Heritage consulting: thoughts on place & conservation
Updated: Dec 22, 2018
How hard is it to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you – you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences – like rags and shreds of your very life.
Katherine Mansfield, 'Letter to Ida Baker', 1922, <https://bit.ly/2SVQChu>
One of the aspects that we enjoy most as heritage consultants working across the myriad of Sydney and NSW’s built and natural environments is the opportunity to visit and experience so many different kinds of ‘places’. From the rustic materiality of ‘Arts and Crafts’ streetscapes or the austerity fibro sprawl of post-war suburbia to medievalesque churches and fallow industrial sites, Touring the Past gets to interact with the tangible and intangible dimensions of places made special by their remarkability or ubiquity.
Contemporary conservation is permeated with this recognition of the importance of ‘place’ and the distinctive contribution made by the historic environment in the sustainability of such genius loci (basically, the spirit of a place). Potent or dim memories, eclectic architectural styles and physical evidence of past uses and mentalities are some of the ‘heritage’ elements that ebb and flow to make localities feel like someplace rather than anyplace. An increasingly significant difference in an intensifying homogenised world and a too regular criticism of large-scale new development. Before you comment, well that’s a tad abstract, why not consider the well-documented contribution the built environment makes to our emotional state and physical health. One brief example. In 2014, the British conservation group, Heritage Counts, concluded that the benefit of interacting with ‘old places’ for people’s well-being was worth £1,646 annually for the ordinary visitor. Think how many work-place frisbee events or mediation hours that would save you from!
Managing change at places – heritage listed or otherwise – is complicated; particularly in light of the critical problems faced by our urban and rural areas. A reputation problem still troubles heritage conservation; there still lingers that ‘paint police’, anti-development tag. Too many people laugh just a little too pointedly at the self-effacing joke of the late David Lowenthal, a key ‘heritage’ intellect:
How many preservationists does it take to change a light bulb? Four – one to insert the bulb, one to document the event, and two to lament the passing of the old bulb.
‘The Heritage Crusade and its Contradictions’ in Max Page and Randall Mason, Giving Preservation a History, 2004, p.9.
Any notion that the focus of contemporary heritage management is preventing change from occurring to historic structures or cherished places is now truly obsolete. Conservation nowadays is not, if it ever truly was, synonymous with conservation nor the enemy of development. At Touring the Past we like to view our approach to conservation as anchored around achieving a dynamic continuum between the past, present and future. About re-cultivating and continuing to use as well as keep the special places in our midst that illustrate the full contours of our past; warts and all. This can translate into a range of activities far beyond preservation and maintenance and repair. Adaptive re-use, heritage interpretation, research, cultural mapping, community facilitation, publication, place-making… the advantages of what heritage consultants can bring to the table (and ever increasingly, what regulators and communities will accept and run with) is manifold.
The old object-based heritage tradition, singularly focused on the preservation (even memorialisation) of physical elements of a cultural heritage asset – its facades, fabric and ensembles – continues to shift. These are not unimportant. But they should not dominate discourse and decision-making as they have in the past. Gradually an interest in the more intangible qualities and values of places is pushing to the forefront of heritage management. Memory, meaning, evolutionary processes, local tradition and practices, setting and context, sustainability, social and economic function, a dialogue between the old and new – these are just some of the things we at Touring the Past are exploring and advocating for as crucial considerations in and of twenty-first century heritage management.
In the substratum of every heritage decision should lie the concept of ‘significance’. Working out exactly what about a place is valued is imperative. Frankly, unless we have a clear and evidenced understanding of why we are conserving something, the whole heritage game makes about as much sense as Donald Trump’s hair. NSW’s statutory planning system puts the ball squarely in the court of the application for providing the relevant authority with a sufficient degree of information for determine the application. With heritage this regularly boils down to preparing a current, best-practice and robust distillation of what about a place matters – the much discussed, yet too often flippantly dealt with, Statements of Significance. As a research-based practice with a high degree of expertise in researching, analysing and communicating the heritage value of places, this is a facet of heritage management in which Touring the Past thrives.
Bottom-line – heritage conservation is about making careful and informed judgements about what we as a society value. Of ever probing the questions: what matters and why. Heritage consultants and advisers are not working passionately in their roles to deny development but to negotiates, smooth and reconcile the transitions between the past, present and future in a manner that minimises the negatives and maximises the positives.