The word ‘heritage’ conjured only two images in my childhood: Sydney’s famous ‘green ban’ protests at The Rocks, which were depicted on placemats at our dinner table; and Timbertown, a ye olde theme park at Wauchope on the NSW North Coast.
Both were projects organised by noble people, trying to preserve beautiful things worth learning about. I never questioned it further. And why would I? At school, our Indigenous history, the biggest question of all, was still a sideline to Captain Cook’s ‘discovery’ of Australia.
By contrast, the British are obsessed with explaining and controlling their heritage, pumping it for tourist profit and clinging to dying perspectives of their place in the world. It’s all about proving that Britain still matters!
This comes in part from their desperate need, as a people, to be told what to do by somebody, and the convenient presence of a middle class in need of an audience to tell it to. Usually this only affects things like where you can cross the street (although one memorably pointless sign announces at every Tube station: ‘Beat the heat. Drink Water’), but occasionally the mentality finds expression in authoritarian warnings at heritage sites.
I didn’t question that either until a backpacking jaunt around Europe in 2003, when I landed myself in Diocletian’s Palace a late-Roman ruin in Split, Croatia. There, in a part of the world where big things happen at close range war, terror, communism, genocide the attitude was somehow different again. The people lived their heritage. The palace opened up to the stars and was filled with drinking and dancing night after night. It was no doubt home to accidents and damage. But the stone walls did not crumble.
To contrast the joie de vivre of Split with the aspic moulds of the British castle and stately home circuit is to understand how one might come to want to stab oneself. The approach of the British to these matters is both sad and strategically conservative.
And so, from that day onwards, I resolved to rail against the prevailing view that heritage is something you rope off and charge people for, or push to one side as you scramble to make beach plans.
Two heritage sites are currently in the limelight: Stonehenge and Venice. They are in the news for very different reasons at first glance linked only by the fact that you now need duckboards to get around both of them. But there is another connection the spectacularly different attitudes towards maintaining the two.
Stonehenge was recently visited by the Bardi Aboriginal dance troupe from north of Broome. In town for the nearby Salisbury Arts Festival, the Bardi dancers were hauled by clever Australian foreign correspondents to a photo shoot that juxtaposed the world’s oldest culture and one of the world’s most famous old monuments.
Arriving mid-morning to be squeezed in between meditation and the next busload of loud Americans, the dancers were generous about their hosts. ‘We actually felt a bit back home,’ said one of the dancers, Frank Davey, after his visit.
The generosity was not returned.
When one dancer spontaneously decided to scarper onto one of the rocks, all hell broke loose. Undoubtedly filling out a form or still on the way to work (it was only 9:30), the English Heritage ‘custodians’ of Stonehenge had uncharacteristically not warned the dancers about such reckless behaviour. (Prior to this, Stonehenge had been freely walked upon for only 4290 of its 4300 year history). And so the most extraordinary scene ensued: a feckless bureaucrat dressed like a scout but possessing none of Baden-Powell’s common sense charged across the sacred ground, screaming in clipped vowels for this individual to get off her rock!
All this fuss despite the fact that Stonehenge has a freeway virtually running through it, some of the stones are propped up with quick-pour concrete and no one knows what it was actually for.
It did say on page four of the ‘stone access application form’ that the dancer should not have climbed onto the rock. But sometimes other sensitivities are more important than the rules. Do the Anangu of central Australia behave in such an ungracious way when British tourists bounce around on Uluru?
As for Venice, unlike the Brits, the Italians know they still matter and could not care less that the city is sliding into oblivion. Even the Venetians don’t show up at council meetings to debate preservation options any more that’s left to foreign charities.
Venice is the subject of 33 charitable committees dealing with the problem of preservation. One of these committees, ‘Venice in Peril,’ this month debated the contention that ‘enough money has been spent saving Venice,’ to a packed audience and a dozen newspapers. La Serenissima is obviously not, as the MasterCard slogan goes, ‘priceless.’
It would cost less than what the United States and the UK spent in the last 21 days in Iraq, to ‘save’ Venice for good (about US$5 billion). In light of such easy comparisons, it’s surprising that the majority of the British commentariat are happy to let it sink.
It is not that they hate Venice, they simply ask ‘what good is saving 8 square kilometres of art and mud, when there is an entire planet at risk?’
They are undoubtedly right the whole planet is more important but it is not a choice between the two. Indeed, if there are tough heritage choices to be made, I would put one of the world’s longest surviving republics ahead of the untouchable rocks of Stonehenge.
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