A historical rumination on heritage advocacy

‘Defend Collins Street’, Architect, September 1976.

A few days ago, tumultuous events played out at the National Trust of Victoria, as reported in the Age. Whilst the Trust often appears in print over its activism, rarely does the internal discontents of the organisation spill onto the pages of the city’s newspapers. Over the past few weeks, absent from this blog, I have been exploring how the Trust and various other advocacy and professional organisations campaigned federal, state and local governments for heritage legislation in the 1970s. What interests me particularly about the ‘showdown’ at the National Trust last week is how there has been much reference to the legacy of the Trust: its advocacy activities way back then.

Heritage and its advocacy involves many things. Most popularly, heritage is represented as ‘our heritage’, the legacy of the past, protected in the present, for the future. Certain aspects from history are thus kept – as heritage – on behalf of the broader community. The preservation of urban heritage comes about mostly through regulation. That is why the interior of the Palace Theatre, Melbourne could be gutted a few months ago – because the private owner had no legal obligation to keep it. In turn, urban heritage activists seek to expand what might be kept as heritage. This involves persuading the broader public, placing pressure on private property owners and broadening regulatory definitions. Five decades ago, legislated heritage existed only in a few municipal planning schemes, and many people were still opposed to its preservation. By the 1980s and ‘90s, there was local, state and federal legislation, impacting every Australia city, safeguarding a range of natural, moveable and immoveable heritage – the latter of which incorporates urban heritage – at the local, state, national and international scale. At various times in the past few decades, it may have seemed as if the heritage activists had won, securing lasting legal heritage protection, whilst also capturing the public imagination. For these and other reasons, we must recognise the pioneering heritage activists of this early period.

At a broader level, what were those heritage activists fighting for? Was it for a particular place or building? Was it for a particular neighbourhood? Was it for a Heritage Industry? Was it for legislation? Was it to advance more sophisticated understandings of the relationship between urban present, past and future? Was it a battle for or against development, change and progress? It was probably a mixture of all these things and more. On some criteria, the activists did superbly well, particularly in the realm of the professionalisation and regulation of heritage. On other criteria, they inevitably did less well. After all, heritage legislation cannot guarantee favourable urban outcomes. Urban space and its heritage is always contested, and different people have different perspectives on what places should exist, and the form those places might take, into perpetuity. No heritage outcome will satisfy everybody.

The more I research the Australian National Trusts of the 1970s – especially the powerful and better resourced trusts in Victoria and New South Wales – the more I come to appreciate how brilliant its leadership then was. Many of the Trusts successes occurred not because of the Trusts’ public activities. Rather, the Trust developed relationships with the leading heritage ‘movers and shakers’, bounding itself to the heritage system that soon emerged. For instance, the Whitlam Government selected alongside others David Yencken and Reg Walker for its Inquiry into National Estate. Walker was of the N.S.W. National Trust and the Australian Council of Trusts. The Inquiry led to the Australian Heritage Commission, and its first chairman Yencken had his offices in South Yarra, around the corner from the then Victorian Trust headquarters at Como House, and he regularly corresponded with his local Trust.

As part of the Inquiry, Walker and Yencken co-authored a research report into heritage advocacy. In their report, they suggested that even with heritage legislation ‘there will still be a role for the voluntary groups as vigilantes, a voice for the public conscience and in formulating positive proposals to a point which will convince Governments that the proposals warrant investigation’ (NAA, A3956, 1973/452). No doubt Walker thought there was no conflict of interest between his Trust and Inquiry positions; after decades of wanton urban destruction he was fighting the good fight for heritage on various battlefields. (This sentiment was also echoed in Inquiry Chairman Justice Robert Hope’s suggestion that activists amalgamate into respectable organisations in order to advance their causes.) In the urban realm, the leading voluntary group was to be the National Trusts, and the Inquiry prevented other urban activists – such as resident action groups – from obtaining federal heritage grants. In the heritage system that had begun to emerge, the Trusts ensured their involvement, whilst also professionalising via government grants. With increased resources and various statutory roles, the Trusts worked with government, industry and other activists to promote heritage and its preservation.

The Trusts have always had their own perspectives on heritage, those places that it believed should be preserved via classification or acquisition. Were its perspectives representative of the general public – and should they have been? Its relatively small membership has always been older, whiter, and wealthier than the general urban population. Many people join simply to receive discounted entry to Trust properties. Who did the Trust represent in the 1970s? Most obviously, its membership. Probably also the personal heritage interests of its leadership. However, the Trust leadership also saw its representative function as broader than that – as Walker (and Yencken) attested to.

At that time, the Trust claimed it was agitating on behalf of the whole community. For the sake of my research interests, the Australian urban public: the people of Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney other Australian cities. The Trust believed it could help win over the public, to inform and educate them about heritage, in order to secure the future of the past. To make cities and their places better than they otherwise would have been. In the 1970s, the leading concerns of heritage activists was to secure legislation, also with an emphasis on preserving certain kinds of nineteenth and early twentieth-century buildings. That’s what the first heritage conservation studies prioritised. Many of the Trusts’ classification lists were subsequently copied and pasted into government heritage registers. Even today, these registers – and too often the public conversation too – are still dominated by places that emphasise the main heritage interests of that time – plenty of grand and stately public buildings, offices and houses. Exterior fabric prevails. Places that were, at that moment in time, archetypal examples of particular, respected, canonical architectural styles. The Trust had nevertheless advanced a powerful and effective approach to heritage, and so not only shaped but also became heavily involved in the then emergent heritage system.

How might this history inform Australian urban heritage activism today?

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