Whither history? : the emergence of a modern preservation movement in New South Wales

Publication Type:
Thesis
Issue Date:
2007
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In the early twentieth century, modernisation was underway in Australia. The social and political ruptures characteristic of that process resulted in many feeling the need for continuity between the past and the present. In New South Wales the desire for stability and continuity was actively represented through efforts to prevent the demolition a variety of historic places that held communal memories. The preservation of historic buildings began with pressure from local groups maintaining a sense of place, but took on a nationalist cast, when, in a climate of rising nationalism, environmental development began to remove buildings significant to powerful social groups and to a wider range of communities. This thesis investigates the history of the practice of preserving historic buildings in New South Wales from 1900 to the 1950s. It particularly pays attention to the positioning of historians within the emerging building-preservation movement, and takes note of historic preservation’s relationship to the formation of national identities and to the diverse changes wrought by modernity on society and culture. From the early years of the twentieth century, amateur and then professional historians were positioned as experts and leaders in Australian history. The brief included active promotion of historic preservation. Thus began the transformation of buildings into historic monuments, that is, monuments not purpose-built, but chosen from existing building stock for those shared memories and historical associations, used to connect people to communal identities, including national identities. Monumentalisation, however, transforms old buildings into structures whose attachment to identity not only emerges from memorial associations but which is also substantially visual – that is, its role is to present as something of a spectacle. By the 1930s, at a time when modern visual technologies were producing a rising visual sensibility, many architects and artists were persuaded that some colonial buildings had aesthetic merit. Tensions arose between architectural factions on the question of preservation, as they also did within planning. Furthermore, unexplored differences between the communal meanings which architects assigned to historic buildings and those assumed by historians led to events that damaged the authority of the history profession over historic buildings. After World War II, artistic and aesthetic ideas came to dominate the emerging idea of heritage. The institutionalisation of the movement was overseen by amateur and professional groups favouring an aesthetic sensibility to the detriment of an historical approach. How and why this occurred is the subject of this work.
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