Grimwade, G and Carter, D. (2000) 'Managing Small Heritage Sites with Interpretation and Community Involvement', in International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol 6, 1: 33 - 48.
Heritage management is often directed at conserving heritage places, but this may prevent people enjoying them in the present, especially if visits are severely restricted. Presentation and interpretation to visitors, locals and tourists, may be more important. Without it, there may be economic and social losses to the local community, and a lost opportunity to emphasise the meaning and contemporary relevance of the site. This emphasis is supported by the World Heritage Convention, which stresses the need to involve the local community. In the Australian context of the study, the authors argue that the same need affects less well-known heritage sites as well, and the exploitation of the benefits for rural communities in Australia especially.
'Small occupation and activity sites of the plebeian society are often undervalued or ignored... it is as if the common people played no role in the development of society and culture' (35). However, these sites might be particularly significant for local publics. Communities can use them to sustain economic growth, and develop a sense of pride. The local projects described can provide opportunities to learn for the future, and the community can also benefit from a more accurate reading of the sites.
A Chinese temple built in North Queensland by expatriate Chinese is one example. It contains a number of unusual original artefacts. The site has been conserved, but 'local acceptance has been slower' (38), and it retains older meanings of being merely a childhood playground, or referring mostly to the Chinese ethnic community who left the area long ago. Locals also resented management of the site being located far away -- and a Local Management Group has now been established how to restore a sense of local ownership.
There is a need to think about the most functional management structure for these sites -- having them owned by councils or heritage agencies can prevent local communities having the active say that they desire. In one case, a local authority appointed a definite heritage officer to champion local sites.
Sites have to be conserved in ways that suit local issues, and a number of issues ranging from vandalism to fund-raising need to be addressed. Vandalism can be a problem if there is no sense of local ownership. One local authority has decided to involve the military in using the site (an abandoned fort) to both prevent vandalism and to demonstrate commitment. Others have developed elaborate security -- but there might still be a need to identify deeper causes of vandalism.
Raising funds is a major problem. In Australia, public funds are often associated with special events such as the bicentennial. Discovering and applying for funds can be difficult -- 'almost an art form' (41), especially for community groups. As an example one North Queensland Group wanted to get funding for a nineteenth-century fort, and decided to involve two professionals, but were not supported fully because they did not have a proven record of managing government grants -- 'You need a credit rating' (41). In another case, success in preserving a local environment depended on the sales pitch -- stressing the minimisation of erosion was unsuccessful since that is already a State responsibility, while stressing the maximising of biodiversity attracted Federal funds. Joint ventures can be successful, in return for signage that displays contributors' logos. Corporate funding can be acquired if there is a link between heritage and the business -- as in mining: 'Personal interest, high public relations value, and recognition of the need to comply with government regulations with some degree of enthusiasm' (43) can produce funding, and, in the case of remote locations, strong local involvement eg of the workforce. Corporations can use heritage management as 'subtle advertising' (43), and a flow of visitors can lead to maximum utilisation of the site.
Effective presentation is important, although this is sometimes neglected by heritage professionals. A template has been produced by the Australian Heritage Commission stressing adequate description of the place, assessment of conditions, statement of conservation principles and policies, and a description of the process and strategies including resource needs, with the people named who are responsible (details 43 - 44). However, adequate interpretation is not stressed and should be. There are some examples of good practice available from English Heritage (Binks, Dyke and Dagnall 1988), which have borrowed some museum display techniques. Adequate interpretation involves researching the audience and deciding which media forms to use [and there is a diagram stressing systematic steps on page 45 -- for example, create expectations, establish familiarity, foster involvement by interpreting the values of the heritage site, and reinforce the experience off-site]. 'On-site interpretation should assist and encourage observation, self-interpretation and stimulate further inquiry' (44), and provocation might be preferred to instruction. Again, adequate management is required to resolve the strains between preservation and attendance, for example. Sometimes interpretation might replace actual attendance, for example, and sometimes providing context is more important, as at the Queensland Chinese temple, where 'emphasis is on religion in the life of Chinese' (45).
In another example, an Australian Aboriginal location on an estuary in Queensland was the basis of an early port. Most of the population in its heyday were Chinese: what remains 'is unique collection of buildings and other evidence of wealth' (46). Interpretive signs recall early visits by Cook and Banks and highlight important 19th century buildings. While the buildings need to be conserved, there is also a need 'to use sites, streetscapes and settings to explain the history and significance of the township and its role in the growth of Australia' (46). An evaluation of the approach was undertaken involving surveys of providers, visitors and residents, and overall, most people saw the signs and evaluated them positively ' (more details 46 - 47). Both residents and tourists reported that their own appreciation of the heritage site had been improved. Concrete evidence of a higher rate of visits or longer stays was less conclusive, however.
Given the right interpretative resources, local sites can involve communities and attract tourists, and help people appreciate 'rural life and the challenges faced by our forebears' (48). There must be solid planning and management.
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