Heritage as a public good in society

Cultural built heritage embodies a multiplicity of values and significances. There is obvious historical significance and invariably aesthetic significance but also social, economic and quite often associational significance. These values contribute to the uniqueness of each heritage property either as a representation of an era (Colonial, Victorian, Federation, Interwar, post-war etc.) or as its rarity. All of these values are captured by standard systems of objectively evaluating significance and in NSW, we usually apply five separate forms of significance being;

  • Historical significance
  • Associational significance
  • Aesthetic significance
  • Technical significance and;
  • Social significance

Each one of these is filtered through two further categories; the extent to which the subject heritage place is either representative of a group to which one might determine that it belongs or its rarity in terms of number, uniqueness or outstanding cultural value. Cultural heritage significance is the combined values and significances contained in any one heritage place. For instance, a factory might possess a high degree of technical significance whereas a house may possess aesthetic and historical significance. Churches, cinemas and schools, for instance express social significance. Associational significance usually relates to a famous person having resided or worked in a building or a place associated with a particular group or part of a community.

Because of these values, all cultural built heritage has the ability to communicate aspects of our history to the owners who inhabit the buildings as well as to the local communities, foreign and local tourists or even passers-by. This gives rise to the notion of heritage as a public good because it is open to anybody who visits the place or walks or drives past it to enjoy it and potentially learn from the experience.Fig 1 - previous dwelling, now a school building North Strathfield, NSW, AustraliaFig 1: Previous dwelling - now a school building North Strathfield, NSW, Australia

Ironically, the community gets the benefit of listed heritage properties without directly contributing to it financially, while the cost of maintenance and upkeep falls to the owners of such properties. Local and State government regulate the properties by determining what can and can’t be altered in terms of original fabric and its conservation.

Avrami et al (ref 1) maintain that ‘in the field of cultural heritage conservation, values are critical to deciding what to conserve — what material goods will represent us and our past to future generations — as well as to determining how to conserve. Even brief consideration of a typical conservation decision reveals many different, sometimes divergent values at play: think of the artistic and aesthetic values of an old building as well as the historical values of its associations plus the economic values tied up in its use and so on. In short, values are an important determining factor in the current practices and future prospects of the conservation field’.

Paul Rappoport – Heritage 21 – 7 July 2017


(Reference 1) - Erica Avrami, Randall Mason, Marta de la Torre, Values and Heritage Conservation - Research Report, The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 2000.


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