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Community and heritage: an opportunity for contact

Kris Bizzaca

Bizzaca, Kris 2007, 'Community and heritage: an opportunity for contact', Fremantle Studies, 5: 1-8.

In many ways my paper about community and heritage as an opportunity for contact complements a presentation that Anne Brake made at the 2004 Fremantle Studies Day entitled ‘A good story to tell: interpreting Fremantle’s history’. 1 In this paper Anne discussed the interpretation of the past and what to be aware of in order to be a good interpreter.

Unlike Anne, I am not qualified in museum or curatorial work. I also do not have the practical experience that many historical societies have in relation to archival collections and displays. What I hope to do though is to explain why it is essential for the future of history and heritage to discover ongoing ways to encourage community involvement and to discuss one particular project in which I have been involved that has attempted to do this.

It is important in any discussion about community and heritage to explore why the past has become increasingly popular, especially during the last few decades. There is no doubt that one of the most prominent features in today’s western society is a widespread interest in the past or in what is most commonly referred to as ‘heritage’. This notion of ‘heritage’ has become more important since the 1960s and 1970s and it was during the 1980s that several writers began to question the way in which heritage in uenced how people looked at and dealt with the past, the representation of this history and the corresponding development of a heritage industry. 2

Community & Heritage

What these analyses of heritage also attempted was to identify what lay behind this vast interest of the past and the subsequent need to preserve it. The general conclusion was that this came about because of societal change and uncertainty, and a result of this was the need for stability, security and continuity. 3 Whether we agree with this reasoning or not, heritage and history are important to the community because they provide individuals and groups with a context – that is, with a sense of place, of belonging and of identity.

Community and heritage are words that are used a great deal but their meanings often seem elusive. Both concepts are rarely xed and static, but are diverse with multiple meanings and articulations. For example the ‘Fremantle community’ is used to refer to those people who live and work within the complex geographical place known as the City of Fremantle. Within it are various groups but there remains a constant widespread notion of the ‘Fremantle community’ and a de nite sense of belonging to this place. 4 Similarly, heritage has different meanings to different individuals or groups. It can refer to such aspects of the past as natural, Indigenous, social, cultural, migrant and ethnic, or to the objects of the past like the built environment, archival records, heirlooms and antiques, or to the actual industry in which many of us work.

The meanings of community and heritage are dynamic. What makes these concepts problematic, controversial and emotive also makes them evocative and exciting. This multiplicity provides those operating in and with both areas a space within which to work to establish contact or connections between the two.

Many of us are aware that interpretation, whether it is through the conservation of heritage places, written material, museums, signage, etc, is a significant medium that allows the individual to engage with history. In other words, it provides an opportunity for contact between a community and its history through the use of material evidence to communicate a story or experience that contributes to further understanding about the past, present and future. 5

Practitioners such as museum specialists and curators are very conscious of pitfalls associated with heritage and those frequently discussed and criticised are the issues of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘entertainment’. 6 Nostalgic recollection - or if you will the view of history through rose-coloured glasses - is cause for concern as it ‘cleans-up’ the past in an unrealistic way often to the detriment of telling the ‘true’ story such as the stories of Indigenous people, the working class and children. The word entertainment conjures up images of song and dance routines, reworks, bells and whistles. In relation to heritage interpretation the term is used with reference to the ‘a good time must be had by all’ approach where the past is presented for the amusement of the audience but again to the detriment of authenticity.

There can be no doubt of the professional difference between producing a project that has integrity and producing a project that is ‘entertaining’. It can be argued however that there is a ne line between entertainment and attracting the interest of the community. The reality is that heritage projects must often incorporate both aspects because they must have broad appeal to be successful. It is also becoming increasingly dif cult to engage the visitor in a culture where attractions are varied, numerous and constantly changing. The tight-rope that we walk is to nd this balance between a good interpretation product and one that sells.

Local community based projects must also consider the need to attract not only the external tourist/visitor but the local resident/visitor. The latter is of particular interest as they have begun to play an increasingly important role in heritage projects and issues. Not only is this individual a visitor, they are someone with whom the practitioner must engage on various levels so as to ensure the continued viability of the activity and in some cases of the organisation itself.
Viability here not only relates to visitor numbers and income, but also the need to attract the individual in order to encourage participation through activities such as membership, volunteerism or sponsorship as well as to engage the individual in a way that evokes a sense of community identity and ownership.

This specifically relates to the increased grant funding now available in Western Australia for community based heritage and history projects from sources like Lotterywest. The Lotterywest grants programs have seen the implementation of criteria requiring a project to prove community bene t. Heritage and history must therefore evoke a sense of ownership as well as appeal to the community in order to achieve success. Again, the dilemma is in nding the right balance and the right approach.

It is of concern that too often community driven activities are dismissed out of hand as being too ‘touchy-feely’ or too nostalgic or too entertaining without any acknowledgement of the bene ts they have in promoting heritage and history issues. The danger of these types of attitudes is that they can be perceived as elitist, do not take into account local experience, and have the unfortunate effect of creating distance between the community and the heritage industry. It is in these situations that the role of advocacy in terms of promotion and education is essential so as to ensure that there is a space for contact between a community and its past and to develop proactive partnerships between the community, local heritage practitioners and industry professionals.

One such partnership in which I have been involved is the City of Fremantle’s Heritage Festival, 7 and in many ways it highlights a number of the issues that I have raised today as heritage festivals and history days or weeks are often accused of lacking substance and glossing over subjects in an effort to draw the crowds.

The Fremantle Heritage Festival initially developed in association with the City of Fremantle’s Conservation Incentive Awards rst held in 1989, and now forms part of the City’s annual events program.

The main vision of the Fremantle Heritage Festival is to make heritage and history more accessible to the community through promotion, education and participation. Its planning involves the main stakeholders in history and heritage in Fremantle including representatives from Council, the Local History Collection, the Fremantle History Museum, the Western Australian Maritime Museum, the Fremantle Society, the Fremantle History Society, the Fremantle Prison and the local community. This wide representation ensures that the activities are professional, the processes open and accountable, and that the events during the week-long program are informative, attract broad audiences, provide opportunities to access and participate in history and heritage, and contribute not only to Fremantle’s but the wider community’s understanding of its past and identity. To this end, the events produced during the Festival are free or have a minimal charge. These range from papers and presentations, to walking and building tours, ‘DIY’ workshops, displays and exhibitions, and the Awards Night itself; at which the recipients of the Heritage Awards and Local History Awards are announced.

Although the Fremantle Heritage Festival over the past three years has grown signi cantly in terms of events and popularity, there remain several issues that cause dif culty from year to year.
One of these is an issue that affects many projects and that is the issue of funding. The growth of the Festival and the challenge to produce new, educative and attractive events has put increased strain on a very tight budget. This has meant that those involved in the management of the Festival have had to seek sponsorship. Seeking sponsorship is time consuming, frustrating, depressing and, above all else, hard work. It is especially dif cult for heritage and history where the subject does not have the sexiness or appeal of other not-for-pro t projects. This means that we rely heavily on government funding and at a local level must advocate the importance of heritage and history in order to ensure the commitment of council of cers and elected officials.

Fremantle has benefited through the recent local government elections by gaining councillors who – if not pro-heritage – at least have an awareness and appreciation of its importance to the community. This has resulted in an increased budget for the 2006 Heritage Festival.

A second issue associated with the Fremantle Heritage Festival has been the problem we have with attracting specific community groups to participate whether that is through either the hosting or attending of events. One of these groups has traditionally been the migrant community. Progress was made in relation to this during the 2005 Festival by making this community a target audience and identifying events that could be developed which would have certain appeal. We also had the advantage of Fremantle being the location of the recent ‘Welcome Walls’ initiative and were able to utilise the existing interest in migrant heritage to promote festival activities in this area.
Unfortunately we have yet to nd any real success with involving the second group – and this is our youth.

In 2005, we identified youth as one of our target groups. As part of the local history awards we developed a topic for high school and primary school categories and linked it to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the ending of World War Two. Our project partners at the WA Maritime Museum also made a number of staff available for taking school groups on tours of the Fremantle harbour. Given the importance of the anniversary, the school tour, and the wealth of material available about Fremantle’s role in the war effort, we believed this theme would appeal to students. We were wrong and no entries were received in the local history awards’ student categories. It has been another project in which I have been involved that has helped me realise the main reason why it was not successful.

Earlier this year I was approached to help establish a cross-curricula social history project for talented and gifted year 8 students at Kwinana Senior High School (now Gilmore College). It was developed in order to challenge the learning abilities and skills of these students who were now considered to be at-risk because of a need to focus on literacy and numeracy within the school as a whole. The project is a social history of Kwinana Senior High School. This is a particularly relevant topic as, in the not too distant future, the existing school will be demolished to make way for new upper and middle schools.

The year 8 students undertook group research in the following areas:

At this stage, it is planned that the outcome of the social history project will be a website and/or interpretation panels/display in the new buildings. It is believed that these products will have broad appeal as well as acknowledge the school’s signi cant contribution to the development of Kwinana and its community. 8

My role was to guide the project, to show how to access and nd relevant archival records, to teach research and writing skills, to explain the process of oral history interviewing and techniques, to provide advice about liaising with the local Nyungar community and relevant institutions such as the Battye Library, to prepare lesson plans and to generally act as a mentor to the students and the teachers; part of which has been – and I think is integral - to encourage them to think about the importance of history.

It is with this background that it seems the limitation to the Fremantle’s local history awards was the lack of an education program and speci cally a resource kit that could be forwarded to teachers and used in conjunction with the awards. In all honesty, teachers lack the resources and knowledge of local history and heritage to be able to develop such ‘one-off’ projects as was needed for the Fremantle in World War Two topic.

There is now an opportunity to work with our experienced partners such as the Fremantle History Museum and WA Maritime Museum and to liaise with other education of cers working in the heritage eld such as those at the National Trust. This advice can be utilised in the preparation of resource kits which in turn can be implemented in association with the local history awards. Part of the process will also require establishing connections with local teachers and principals which will be time consuming but in the long run will encourage their participation in this important activity. 9

Although I have only touched upon a few examples of the contact that is possible between the community and heritage, one of the reasons that I chose to discuss this subject is because I believe historical societies and other groups like ours have an integral part to play in this area by providing a necessary linkage between the community and the heritage industry professionals. I also believe that events like this conference give us a forum in which to share our experiences – both the trials and the successes.

In closing, I would like to raise my particular concern that in Western Australia opportunities for this type of community engagement and for heritage and history advocacy are often impeded by the tendency to react to bushfire situations, especially with regard to the environment where natural and built heritage are often – or so it would appear - under the threat of development and demolition and the race to protect and preserve consumes resources and energy. This unfortunately acts to distract us - the stakeholders - from working together in more strategic and proactive ways.

In my opinion, the level of partnership and engagement offered in projects like the Fremantle Heritage Festival is not only a good, achievable outcome, but is essential for maintaining wide spread community support for heritage and history.

Fremantle Studies Day, The Royal Western Australian Historical Society (Inc.), State History Conference of Affiliated Societies, September 2005


In 2006 the City of Fremantle commissioned ‘A Guide for Teachers – Fremantle and East Fremantle Local History Awards’. Prepared in collaboration with secondary school teachers, this kit is made available free for teachers and incorporates suggested topics and projects for integrating the local history awards into the classroom, sample lesson plans for early childhood up to upper school and a detailed resource list.

These guidelines for teachers coincided with a review of the local history award categories for young people. This award is now aimed at encouraging teachers and students to explore and present history-based projects in various mediums such as written and digital format. Since this time, a number of entries have been received and have included essays, drama pieces, short documentaries and artwork.


Photograph of ‘History of Fremantle Quilt’. 2007 Young People’s Award First Prize Winner – Year 10, John Curtin College of the Arts.


1 A Brake, ‘A good story to tell: interpreting Fremantle’s history’, Fremantle Studies, v 4, 2005, pp 66-73.

2 K Bizzaca, ‘A History of the Development of the Heritage Movement and the Establishment of Heritage Policy on the City of Fremantle (1955-1982)’, Murdoch University, Masters of Arts Thesis, 1997. For further reading on this topic see: D Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985; P Wright, On Living in an Old Country, Verso, London, 1985; R Hewison, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline, Methuen, London, 1987.

3 Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, 1985, p xxi, ch 2; Wright, On Living in an Old Country, 1985, pp 2 & 19; Hewison, The Heritage Industry, 1987, ch 2.

4 Bizzaca, ‘A History of the Development of the Heritage Movement’, ch 1.

5 See Brake, ‘A good story to tell: interpreting Fremantle’s history’, p 69.

6 For a discussion of these concepts see Brake, ‘A good story to tell: interpreting Fremantle’s history’, pp 69- 73.

7 Kris Bizzaca has been involved in the Fremantle Heritage Festival as a member of its Planning Team since 2000. She was Chair of the Planning Team in 2004 and 2005, and Festival Co-ordinator in 2006 and 2007. Kris has also been media spokesperson for the Festival since 2003.

8 url:, 10/7/2007.

9 In 2007, the process of establishing the suggested connections with local teachers and principals has still not been achieved due to lack of resources.

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