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Teaching Heritage

Board of Studies NSW

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Peter Watts

Director, Historic Houses Trust of NSW

Heritage always has a political dimension, always has a political dimension, and no more so than at Government House. You know when the Premier rang and said ‘I’d like you to take over Government House’ my heart dropped because I knew it wasn’t a conservation issue, it wasn’t trying to understand place so much, at least immediately, and then conserve it, and it wasn’t about ‘bricks and mortar conservation’, it was about managing a political and public relations process. So it’s an interesting one from that point of view, that a lot of the things we did initially in Government House had to respond to that political need and that political issue and that community issue. That happens to a greater and lesser extent at other places, sometimes it’s not there at all, and sometimes it’s a significant issue.
So at Government House, the first three years there were trying to deal with a political and public relations issue but whilst we were trying to deal with that what we did there was exactly what we would do anywhere else and try and understand the place that we were dealing with, try and understand its history, what its significance was, what the community felt about it. We did all of those things whilst we were managing the public relations side, building new programs as well and trialing different things that we could do in that particular place, and then we established a conservation and management plan which established the framework for the long-term management and conservation of the house.
So in a way, whilst it had an unusual dimension to it, that is a political dimension, behind the scenes we were doing exactly what we would do anywhere else, and in fact now that the political dimension’s settled down, after the last election and the current situation will now exist for another four years, we’re getting on with all of the other more traditional things, and there interestingly enough, what in a way I think that place is heading towards is the greatest statement that there will be, at least in New South Wales, about British colonisation and the British. So it does exactly the opposite in the way to what we’ve done at the Museum of Sydney. We’ve rehung the portraits of the monarchs and it’s now more monarchical probably than what it’s been for the last hundred years, because in a sense that’s what’s the most significant about that place. Its colonial history is most important.

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