Sunday, 1 March 2015

From top to bottom

Frank Gehry provided a most succinct justification for his design of the latest University of Technology Sydney building in an ABC interview on 27 February. 

He said: “The 19th  century buildings hold the city together”. So he chose warm-coloured local bricks for much of the exterior, to tie in with that heritage. It is an extraordinary way to acknowledge a gift which is now often spurned by town planners and developers. 

Inexorably the iconic buildings of self-contained small towns are disappearing under the weight of a lack of foresight and the risk of litigation, where the future of our heritage is put at risk instead. The character, the soul, the icons of childhood are wrapped in time. 

The places which stick in memory and convey a sense of lives past provide the rich texture to our current lives. Rip them out, leaving no trace, and we become soulless, less anchored and ignorant.
We can rely on our libraries and museums to fill some of the gap, through their virtual offerings. Hesba Brinsmead's Pastures of the Blue Crane continues to bring the rich tropical physicality of Terranora to life, in both book and video form. Colin Friels still swims at the Snapper Rocks swimming pools in The Coolangatta Gold, dolphins still jump with grace at the Jack Evans Pet Porpoise Pool in the photographs held by the Tweed Heads Historical Society, and Larry Corowa still runs in the Sports Days at Tweed River High School.

But that is not as sensemaking as the submersive physical experience. Coffs Harbour has recognised this as a significant issue recently by supporting two cultural heritage initiatives. The first is a decision by the Coffs Harbour City Council to “relinquish responsibility for the Bunker Cartoon Gallery [back to a] group of enthusiastic volunteers” who belong to a non-profit organisation. “Animated plans for Bunker” [ref: Coffs Coast Advocate, 28 February 2015, p.3.] It’s expected to save some Council budget, so there are generous intentions on both sides to retain a unique heritage for the future.

The second is the instigation of a study of heritage sites with mostly unacknowledged meaning. Not just those that are on a list of Council-supported heritage assets, but a reassurance that our past can still be studied in situ. The study “has identified about 500 additional locally significant items in the Coffs Harbour area, including banana-packing sheds, dairy buildings, timber houses, timber bridges and even fibro holiday shacks... These places may become part of tourist drives, walks, or even festivals, or they might simply be recorded for posterity” [ref: Opinion sought on heritage study, Coffs Coast Advocate, 25 February 2015, p.17]. This choice illustrates empathy for loss.

Do they all have to be maintained by public funds? While there is a volunteer community prepared to support them, yes, although the sums expended do not need to be burdening. Is the volunteer demographic growing larger? Yes. Bernard Salt reports on this continuously. So why squander the good will of a ‘rusted on’ volunteer workforce? Using the time of people generously donated to preserving a part of their contextual history is a key plank of our community wellbeing. I’ve written before about the CSIRO study in which Australia’s senior heritage curators acknowledged the confluence between a passion for heritage and general wellbeing. 

As an alternative, less expensive investment in health infrastructure, historical societies and their interest in built heritage are an unparalleled opportunity to invest in. In addition, the importance of a cross-section of experience and skills to the cultural heritage sector - such as that offered by any volunteering cohort - was acknowledged in a recent British study by key figures such as the British Library’s Chief Executive, Roly Keating.

Smaller towns struggle with the centralisation of budget decisions, regional politics, and infrastructural vacuums. But to ignore resources at hand, with time and expertise, is the ultimate short-sightedness. There are many agencies which recognise the value of and work extensively with volunteer labour forces, but this is not uniformly the case. Just look around your environment and you will know which ones they are.

Smaller towns should take the time to rethink, and use the knowledge of their residents to better understand and appreciate the significant iconic history available to them, while they can. As the Queensland government “restores” the Southern Gold Coast railway line one train station at a time, it knows that it is far costlier to rip out viable heritage and then, several years down the track, put it all back. 

Day-trippers coming off the train from Brisbane, at Tweed Heads station, c. 1916.


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