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excerpts from Lucy Taksa’s discussion of initiatives to preserve Australia’s industrial heritage

Taksa, L. Guest Editorial, Locality, Centre for Community History UNSW, Vol. 10 No. 1, 1999

During the past couple of decades numerous books have been published on the subject of heritage and heritage registers have begun to proliferate. Yet as Graeme Davison commented last year, this growing popularity is paradoxical in 'a young, highly urbanised, democratic country like Australia', where heritage 'is not something handed down, but recently invented; not a product of tradition, but of the need to create one. Attitudes to our industrial heritage provide clear evidence of this paradox. As Peter Spearritt commented in 1991, its appreciation by professionals and the public was 'a relatively recent notion'. Why has industrial heritage rarely been classified as worthy of preservation? Why have efforts to save wool stores and sheds, factories and workshops, mines, bridges, wharves and jetties increased over the past decade? And why has success been limited?

We can begin to find the answers to some of these questions by considering broader attitudes to Australia's past. And in doing so we invariably confront the 'overworked cliche that Australians have suffered a "cultural cringe" in relation to their built environment heritage'. Max Nankervis was not alone in drawing attention to this national tendency in 1991. In the same year, Helen Armstrong reminded those who attended a Faculty of Architecture Research Symposium at the University of New South Wales, that in 1974 the Committee established by the Whitlam Government to inquire into our National Estate had argued that this affliction had weakened 'the conservation of Australia's environmental heritage'. Nowhere has our nation's colonial legacy and its related lack of technological sovereignty been more marked than in the recognition and preservation of Australia's industrial heritage. Also in 1991, Spearritt supported his claim that it was 'a residual category' for most Australians, by pointing out that up till that time only one major book had been published 'on a particular industrial building type'. Not surprisingly, its focus was on warehouses and woolstores, rather than on structures associated with manufacturing.

Industrial heritage has certainly survived in picturesque settings, or when related to the railways or the mining industry. But in these, as in most other cases, financial and political factors have figured prominently. On the one hand, the potential for preservation has been greatest outside of cities mainly because of lower real estate values. On the other hand, retention and reuse of large industrial sites in cities have generally been predicated on government ownership or subsidy. For this reason Graham Connah concluded, 'the smaller the town, the more likely it is that manufacturing sites will have survived. ‘The problem with this is that the most significant industrial enterprises tended to be concentrated in larger towns or cities. This is particularly evident in relation to the metal industry, which involved the manufacture of iron and steel, of locomotives, coaches, wagons, cars and maritime vehicles, engineering works and railway workshops. As importantly, the endurance of our industrial ecology has depended not only on location, money and politics but also the shifting sands of innovation. For the metal industry's reliance on constant technological change has ensured continuous modernisation of its built fabric and machinery or their replacement.

Manufacturing began in Australia soon after European invasion and grew rapidly during the second half of the nineteenth century. Its expansion between 1850 and 1890 resulted in an increase in the number of factory workers from 10 000 to 149 000, while its share of Gross Domestic Product grew from 5.6% to 11.4%. For N.G. Butlin, this growth provided the most specific indicator of the nation's social and economic transformation into a predominantly urban society. According to Linge, the publication of Butlin's findings in the early 1960s 'jolted historians and geographers away from the traditional view of Australia during the nineteenth century as being little more than a vast sheepwalk.' Yet, twenty years later, Graham Connah began a chapter on industrial relics in his book on historical archaeology by stating that: 'Many of us tend to think of the history of Australia as one of wide open spaces: of sheep and cattle raising, of grain growing and of mines isolated in the desolation of the outback.' This perception and representation, I would suggest, has helped to reinforce our environmental cultural cringe. It has guaranteed that the physical traces of Australia's manufacturing history are most often evident in 'defunct factories' that have been 'stripped of everything that was saleable or could be re-used elsewhere'. As Connah pointed out, our industrial heritage has suffered from a process of abandonment. Either factory buildings have been brought back into use 'for a completely different type of manufacturing from that for which [they were]...originally designed', or they have been allowed to fall derelict. In some cases the latter fate has followed naturally from the former. This of course, says a lot about our own complicity. For few industrial structures have received the sort of attention that resulted in the conservation of The Rocks and other residential areas that were protected by Green Bans. The industrial role played by Darling Harbour was obliterated with little more than a whimper.

The tide does, however, seem to have fumed. Increasingly, instead of being swept out to sea, sites of industrial heritage are being recognised as historically and culturally significant. Why has this change occurred, and what are the implications for historians and their fellow travellers?

'How much we apprehend the past in its surviving relics varies with several I circumstances', argues David Lowenthal. The most important for industrial heritage, in my view relates to what he refers to as historical distance:

Like memories, relics once abandoned or forgotten may become more treasured than those in continued use, the discontinuity in their history focuses attention onthem, particularly if scarcity or fragility threatens their imminent extinction. Artifacts of initially transient and diminishing value that fall into the limbo of rubbish are often later resurrected as highly valued relics.

In other words, appreciation of heritage grows ‘in proportion to the sense of peril'. On the doorstep of the new millennium, at a time of deindustrialisation and accompanying relocation of Australia's secondary industries to other shores, when the ever-increasing speed of technological change has made it possible for people to travel on virtual superhighways, we are beginning to see disused or soon to be disused factories in a new, perhaps emotional light. Cast and galvanised iron products, particularly in the form of corrugated sheets, only too recently demolished without thought, are rapidly joining the steam locomotive as romantic symbols of the industrial age. For this very reason vigilance is required to prevent this appreciation from descending into antiquarianism or even worse popular (sanitised) commercialism. We need to be mindful that industrial heritage is culturally significant because it reflects our social biography.

Regardless of whether we perceive the secondary industries that once pumped lifeblood into Australia's body politic as beating hearts or cancers, their material vestiges should not be abandoned to the developer’s hammer. Industrial structures and the moveable items associated with them provide some of the best evidence of the skill and sweat of the many who helped to turn Australia into a modern multicultural nation. To make the transition from the era of the steam train to the silicon chip historically meaningful, we need to improve public understanding of the cultural value of our manufacturing heritage. Inclusion in registers is certainly crucial but should only be seen as a first step, one that is followed by the preservation of at least some of its innumerable material forms, together with the memories of its sacrificial lambs. The active involvement of both professional and community based historians in the process of identification, conservation and interpretation of our industrial heritage will provide an important basis for moving beyond an obsession with pastoral origins, with its associated cultural cringe, to a celebration of Australia's manufacturing achievements.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Lucy Taksa.

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