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excerpts from Alexander Trapeznik’s article on history and heritage in New Zealand

Trapeznik, A. ‘Heritage and Public History in New Zealand’, Public History Review, Vol. 5/6, 1996-7

excerpt one

As we near the end of the millennium and the edifice designed to house New Zealand's collective history approaches completion, the most exploited and misunderstood word or idea in the field of Public History is that of 'heritage'. In its most basic and original form the concept of heritage was simply conceived as private property, something that could be inherited, bought or sold. Ownership was control. We sought not to relate to our past by understanding it, but through seeking to possess it by defining it as heritage. This problematic definition of heritage – this repackaging of our past as a commodity – implies the relationship of a consumer towards a recognisable product. Our relationship to history in this narrow and officially sanctioned context is devoid of any worrisome signs of conflict, defeat and failure.

Heritage thus defined is not about alienation and division but about pride and community cohesion, success and not failure. As we move toward the year 2000 we will be asked to take pride in over 1000 years of heritage and in our unity as New Zealanders, shorn of any divisions between Maori, Pakeha, migrants, women and workers. Today heritage is marketed as a product not involving people. It is the production of a past that did not exist in order to satisfy the needs of the tourist industry, property developers, the keepers of public culture and the promoters of national identity. Public, tangible heritage has a market value and therefore is no different than buying any consumer item. It is about overvalued market objects that can be possessed only by the moneyed. It is about a past bereft of people.

Heritage is omnipresent whether it is celebrated, conserved or rejected. Relics of the past once consigned to eclectic local museums and antique shops now can be found throughout the entire country. Yesterday's ephemera are today's treasures. We take solace from the past and its buildings, relics and landscapes because they provide us with comfort and a source of collective identity in a world today where points of reference are obscured. Yet we must be wary of portraying the past as an artefact of the present. Tangible artefacts of the past can be easily decontextualised and thus rendered harmless by display. An exhibition of metal workers' tools might evoke interest (from audiences) but it is doubtful whether the purpose of these tools and the men who wielded them would produce a similar reaction. It is a past that is dehumanised by display. As Linda Young has observed:

to date, the study of goods has tended to either the antiquarian paradigm of artistry (positing the maker as the focus of attention) or the economic paradigm of production (where the mechanics and economics of manufacture dominate analysis). The new field of historical material culture studies contains directions informed by ethnography, linguistics and sociology, which suggest that to assess objects as cultural expressions requires analysis of their users and their use.

Nevertheless, artefacts can provide a link with the memorial and immemorial past.

Heritage is often confused with nostalgia, a view which equates the past with something which is intrinsically worthwhile and good. It is a view that is safe and secure and that accords with the past being considered a distinctly marketable commodity. In New Zealand, of course, this view is often expressed by things English – or in Dunedin's case, Scottish – and this perception of the past has become a burgeoning business. The region, in G. Kearsley's view, offers 'perhaps the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the Southern hemisphere... [including] buildings such as the law courts, university clocktower, "Olveston", "Larnach's Castle", [and] churches and cathedrals... Otago's rich heritage has become a major source of tourist interest and' hence, revenue.' The past becomes a marketable feature for the present. The criterion for conservation is whether it is cost effective, whether a 'viable economic use can be identified to ensure survival of a building or place.’ Heritage tourism becomes an integral element in much wider local, regional and national development plans. Preserving heritage because of its value for tourism and recreation becomes a defining criterion from the perspective of government and the private sector. The economic significance of heritage is further exemplified by a contemporary political environment, which values a 'user pays' system. It is an environment which views our heritage as 'non-essential' and subject to the vagaries of market forces. Museums, galleries, national parks and historic places are now increasingly becoming reliant on paying visitors and corporate sponsorship. This privatisation of the past inevitably becomes selective. By stressing the fact that history is a marketable product, only those parts that are commercially viable are retained. By inference, a view of the past is perpetuated that is comforting and non-confrontational, promoting a history without context and without people. When history becomes a product it becomes alienated from the past, bearing no resemblance to what has happened to people in times gone by, yet of commercial necessity claiming to depict accurately all that has previously happened.

The purpose of public history is to democratise the study of the past, to write history about all people and to make history useful, relevant and easily accessible to a wide audience. Public historians seek to make history serviceable to the present and future. They are interested in the creation of a forum where different elements or perspectives of the historical record can be presented and caused to produce their own synthesis. The reader, viewer and visitor of a work of public history is an integral part and participant in this synthesis of the historical record.

Why do we need to preserve the past and for whose benefit and at what cost? Opinions vary depending upon one's point of view. David Lowenthal has observed that to 'celebrate their patrons' regimes, Renaissance historians ran down the past in favour of the present, whereas antiquarians studying ruins and relics magnified past achievements to the detriment of the present. Preserving the past is central to one's identity and existence for it serves as a central point of reference and provides one's life with purpose and meaning. In Maori tradition:

all elements of the natural world are related through whakapapa (genealogy). The Maori world was created through the union of Ranginui (the Sky Father) and Papatua-nuku (the Earth Mother)... Traditional Maori attitudes to the natural world reflect the relationships created through Rangi and Papa: all living things are their descendants and are thus related. Further, the sense of interrelatedness between people and nature creates a sense of belonging to nature, rather than being ascendant to it, as humans are born from 'mother earth' and return to her on their death.

Maori see humans, nature and the land as being inextricably intertwined. Their view of history and heritage is based on a shared whakapapa in which 'all things are from the same origin and that the welfare of any part of the environment determines the welfare of people.' Another relevant term is taonga (treasured possessions), a concept which includes both tangible and intangible treasures and korero. H. Mead asserts that to appreciate the full meaning and cultural significance of taonga the word korero needs to be introduced: 'All objects that are called taonga have korero attached to them...[it] means talk associated with creation and production of works of art and particularly with the stories and explanations given by artists and patrons to such works. More specific places that are taonga include waahi taonga, waahi tapu and wahhi tuupuna. Waahi taonga and waahi tapu have been described as places of special value and places of sacred and extreme importance.

Pakeha values pertaining to heritage are tied to a particular cultural landscape. Migrants severed from their birthplace often romanticise about their former homeland and attempt to re-create it in their new country by adopting features from their past. In the New Zealand environment English names and landscapes abound. This built environment later becomes transposed by later generations as something uniquely New Zealand and acquires heritage status. Its features also become defining characteristics of New Zealand's national identity.

Rather than seeking to understand our past we seek to possess it. A veritable crusade has been launched by the Historic Places Trust to preserve our built environment and material culture. The past enriches our lives–it certainly enriches those who possess it. Antiques and property are investments in the past for the present and the future.

The past can also constrain our lives. Preoccupation with the past, with relics and tradition, precludes creativity and innovation in the present. The old must give way to the new. One way to relieve oneself of this burden is to simply sell off the past. Yet whether we embrace it or disown it, it is our defining characteristic.

Our diverse heritage, therefore, whether built or natural, provides a constant source for argument and debate as tradition and innovation clash. The discourse between tradition and innovation in the New Zealand context reflects tension between Maori and Pakeha over land, the environment and resources and the legacy of European settlement.

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Alexander Trapeznik.


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