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Teaching Heritage

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Carmel Young presents classroom strategies to vitalise heritage studies

Young, C. ‘Conflicting views of heritage — an inquiry-based approach to heritage issues’, Teaching History, History Teachers’ Association of NSW, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1993

excerpt one

Why study heritage?

A study of heritage:

  • encourages a sense of personal, communal and group identity through connection with the past, the present and place;
  • enables students to develop an understanding of the impact of various social and cultural groups on the shaping of lifeways;
  • encourages a more holistic approach to social history – placing people within their historic environment (landscape or cityscape); investigating their interactions within the varied contexts through the use of biographies, autobiographies, oral and visual histories;
  • raises important questions concerning present interpretations of the past. Who makes our past – at what benefits and at what costs?
  • promotes a study of physical remains endorsing the role of archaeology and other disciplines in casting light on the study of lifeways;
  • raises questions about conserving and administering heritage items – but more importantly challenges our conceptions and interpretations of the past:

"The past remains integral to us all, individually and collectively. We must concede the ancients their place... but their past is not simply back there, in a separate and foreign country, it is assimilated in ourselves and resurrected in an ever-changing presen. "

(David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country)

  • stimulates students to develop an understanding of the powerful impact of technology on the lives of people over time;
  • encourages students to ask questions about who owns our past. This is particularly relevant when considering the current concerns of Aboriginal people over cultural ownership;
  • demands that our students in history move beyond the esoteric and that direct linkages be drawn between content areas and contemporary issues; students making direct connections between present lifestyle concerns and their past origins. In this way, present situations become comprehensible.

Speaking on the role of heritage studies in informing the present and suggesting a future; Stuart Smith, the present director of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, U.K. notes:

"If you are not careful you will wallow in nostalgia, in this sort of myth that the past was wonderful. I personally believe the past was awful. And that sustains me all the time because I believe what is going to come in the future is much better. And museums have a vital role, I feel, in telling people that the past did produce some wonderful things, did produce great people, but their main contribution to society was actually changing society, and I still believe that we can actually look at what other people have done in the past, and go away and do similar things ourselves."

Such a rationale suggests that a study of heritage is about:

  • past, present and futures – understanding the present through the past and speculating about the outcomes of contemporary issues in the area of heritage;
  • critical inquiry into past and current heritage concerns; active problem solving and participation;
  • changes and continuity and the reasons why; understanding the contemporary world.

For many of us, this demands that we tread and journey through areas not well traversed by history teachers:

  • new questions, changing content and perspectives;
  • perhaps speculating about the future, considering choices and alternatives for life in the 21st century.

However, we all know that in the past, groups and individuals speculated about and planned for the future (consider H.G. Wells' Time Machine.)

The context for change – changing government and community attitudes to heritage – a developing concern

a) Globally

1972 – the General Conference of UNESCO gave recognition to the imperative of protecting outstanding world sites.

1975 – the foundation of the World Heritage Convention. Australia became a signatory in 1975. The Convention is administered by the World Heritage Committee (21 nations involved).

b) Nationally

Concerns related to the environment proliferated in the 1970s.

Considerable pressure was exerted by a range of groups – note the BLFs role in challenging the 'wisdom' of 'development' plans for The Rocks, Victoria Street and Woolloomooloo. Rocking the Foundations, a film covering this period, is essential viewing.

1972 – Commonwealth Government's Committee of Inquiry into the National Estate established under Justice Hope.

1975 – establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission by the Australian Heritage Commission Act. National heritage is defined as those places in the natural and cultural environment, that we as a nation identify as worth keeping and handing on to future generations. These include:

wildlife habitats, national ecosystems, landscapes, geological monuments, Aboriginal places, grand buildings, work places, ruins sites of historical events.

The Act emphasises the importance of recognising the significance of these places over a past, present and future continuum State/locally 1977 – Heritage Act – buildings structures and relics older than 1900 can be legally protected in NSW. This Act of the NSW Parliament provides the legal bases for the conservation of the State's environmental heritage. The Act is administered by the Heritage Council of NSW.

excerpt two

What is heritage?

"A community without a heritage is like people without memories who have no connection with other people".

(David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country)

The term is defined in Years 7- 10 Syllabus. However, I would like to draw attention to the following aspects of the historic environment:

The historic environment ranges over:

  • historically modified landscapes, e.g. Mulgoa. Early 'settlers' removed all eucalypts, but retained the angophora because of the resemblance to European species;
  • gardens – early gardens were frequently filled with European plants in an attempt to recreate a home away from home (note Cuffley, P. 1983, Cottage Gardens in Australia, The Five Mile Press);
  • cemeteries – Rookwood and Gore Hill are marvellous microcosms of social history e.g. social groups, architectural styling, images and symbols related to sentiment and social values;
  • parks – these are exemplars of leisure time activities, aesthetics of design, plant varieties, furniture, etc.
  • industrial buildings and landscapes – these are suggestive of changing economic and social conditions, together with the impact of technological change.

Increasing interest and concern has been shown for these 'open air museums', based on the concept that cultural artifacts from Aboriginal rock carvings to pioneer farm machinery should be seen and appreciated 'in situ' (note Spearitt, P. and D.N. Jeans (1980), The Open Air Museum, George Allen and Unwin). We can also move from these broad 'scapes' to individual homes of significance to relics, memorabilia, etc. All reveal significant insights into, our social and cultural history, indicative of the interaction between people/places, people/things, people/events that have acquired human meaning.

What are the current issues associated with a study of heritage?

a) What is historically valuable? This may be confused with what is currently fashionable and greatly influences decisions concerned with what should be saved. Note the current federation/collage look – Pascol heritage colours and Brunswick green. There is great nostalgia associated with such trends. Why, What is this symptomatic of?

b) Tourism – Although every effort may be made to preserve the external appearance of an area through careful reconstruction and additions, the fabric may be lost (note the Rocks). Long time local residents are historically related to, and part of this fabric. Frequently when they depart through choice or 'resettlement', the human meaning of an area ceases. Heritage becomes fake.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with remaking the past, problems arise in terms of integrity, when this is not recognised.

"The past is a foreign country whose features are shaped by today's predilections its strangeness domesticated by our own preservation of its vestiges." (David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country)

In relation to the issue of preservation, if we portray only those elements of the past which we deem to be 'good' and discard all else' then we are guilty of fooling succeeding generations about the nature of the past. The grandiose is more frequently preserved than the commonplace: that which typifies the everyday aspects of existence. This approach has given rise to areas of serious neglect – places/things concerning the working class, the poor, women. Aboriginal peoples and the heritage of multiculturalism. This selectivity raises questions related to the criteria employed when deciding what to preserve; and indeed the motives of the decision makers themselves.

c) Impact of developers and economic trade-offs – there are numerous examples of the gains and losses which occur when heritage and big business get together note the Regent! the Capitol! The major dilemma arising from this cost/benefit situation is concerned with how major change in economic use can be accommodated without losing the historic character of a place or indeed the place itself!

    d) Who owns the past and who should administer it? The question has significant implications for the administration and care of Aboriginal sites, artifacts and human remains.

e) The Aboriginal historic environment is of varied nature, covering both traditional and contemporary sites and artifacts (for a contemporary focus, note the current La Perouse exhibition at the PowerHouse Museum). Many sites have a past, present and future significance and are of great importance to Aboriginal people for political, identity and community reasons (eg Land Rights claims, connection with the Dreaming). Artifacts are similarly corporate symbols of identity.

The traditional environment incorporates – rock engravings and paintings, axegrove habitation, massacre, sites of religious significance... refer to National Parks and Wildlife publications.

In the contemporary sphere, missions, reserves, campsites, urban community areas, wall paintings (Redfern, Woolloomooloo) and even political slogans sprayed on walls are suggestive of recent places of significance. Oral history, songs, photographs, contemporary music and folklore imbue such places with the human fabric of experience.

Important and highly contentious values issues surround the ownership and maintenance of Aboriginal places and things:

  • the fear of further cultural loss and the mission to rejuvenate the past, epitomises in the current renaissance in Aboriginal cultural pursuits;
  • who owns the past and who should administer this past raises further questions related to access to private knowledge and the role of institutions such as museums in consulting with Aboriginal groups regarding preservation and presentation. Note the Strelhow Collection and issues related to the return of Aboriginal human remains.

These issues have been taken up with the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. The Inuit, American and Canadian Indian groups have encountered similar problems concerning the control of, and access to, their cultural heritage.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Carmel Young.

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