Understanding ‘Heritage’ – cultural significance of place

When we talk about cultural heritage, I believe that many architecture students are often reminded of the idea of conserving built fabric (e.g. facades) and heritage overlay imposed by planning regulations. However, this idea of heritage heavily focuses on what is visible as part of buildings. We need to ask ourselves, what is cultural heritage?

The heritage of a place goes way beyond conserving the physicality of buildings.

This semester, I undertook an elective subject called Urban and Landscape Heritage that became an eye-opening introduction to the meaning of cultural landscape for me. It’s certainly not an easy concept to grasp, but I’d like to share with you the essential document for understanding the cultural heritage of a place.

(As I’m studying in Australia, I’m going to share what is considered as standard in Australia)

The Burra Charter – the starting point

Let’s start with definitions. The Burra Charter (The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance, 2013) is a guideline for the conservation and management of places of cultural significance (cultural heritage places) that provides definitions for key terms such as:

  • 1.1 Place means a geographically defined area. It may include elements, objects, spaces and views. Place may have tangible and intangible dimensions.
  • 1.2 Cultural significance means aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations.
    Cultural significance is embodied in the place itself, its fabric, setting, use, associations, meanings, records, related places and related objects.
    Places may have a range of values for different individuals or groups.
  • 1.17 Interpretation means all the ways of presenting the cultural significance of a place.
  • 2.1 Places of cultural significance should be conserved.

From these definitions, we can recognise that

  • When we investigate cultural significance of a place, we need to consider a wide range of values for various groups of people, over a holistic period of time – e.g. not just aspects of the colonial history (that we typically focus on), but also the Indigenous history before colonisation, as well as the values embraced right now.
  • We identify cultural significance of a place so that we can treat and look after the place appropriately to conserve those cultural values.
  • Interpretation is to determine how we conserve, treat, use and communicate the place and its cultural signifiances.

Learning these definitions and conservation principles from the Burra Charter and its practice notes made me feel that what we often call ‘heritage’ in the architecture student community doesn’t cover the whole extent of heritage values a place may embody. Furthermore, it highlighted how talking about heritage values goes so much deeper than a facade, and it’s not appropriate to simply keep something without fully understanding and assessing why it deserves to be conserved.

The process

The Burra Charter outlines the process:

  1. Understand Significance
    (6.1 the cultural significance of a place and other issues affecting its future are best understood by a sequence of collecting and analysing information before making decisions. Understanding cultural significance comes first, then development of policy and finally management of the place in accordance with the policy.)
  2. Develop Policy
    (6.2 Policy for managing a place must be based on an understanding of its cultural significance)
  3. Manage in Accordance with Policy

While architects/architecture students don’t necessarily write a policy or a management plan (there are professionals specialising in assessing the cultural heritage), the Burra Charter process provides a framework for our mindset that we should never decide what to do with a site without understanding the site.

The major assignment for the subject was to assess the cultural significance and write a management plan for Herring Island. Learning about the Indigenous history of the place, ecosystem, impacts of the geological contexts, the consequences of industrialisation, the relationship with the Yarra River, ‘recreational’ use, and social values for artist communities, etc., indicated the complexity of the place and challenges for conservation. Although the subject didn’t involve architectural design response, I’m confident that after assessing cultural significance, I’m more capable of responding to the site more empathetically and perceptively.

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