Current heritage debates in Australia

In the case of Australia, there are two sides of the heritage debate. On the one hand, the Australian branch of ICOMOS considers heritage as a concept that encompasses many different cultural expressions, emphasising the role it plays in the construction of Australian identity and the strong influence heritage plays in the Australian way of life. This view has an optimistic posture in regard to the power of heritage. An example of this stance was offered by Tim Winter at the 2013 Australian ICOMOS conference, where he emphasised the power of heritage as cultural capital, by proposing to use heritage as currency in the market of cultural diplomacy (a field often shaped by colonial practices). The Australian model of heritage, he suggested, could be exported to other countries and used as a tool to expand the cultural horizons of the host country, as well as reinforcing the capacity of heritage to act as a cultural resource. But we must ask how Australia can export its heritage practices to other countries as examples of heritage management, if Australia cannot properly manage its own Indigenous heritage.

The other side of the debate involves the critical stance of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS). This association posits that:

Heritage is, as much as anything, a political act and we need to ask serious questions about the power relations that 'heritage' has all too often been invoked to sustain ... The old way of looking at heritage - the Authorised Heritage Discourse - privileges old, grand, prestigious, expert approved sites, buildings and artefacts that sustain Western narratives of nation, class and science (ACHS 2013).

Are there risks here? Well, yes. Tim Winter himself writes about the extremes of critical approaches, insofar as 'critical approaches to heritage can even be anti-heritage'. The trick is in remaining focused on the material that is either deserving of attention, or even at risk, without getting caught up in the discourses that surround it. As Winter explains this, the aim is to

'[bring] a critical perspective to bear upon the socio-political complexities that enmesh heritage'. It is especially important to do this in a way that 'creates a more productive, engaged dialogue with the heritage conservation sector . .. [without further] alienating those working in the heritage sector outside academia' (Winter 2013, 533).

But then we come to a quandary - what is heritage? Is it a totalising and potentially reductive construct imposed by out-groups, an impediment to living culture, or a structure worth preserving? The critical study of heritage now awaits its future theorists, engaged with material drawn from across history and cultures, bringing disparate disciplines to the table. To illustrate this point, the remaining part of this chapter will analyse an Indigenous heritage site using critical heritage theory and the language of iconoclasm to further expand the concept of heritage.

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