What is heritage? How do you go about preserving a place whose constructed elements are not bricks, concrete or steel, but a rich and intricate ancient fabric of dreams and stories? The Burra Charter, drawn up in 1979, has made Australia a leading and influential voice in the field of cultural preservation. Luise Rellensmann reevaluates this significant document, which has helped shift the idea of conservation from the material to the wider cultural significance of site or place by recognising the very different nature of what is considered “heritage” by Indigenous Australians as opposed to that of the West.
Crooked trees, rough rocks and waterholes are commonly places of worship in Aboriginal culture – in ways that are often incomprehensible to others, including their non-Indigenous fellow Australians. What might appear just a vast landscape to Western experts in archaeology, architecture or art history could be in fact a “labyrinth of invisible pathways”, as Bruce Chatwin describes in his book Songlines from 1987. Sydney Opera House and Uluru (or Ayers Rock), two Australian icons, could be seen to symbolise concepts of heritage constructed in completely different ways by two different cultures: the non-Indigenous and the Indigenous. With The Burra Charter, named after the historic mining town Burra in Southern Australia and adopted by Australia ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) in 1979, preservationists in the country acknowledged these different approaches much earlier than elsewhere, and since then have differentiated the heritages of the country’s people/cultures in conservation practice. ….