While many would feel the pressure to become even more rigorous, others now suggest that we, as heritage professionals, may have lost touch with the sentiments that inspire community love of a place and therefore action for its protection.

The demand to know everything there is to know about our heritage now comes from those seeking to change the physical environment. Their primary need is for certainty, so that investment decisions are not detrimentally affected. To seek such certainty is understandable; to expect it to exist is unrealistic, especially where developers are unwilling to undertake the research, investigation and community consultation required to identify and assess heritage values.

In each city, and certainly in many rural localities, communities have spoken up about places that they value, despite the dismissal of such places as insignificant by the experts.

This deep sense of attachment to place has not been adequately defined by our current heritage assessment methods. Our attachment to place is fundamental, but may be unconscious in our daily lives until a place to which we are connected is threatened. Our response to such a threat will be charged with emotion, as it is our emotions that are touched by the connection. Lacking the defined processes and parameters decision makers prefer, and that have become the basis of heritage assessment, it is no wonder that heritage professionals can be easily caught off guard by a sudden and unexpected community uprising in defence of place.

Each of the professional groups that evaluates aspects of the cultural significance of places does so as a 'community' with shared interests and values, although not necessarily with agreement on everything. Each expert community develops its own knowledge base, language and criteria about what is valuable and what is not.

At present some values that represent the shared values of certain communities of interest are adequately represented simply because they are incorporated into professional assessment practice. However, other communities of interest remain unrepresented in the process, and some views may never be represented by 'experts' as they do not lend themselves to professionalisation.

Community planning, participation and advocacy may offer a more positive future direction to enable particular communities to identify, clarify and advocate their own positions and values.

Our current heritage assessment practices are clearly too narrow, and fail to reflect the breadth and depth of interest present in our society.

Social value has tended to mean all those values expressed by the community which fall outside our current professional framework. To enable such places to be recognised and protected, social value needs to come into the mainstream of heritage assessment.

Pragmatically, many of us also acknowledge that where we have succeeded in protecting places, it is very often because the value of the place to a particular community has meant powerful community action to support protection of the place.

excerpt two

What types of places have been recognised as havimg social value ?

Places of social value would be expected to be places that:

  • provide a spiritual or traditional connection between past and present;
  • tie the past affectionately to the present;
  • help give a disempowered group back its history;
  • provide an essential reference point in a community's identity or sense of itself (or historical grounding);
  • Ioom large in the daily comings and goings of life;
  • provide an essential community function that over time develops into a deeper attachment that is more than utility value (e.g. Victoria Market);
  • have shaped some aspect of community behaviour or attitudes;
  • are distinctive–the one clocktower in a town, or an architectural folly–features that lift a place above the crowd, making it likely that special meanings have been attached to that place;
  • are accessible to the public and offer the possibility of repeated use to build up associations and value to the community of users; and
  • places where people gather and act as a community, for example places of public ritual, public meeting or congregation, and informal gathering places.

Examples of places of social value suggested during this project can be grouped into categories:

Public places – Most people identified 'public places' or the 'public face' of-all architecture (i.e. the parts of the 'private environment' that are part of the public sphere including streetscapes).

Places of 'meeting' – Informal meeting places e.g. Flinders Street Station clocks (Melbourne).

Places of 'revert' end public entertainment – Types of places suggested included theatres, showgrounds, cricket grounds, community halls, bushland reserves close to urban centres beaches, piers, public parks and gardens. Specific examples in Melbourne- included Kooyong tennis stadium and the Regent Theatre.

'Communities' – Localities such as Carlton, Melbourne, were seen as a special place that people now visit because of the associations with Italian culture and alternative theatre. While much evidence of this has disappeared, the locality remains identified with these two groups. Advocates for the conservation of Queen Victoria Hospital, Melbourne, have stressed the association of the hospital with a 'community of women', from its founders to its most recent patients.

Places associated with recent significant events – Many significant places are associated with events long past, and their heritage value may be seen as historic value.

However, more recent events and the places associated with them may have social value. An example is the Moree Spa Baths which were entered into the Register of the National Estate in 1988. The Baths were the focus of the 1965 Freedom Ride from Moree to Sydney. The ride drew attention to discrimination in the town, and in particular the bans on Aborigines using the Baths. The Baths are recognised as a symbol of community sentiment and of an event which is part of very recent history.

Commemorative places – Memorials, as a class of places, arc considered likely to be of social value, however the actual social value of each place may vary.

Places with special meaning for particular communities – Examples of a special attachment to a place may include a long standing spiritual or religious attachment, or may overlap with one of the above categories.

The essence of 'social value' is expressed in the above range of places.

Social value is about collective attachment to places that embody meanings important to a community. These places are usually community owned or publicly accessible or in some other ways 'appropriated' into people's daily lives. Such meanings are in addition to other values, such as the evidence of valued aspects of history or beauty, and these meanings may not be obvious in the fabric of the place, and may not be apparent to the disinterested observer.

However, it is essential to recognise that each group or community will choose its own symbols and reference points, and these may not accord with the above categories.

excerpt three

Social purpose of conserving heritage

Often, we think of heritage conservation as being an end in itself, expressing our desire to retain certain places because we value them, but essentially apart from other social purposes.

However, many historians would argue that the process of exploring and interpreting the meanings embodied in places is essentially a political as well as an historical and cultural process.

The Mexican Committee of ICOMOS has prepared the Declaration of Oaxaca, a declaration on 'Cultural heritage in daily life and its conservation through community support' which seeks to respect a community's role in creating, maintaining and giving life and meaning to places that become recognised as heritage, and seek to build a role for such communities in conserving the place–both its meanings and its fabric.

The Declaration argues that those who create our heritage, and for whom it is part of their daily lives, offer the best means for its conservation through the continuity of traditional practices. The creation of specialist roles in defining heritage and practising conservation may endanger the very heritage sought to be saved through the very processes of distancing its conservation from its traditional guardians.

The Declaration proposes that such specialisation 'should never be established as an activity lying outside the values, aspirations and practices of communities... (nor should it) ignore the very existence of the living heritage of cultural customs and traditions'.

Our practice of conservation has already done this; we have handed the tasks to the professional class, and failed to find ways of bringing community concerns back into the debate. Moreover, many places lose their connection with our daily lives by being allocated new uses. While this may generate a new community of users who value the place for its current use, they may be more inclined to seek changes. Loss of the traditional activity often means that such places are allocated to meet the needs of visitors rather than the locals, increasing the disconnection between community and place.

The Oaxaca Declaration also expresses concern about the limited range of places identified as heritage, noting that many elements in the historic environment are not valued as 'heritage'; examples included path structures, subdivision patterns, infrastructure, paving surfaces, fountains and street furniture. The same is true of our studies of historic places which still tend to focus on standing structures. Many of the elements that make up the 'whole place' remain unidentified, despite the fact that it is the whole rather than the parts that will have social value.

Our attention is still also focused on architectural history, which while providing an aesthetically pleasing view of the past, is essentially a very limited view. And few govermnents have sought to identify the 'history of their citizens' most typical activities–earning a living, bringing up a family, and carrying on local holidays'.

A Charter for the conservation of historic villages and rural areas, prepared by Sri Lanka ICOMOS in 1988, also advocates the connectedness of people and place and the need to recognise social units as well as architectural fabric in the understanding of heritage.

One notion closely related to the position advocated in the Declaration is that seeking a continuity of use is often the best way of retaining heritage value. Our assessment of many places also reflects this philosophy, with continuity of a use over a long period being a factor contributing to its heritage value.

Action to continue and reinforce (even re-establish) the connection between local people and a place is recognised as essential in the Oaxaca Declaration. It suggests that it is possible and valuable to involve those who have migrated from a village in the subsequent decisions about conserving its heritage values.

This is also important in Australia where, for Aboriginal people displaced from their country and culture, learning about places that provide evidence of Aboriginal culture can help create new and important links back to their past.

New Zealand ICOMOS are working in a similar direction, having prepared the Aotearoa Charter, based on Australia's Burra Charter, but with a significant difference due to Maori beliefs about allowing places imbued with the wairua (the spirit) of ancestors to be allowed to decay. The Aotearoa Charter refers to cultural significance as meaning places 'possessing historic, architectural, aesthetic, scientific, spiritual or social value' (Article 1) however these aspects of significance are not further defined.

In seeking to understand social value we are looking at the essence of ourselves–our cultural traditions (past), our cultural identity (present) and our cultural aspirations (future)–and how we create and give meaning to our environment.


Contact Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size