Community Consultations, Heritage Practice, and Migration Histories – Heritage Victoria 2011

In an effort to gather my thoughts on institutional engagements with migration heritage—questions about effective or ineffective practices that foster truly collaborative projects—I’m writing this blog on Heritage Victoria’s 2011 Project ‘Victoria’s Post 1940s Migration Heritage’, prepared by Context and Way Back When. I’ve scheduled (but not yet conducted) interviews with heritage practitioners and public historians from these respective companies. Accordingly, some of the reflections posted here may become naive in retrospect. This is a work in progress.

The reports attached to the 2011 Project—a thematic history and pilot project—are easily downloadable on Victoria’s Environment, Land, Water and Planning website, despite initial responses that criticised the entire Project for having no follow-up built into the study. Perhaps Heritage Victoria, supported by the Heritage Council of Victoria, hopes that the Project’s mere appearance online will act as a stand-in for their lack of other engagements with migration or multicultural heritage. Victoria is often lauded by politicians as a State fiercely proud of its multicultural make-up, and yet our major collecting institutions maintain few collections on post-war migrant cohorts and rarely seek out their voices in heritage matters (beyond consultations through Multicultural Arts Victoria and FECCA). But the issues are complex and difficult, and this is reflected in the reports from the 2011 Project. How do they identify and engage with those communities they have ignored for so long? Other public historians—including Helen Light and her Multicultural Collections project for Museums Australia Victoria—have grappled with similar problems.

The pilot report as part of the wider 2011 Project sought to identify places associated with post-war migration to Victoria. The researchers decided that the ‘approach to assessing significance needs to be developed prior to the pilot’, and establishing definitions therefore occurred without community consultation, but with reference to existing legislation and previous models of community consultation in past reports and projects from the 1990s. These earlier projects were conducted by the old Australian Heritage Commission (AHC) under Helen Armstrong and the (now sadly defunded) NSW Migration Heritage Centre. They included focus groups, workshops, and partnerships with State governments. However, all reports applied the AHC’s 1993 social significance paper, now a widely accepted framework, and one that reflects the practices and definitions of the Burra Charter. The Burra Charter itself is considered a well-respected cornerstone of Australian heritage management, and aspects of it have been adopted elsewhere in world.

The pilot report from the 2011 Project found that the easiest way to engage communities was to do so through local government councils, and Darebin Council in Melbourne’s north-east was selected. A lot of important work was done as part of this consultative process with council, including the suggestion to update existing heritage registers and the listed items that neglect the social values identified by migrant community members.

Beyond this, I want to pose a challenge: what if we were to go into communities without tangible ‘places’ in mind? What if heritage managers (as it were) went in with a mind to first collect ‘stories’, that may or may not lead to the identification physical sites that have ‘social significance’. Academics Pocock, Collett and Baulch have made this suggestion also. For cohorts who were denied the opportunity to openly express othernesss (beyond trivial renditions of ethnicity), it’s not unexpected that their ‘internal worlds’, rather than clearly identified public spaces, should be richer and unarchived.

The heritage ‘industry’ has been discussing the ‘I’ word (intangible) for at least a decade now, but it’s been slow to trickle down into legislation in Australia, which still perpetuates a false divide between the tangible and intangible, and heavily emphasises materiality. When communities and individuals discuss their heritage they of course have definitions that range beyond (and are not limited by) those applied by the Burra Charter—and they have, in many ways, a more nuanced or at least co-dependent definition of intangible and tangible heritage that views the latter as non-existent without the former.

Ongoing partnerships and community consolation takes work. And the work doesn’t end with simply establishing a ‘key connection’ within a given community. It extends to the history work conducted within those communities. That is, oral histories take work within a heritage context, but the onus need not be on official bodies to conduct all of this work. The 2011 Project and the AHC’s 1995 Migration Heritage Places in Australia Guide and Handbook partly acknowledge that the ‘practice’ of heritage can be shifted and shared here—that it can (and should) be devolved to community actors, who may ‘identify their own’ heritage values. From an institutional perspective, however, they mean for this identification process to align with the Burra Charter; they have an eye to national historiographies. They seek to fit these stories of journey and ‘becoming Australian’ neatly into a national history. Not all of these migration heritages may fit that impetus. What are we to do with those stories? How do we commemorate what is outside the national in a heritage industry framework that is not only bound by, but actively constitutes, a narrative about the nation-state and its becoming? Perhaps it was the inability to ask these questions that saw the researchers of the 2011 Project question migrant communities’ investment in their own heritage—they asked, ‘do they even care?’ The answer is yes, very much—but the platforms for expressing (and understanding) that care is lacking.

The next step, I argue, is understanding differing definitions—that is, how do people outside bodies like Heritage Victoria (and even Context or Way Back When) define ‘social significance’? … maybe yet more workshops are on the cards.

 

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