When you hear the word ‘heritage’, you might think of old buildings and relics, or ancient paintings dearly loved or forgotten – but that’s not necessarily the case.
Heritage is a complex beast and can encompass many things – new, old, loved or loathed. It might be physical objects or even intangible connections that bind us together and help shape our identities – a powerful concept in any context.
For this year’s International Day for Monuments and Sites on 18 April, otherwise known as World Heritage Day, we sat down with Dr Alison Wain – an Assistant Professor in Cultural and Creative Futures and the Discipline Lead for Cultural Heritage and Conversation at the University of Canberra to chat about it.
Thanks for joining us, Alison. To start, can you tell me a bit about heritage and the heritage profession?
Of course – heritage is really, at its core, things we would like to hang on to and/or feel are important. It’s not always old stuff (a common misconception)! There is heritage being created right now, or that has been created very recently – artwork, clothing, buildings. Federation Square in Melbourne, built in 2002,is now considered heritage. It’s things that are important, things that we need to remember, good or bad and/or that bring people together, that can be considered heritage.
The heritage profession is about making sure those things we want to hold on to are preserved or made accessible – and finding the balancing act between those two things as well. Do we lock something away to preserve it – and have it potentially be forgotten – or do we make it easily available, but risk wear and tear? It’s not just about keeping the tangible heritage alive, but also the intangible, and making sure things aren’t forgotten.
This year’s theme is for World Heritage Day, is Heritage and Climate. What does this mean?
It’s something we’ve been thinking a lot about in the heritage field. Heritage interacts with the environment and climate change in several ways, and this year’s theme is about creating dialogue around that.
A lot of Indigenous practices – which are a form of cultural heritage – are very strongly geared towards preserving the environment, that’s good for us. So, one aspect we need to consider is starting to learn much more from Indigenous communities about how to maintain and care for the environment.
Another part is applying a heritage lens to the environmental issues we are facing. For example, at the moment at UC, with a grant from the Canberra Region Joint Council, we are working on a research project aimed at helping older people to bushfire-proof their properties and renovating their properties to use less-flammable materials. Some of them are worried that it’s a step too far, it’s not worth bushfire-proofing, they don’t know how much longer they’ll be there – but older people hold a lot of heritage in their homes, and when you frame bushfire-proofing as a way of protecting their heritage and parts of their identity and ensuring this heritage can be preserved and shared with their families, they can see it as a worthwhile investment.
It's also about creating dialogue about the way we undertake the heritage profession. It’s not always the most eco-friendly process – for example, with the use of chemicals, waste, disruption to the environment, so we do need to interrogate heritage and look at where we can improve and minimise our impacts. For example, at UC, we are looking at a project around using lasers to clean the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which will be much less invasive and wasteful and more eco-friendly than current processes of sandblasting, using chemicals and repainting.
There’s also one other unfortunate part, isn’t there – and that’s the impacts climate change can have on heritage?
Absolutely – and I think that’s front and centre right now in particular with the floods we’ve just had in NSW and QLD. More extreme weather events mean it’s getting harder and harder to protect the things we value. Heritage is very much affected by these events and if we lose this stuff, we are losing part of our identity. It can have a very destructive effect on people’s psyches, and we can see community-wide mourning.
For example, with the flooding in Lismore, the Hannah Cabinet was damaged when the Art Gallery was flooded. This was an iconic piece of local heritage and I received and saw so many messages about it being destroyed – it really demonstrates that there are these threads of awareness that tie a community together and losing them is very depressing.
Noting what you’ve just mentioned about heritage links to identity - obviously with conflict in Ukraine, Palestine and Syria and other places, we are seeing some traumatic events occur including shocking destruction to heritage. Can you tell me more about this?
I think it’s really evident from the number of places and instances where invading forces have deliberately tried to destroy heritage, that they recognise the importance of heritage for a community. People who want to destroy the morale of a community very often attack heritage because of its strong links to identity and the fact that it is treasured. It’s a very direct way of attacking people’s psyche, resilience and sense of self and culture.
But heritage can be a uniter – in protecting it, and also rebuilding it. Coming together to rebuild can really help the healing process. Other nations also have an important role to play in this – whether it’s by contributing funds or providing support. The immediate priorities to address are things like safety, medical needs and housing, but rebuilding a community’s heritage is a very close second, and if other nations and organisations can assist with the re-building of heritage that’s really effective. And it helps build morale and connection, because the people rebuilding their heritage see how much it is valued and cared for by others as well.
Of course, ownership of heritage is so important in this – so the lead in rebuilding heritage needs to be taken by those who own it.
Now heritage isn’t always positive either, for example instances of slavery and war – how do we maintain heritage while being respectful of people’s experiences, noting that there is some heritage we’d rather forget.
I think respect is the key word. It’s really important to acknowledge and recognise difficult heritage and not brush it under the carpet – but to do it in a respectful way. We need to acknowledge and reflect on the bad things – it’s so important for healing. If we ignore or pretend it didn’t happen – that’s a way of embedding the trauma, and then have people feeling like they can’t talk about it or work through it. Giving people the chance to think about this in their own time and the opportunity for reconciliation with the past is so important.
Earlier, you mentioned the importance of Indigenous practices and learning for the heritage profession – what does this look like for you, and at UC?
It’s changed so much even since I began my career – but we are still at beginning of this journey and have a lot to learn and do. At UC, four of the eight units in our Culture and Heritage major are Indigenous-focused: Indigenous Ways of Knowing, Indigenous Cultures and Digital Context, Voicing the Archives (previously De-colonising the Museum) and Connections to Country.
Heritage provides us with a wealth of information that allows us to question what we know and what we’ve been told – whether the information comes from politicians, institutions, or our education, so some parts of these units are about re-examining heritage, and others are about recognising and celebrating the value Indigenous Knowledges contribute.
Words by Kalyx Jorgensen, photo: sourced.