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What Does Heritage mean for the Family Historian?
The T D Mutch Memorial Lecture.

The right of Bruce Baskerville to be identified as the moral rights author of this work is hereby asserted in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000 of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The T D Mutch Memorial Lecture for 2001
What does heritage mean for the family historian?
Society of Australian Genealogists,
Rumsey Hall, 24 Kent Street, Sydney
Thursday 22nd February 2001, 6pm
By Rosalind Strong, Director, NSW Heritage Office
written by Bruce Baskerville


All history is the revival of relics of the past. These are the words apparently spoken by Tom Mutch when peering into a stone vault, seeking information on the occupant that could no longer be revealed by a weathered and worn epitaph.

Heritage is evidence of our history. These are the opening words in the Heritage Council's strategic plan for 2000-2005. Just as Tom Mutch sought to bring the past back to life through his detailed and extensive indexes of the early colonists in New South Wales, so the HSW Heritage Office seeks to conserve the relics from our past so that they can, in turn, be passed on to the next generation as part of our shared, living legacy.

The relics of our past are now known as heritage items. These heritage items can take many forms. Usually they are buildings, especially houses and public offices, but they can also be shipwrecks, gardens, landscapes and movable objects such as trains, quilts and even documents. The term 'relic' survives in heritage jargon to refer to archaeological evidence of non-Aboriginal settlement in NSW which is older than 50 years.

The Heritage Office maintains the State Heritage Register and the State Heritage Inventory. These are rather like the Mutch Indexes, but instead of listing pioneering families and individuals, they list places and objects, many of which are probably associated with the people listed in the Indexes.

Centenary of Federation

This year is the centenary of the federation that created the Commonwealth of Australia. This important national occasion is something that I have been able to appreciate through an understanding of my own family history.

Maybanke Anderson (nee Selfe), is my (relationship). She formed the first Women's Federal League in Sydney in 1898, and was also a founder of the Women's Literary Society and the Womanhood Suffrage League, both important organizations in the campaign for federation. Maybanke was a committed federalist, and through her editorship of Woman's Voice and her contributions to the Australian Federalist she emphasized the 'spiritual' aspect of federation. The term 'federal spirit' was coined in opposition to the idea of 'states rights' and emphasized that patriotic enthusiasm for federation was as much a matter of the heart as it was of the head.

(something personal about her - a story?)

Norman Selfe, Maybanke's brother, was 'an all-round engineer', who designed the first concrete quay wall in Sydney, the first ice-making machines in the colony, two torpedo boats for the New South Wales colonial navy, and many other engineering and electric installations. He visited many cities in North America and Europe, and designed parks in Sydney such as Belmore Park, and a cantilevered harbour bridge from Dawes Point to McMahons Point in 1903 that was accepted but did not proceed due to a change of government. He also taught mechanical drawing and was a strong advocate of technical education. Like his sister Maybanke he was an active member of the Royal Australian Historical Society, and became its second president in 1902.

By seeing Belmore Park today I can understand something of my (relation) as the civic man, the cultured man who contributed to his city and country. I can also understand, through the heritage listing of Belmore Park, that this verdant expression of the man is of cultural significance to the whole community.

The Barton Lectures are currently being held in venues around Sydney. Named after our first Prime Minister, the various lectures explore the ideas of diversity and unity in our history, of what holds us together as a nation.

I am struck by the way that family historians engage in a similar pursuit. Every family history has its threads that unite and provide family members with an intimate identity, while at the same time being able to accept the diversity that the 'black sheep', the gifted, and the ordinary members of the family bring.

In celebrating our centenary of federation, and the historians that help us understand our national history, we are also celebrating the strengths of one of our society's core components, the families of Australia, and the family historians who help us know our personal histories.

Access to historical records for researchers

Family historians, as all historians, will be well aware of the crucial role that historical records play in research, and of being able to access those records.

In heritage work we try to encourage historians to look, not only to paper records, but to the records within the wider environment. Landscapes, buildings, streets they can all be 'read' and provide us with much information about the past and its importance for the present, as Tom Mutch was well aware.

As family historians you will be well aware of this, and no doubt are often engaged in reading parts of our environment, such as cemeteries and headstones, perhaps old family farmsteads and even shipwrecks.

Of course, the role of paper-based records is not diminished by being able to read environments. In many cases they become even more important in helping to understand the 'why' and 'how' of the past, as well as the 'when' and 'where'.

I know that many family historians, as well as other historians, have been expressing concerns at the closures of access to historical public records. The Intestacy records are a case in point.

The Heritage Council is fully aware of the critical role of good historical research in establishing the significance of heritage items. Similarly, good historical research is needed in establishing good family histories.

The Heritage Council's History Advisory Panel has recently expressed its concerns about the closures and potential closures of access to historical records, and these matters are currently being taken up with the relevant government agencies.

The Heritage Council, as a government agency, cannot advocate on these matters in the same public way that a civic organization such as the SAG can, but by quiet persuasion within the corridors of government we hope to support the efforts by family historians and other historians in ensuring that access to records for historical research can be open and equitable.

I am also aware that family historians across Australia are taking part in the campaign by the Australasian Federation of Family History Organizations to have identified data in the 2001 census retained as part of our national archives for future family and other research.

If this is achieved, and the first census to survive for 173 years in which the personal details of persons and families is retained, this will be a remarkable and historic achievement.

Family historians in Britain and the United States have long had the good fortune to be able to reconstruct their families at regular points in time in the past due to the regular retention of identifiable census materials.

For Australian family historians of the future to be able to do the same it will be crucial that as many people as possible answer 'yes' to the census retention question when completing their census forms in August this year.

I am sure that members of the Heritage Council would be willing to be part of the proposed national advertising campaign to make everyone aware of the importance of this question.

A strong 'yes' result will mean that Australians of the future will be able to research and know their family histories in a way that we today cannot. It will be a significant legacy to future generations, and may also provide support to the present campaigns to ensure that historical records remain open to access by historical researchers such as family historians.

Links between heritage system and family history

There are many links between the heritage systems and family history. Family historians research and uncover their family histories, and so ensure that knowledge and understandings of the deeds of our ancestors remains a part of our living national culture.

Heritage practitioners similarly research and uncover the histories of places and objects to ensure that knowledge and the significance of such places also remains a part of our living national culture.

Heritage places were, of course, created by people in the past. People that are the ancestors of so many Australians today. The little cottage in a country town listed on a local council's heritage LEP was built and lived in by women and men who worked, loved, laughed, cried and experienced all of the emotions that make us human. They also raised their families in such cottages, and their descendants live today perhaps nearby, perhaps far away, but always able to return to that cottage and see and feel something of how their ancestors may have lived.

The town hall, the government office, the jail, the orphanage, the farm, the station, the fishing harbour, the mine these are all places that can end up on heritage lists, but they are also places that were made and used and lived by people.

Heritage is sometimes accused of being only about buildings, about architecture, about physical fabric. That may have been true in the past.

Now, however, heritage managers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the human factor to the idea that places are as much about the people who made the places as they are about the physical nature of the place.

This is generally called 'social significance', and refers to the esteem with which a community holds a place.

It is important that family historians, who must surely know some places so well and so intimately, and who understand the esteem with which they are held because of their associations with a family and its history, take a good look at heritage.

The old family house or farm may readily spring to mind, but so might the orphanage where an ancestor was raised, or the shipwreck from which an ancestor survived and struggled ashore in a new land, or the lonely grave beside an overgrown track in which an ancestor has returned to the earth and become a part of the landscape they helped create.

Of course, not every place will be of such significance that it should be heritage listed because someone's ancestor lived there. The Heritage Council has developed criteria for the listing of a place on the State Heritage Register and on local council LEPs. These criteria provide an objective means for determining and assessing a places heritage significance. Some places will cross that threshold, but not all.

However, because a place does not get heritage listed does not mean that it has no cultural significance. Heritage listing is not the only way in which the significance of a place can be appreciated and managed.

Descendants may still live in and occupy a place - that in itself is conservation. As a family historian you will probably include in your family histories references to and pictures of the places where your ancestors lived and worked. As your extended family comes to know of these places and to appreciate the importance of their role in your family history they will further value such places.

In the end, heritage is about valuing what we have inherited and ensuring that it can be bequeathed to our descendants. Heritage listing is one way in which that can occur, but by no means the only way. Family historians play an important role in providing people with histories of places and so encouraging an appreciation of such places which will also ensure that they are available for future generations to experience and enjoy.


Heritage systems in Australia do focus on the management and conservation of our material culture - on the places and objects. Family historians focus on the people and families that created, used and maintained such places and objects - in so many ways, family historians provide the meanings for such places and objects.

Learning to 'read' places will provide family historians with much more information about their ancestors. It is equally important that the paper-based records survive and are also available to family historians for their research. This applies equally to the historical records already in the archives and to the future records yet to be created, such as the 2001 census, that must also be retained in our archives and made available to future researchers.

We both, family historians and heritage practitioners, seek to conserve what we value in our shared inheritance so that we can bequeath this to the coming generations.

Closure, thanks

Murray-Smith, S., 'Selfe, Norman (1839-1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, MUP, Melbourne 1976: 100-101
Norman Selfe submitted a proposed design for Belmore Park in front of Central Station to the Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and its Suburbs in 1909; in Ashton, P.,The Accidental City: planning Sydney since 1788, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney 1993: 36