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Historical Assessments for heritage projects - an explainer

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

The use of specialist historical knowledge and understanding is a vital ingredient in the recipe for successful heritage projects and management. The engagement of a Professional Historian to prepare a Historical Assessment for your heritage project is a cost- and labour-effective way to both inspire and safeguard your design approach. It also bolsters the overall credentials of your project by demonstrating a recognition of and respect for the historic environment.
Touring the Past - State Library of NSW, Historical Assessment History and Research
Awe-inspiring repositories of the past can be daunting to the non-historian. The State Library of NSW, a familiar haunt of Touring the Past’s principal. (Image:

Historical research is a fundamental of good heritage practice

The need to secure an in-depth historical awareness of heritage places is, as laid out in the Burra Charter (rev. 2013) and various NSW best-practice resources, the very foundation of sound heritage assessment and management. It is the basis for distilling the cultural heritage value (or significance) of a place and the compatibility, or otherwise, of proposed change/s.

Historical Assessment reports involve the thorough research of historical material and field work to clearly identify the cultural significance of a subject site. They are proactive tools that evaluate historic environments, revealing the means by which significant tangible and intangible elements of the past are encapsulated in the existing landscape and relating this to the wider evolution of the area.

Avoid flawed history

It is an unfortunate reality, that some heritage projects do not meet a high-threshold of historical research and awareness. On occasion, the professional eye can discern that the site history has been treated as a last-minute add-on which focuses on dates and the use of facts and themes repeated uncritically from an older, more celebratory local history tradition.

Such an approach is risky and self-sabotaging. It clashes with Touring the Past’s belief in the centrality of sound historical practice to heritage management and attracts ‘heritage headaches’. Many regulatory interferences, delays, expensive court proceedings and less than favourable consent conditions can be traced back to historical examinations that lacked a professional approach.

Uncovering the past can be a complex process. History research can be laborious, time-consuming and at times confusing. This is why so many heritage reports and proposals are predominantly based on what can be gleamed from a visual inspection – what looks original, what looks important, what looks authentic. While not denying the importance of physical investigations, their employment without the backing of meticulous historical research, knowledge and understanding means that they remain mere conjecture. If a physical investigation is not combined with research into the available documentary and oral records it will not be possible to confidently and comprehensively understand a heritage site or setting.

Touring the Past - Historical Assessment, 1943 Castlecrag historic aerial
Historic aerials play a valuable role in helping to uncover the structural bones of urban and rural landscapes. Centre image lies the nascent suburb of Castlecrag in 1943. (Image: SIX Maps)

Why should you care about sound history?

A Historical Assessment aims to carry out research to determine the significance of a place and identify which aspects are most crucial for the retention of this value. If the process is flawed, the base-line of the project proposal will also be imperfect. Care must be taken with earlier assessments already undertaken. If the history in the earlier assessment is ‘under-done’ then it will fail in its role of supporting the significance of a site and the provision of clear directions for the management of change.

There is no surer path to heritage-themed controversy than in offering a design based on a misunderstanding of the cultural significance of a place. An incomplete knowledge and ‘feel’ for heritage places undercuts innovation and flexibility for change. It traps projects at a superficial level, stuck in a fabric-obsessed mode of operations (the simplicity of ‘don’t touch anything original’ instead of, ‘what’s significant’?) and stifles architectural and place-making vision by failing to illuminate a place’s character and broader relationships.

So, in other words – the provision of an independent and ‘garden-fresh’ assessment of significance, based upon a bedrock of relevant and supporting historical and physical evidence, is imperative for most heritage projects. It provides for a higher level of understanding, which in turn breeds design flair, confidence in dealing with regulatory bodies and cost-effectiveness.

Back to Historical Assessments

So how can you secure the necessary fine-grained, contextually accurate historical analysis we (and all the pertinent planning documents and international/domestic heritage instruments) are stressing? Easy! Engage Touring the Past. Let us employ our professional historian’s skillsets and significance assessment expertise on behalf of your proposal by writing your Historical Assessment report.

Researching the historic built environment to determine its significance requires an expansive knowledge of historical sources and the possibilities they can yield. Our Historical Assessments will typically involve a variety of research strategies and methodologies but revolve around conducting documentary research, fieldwork and engagement with knowledge holders and stakeholders, such as associated communities. In practice, these processes support each other, spawning new questions and avenues. Our central operating tenet for preparing Historical Assessments is returning to primary sources. We do not just regurgitate past findings or seek to compile tedious, non-pertinent detail. We craft histories of places shaped by relevant research questions with the singular focus on assisting in the assessment of significance, a key component of our Historical Assessments.

Sounding off

As the name suggests Touring the Past thrives on traversing historic landscapes. We have the knowledge of Australian history, evaluative skills in selecting and assessing evidence, in reading sources ‘against the grain’, and general doggedness to produce Historical Assessments to an appropriate depth that will only value-add to your heritage projects.

We are always eager to talk history, so give us a call or email for an obligation-free discussion and tailored quote.

Touring the Past - The Rocks 1904, Historical Assessment , blog
Scrutinising pictorial records is an important aspect of Historical Assessments. The photograph above provides a view from The Rocks south towards the city centre, circa 1904. Its detail allows the historian to recreate a picture of The Rocks' built landscape, now dramatically altered. (Image: NSW State Archives and Records, ID 4481_a026_000475)


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