Here’s to Humble Heritage
Guest post this week is from Ailsa Brackley du Bois, local writer with interests in architecture, heritage and design.
Here’s to Humble Heritage
(Originally published in the 2014 Spring Fever issue (no 18) of The Learmonth Thunderer. Updated in February 2015 for BE Network.)
By Ailsa Brackley du Bois
I’m an admirer of buildings that fit under a category I like to call ‘humble heritage.’ By this I mean all sorts of little buildings, both residential and commercial, generally over 50 years of age. They may now appear conspicuously modest or quaint, especially in the context of the extravagances of our current age. They’re often rather run-down and shabby, but almost always charming in one way or another. If fortune has shone their way, they may even have been sympathetically restored.
To me, humble heritage structures contribute a whole lot of character to the space around them. The impression they give is invariably made all the richer by the implied reality of their interesting working past and social history. I never imagine that past times were perfect – Not at all. Life is often troublesome and difficult, and all the more so as you strip back the decades and the services that correspond with the advancements humanity has made over time. I sometimes think one of the most valuable aspects of holding heritage values is commemorating the grittiness of what previous generations and early settlers went through to bring us to where we are now. It’s about commitment to place, community identity, cultural evolution and respect for our forebears ultimately, as well as the hope of passing on stories from one generation to the next.
I’m not a die-hard preservationist though. I don’t think buildings should necessarily be left as they are or refurbished in their exact old-fashioned style and frozen in time or anything, especially if they’re really not practical anymore. But where possible, I think they should be given some tender loving care and paint and polish, to protect their original fabric and building materials from further decay. With careful tweaking of their physical features internally, some chunks of money spent in a discerning manner and some imagination such dear little old buildings can usually be made to become quite serviceable.
I’ve googled my term ‘humble heritage’ a few times now, but can’t find any mention of it, so am beginning to suspect, in a somewhat conceited fashion, that I have coined it myself. Of course, I realize the concept itself is not new at all – Museums all over Australia and the world are jammed full of examples of early settler buildings, and lest we forget, our very own Sovereign Hill & Gold Museum just down the road.
A decade or so ago, while visiting the (then) newly opened Australian Museum in Canberra, I found myself staring, somewhat aghast, at the exact 1940s kitchen I had at home, and used every day and night, at the time, still in original condition. It was such a sweet kitchen and quite adequate enough for our needs, that it seemed utterly bizarre that it had already been relegated to museum status, as a curiousity from the past.
Anyway, I like to think that I may have invented a new catch phrase with ‘humble heritage.’ There is an established field for debate known as ‘class and heritage’ that is often discussed at academic conferences globally. An academic I work with recently exclaimed ‘higgeldy-piggeldy heritage!’ when referring to the eclectic neighbourhood character of Ballarat East, and I thought “Oh, so that’s what he calls it.” But, I like my phrase better, so I’m sticking to it. I even presented a paper on ‘Humble Heritage and Fragile Fabric’ to a room full of global scholars at the biannual ‘Association of Critical Heritage Studies’ Conference last December at A.N.U. (the Australian National University.) It seemed to be well received, so I’m now intending to write a proper article on the subject.
Why is this relevant to places like Ballarat East? Well, I suspect most people involved in the BE Network probably already grasp the importance of it, given the extraordinarily significant social and cultural history that underpins Ballarat East. But really, the topic is just as relevant across the city, into the surrounding regions, across the Goldfields, our nation and indeed all over the world.
I have a particular personal interest in Learmonth. As you may have noticed, Learmonth has quite a few ‘humble heritage’ gems along High Street, as the folk at the Learmonth & District Historical Society well know. I realize many of these homes and their outbuildings are now in fragile condition and may be bone chillingly cold and drafty to inhabit, and need an awful lot of work, but I still love the look of them. They make a major contribution to the streetscape, in my opinion. These enchanting humble heritage cottages, stores and commercial structures are a major part of what caused my hub and I to fall head over heels in love with Learmonth four years ago. So, I hope this little article is helpful in some way, and contributes to further conversations on the topic.
High St Learmonth
A handful of my personal favourites are pictured here. I’m very fond of them just as they are. I also see so much potential for them to live on into the future, with new promise and purpose, and continue to enhance the physical beauty of Learmonth. I’m really hoping that happens, but I guess that’s no surprise to those of you who know me!
Ailsa Brackley du Bois has a writing and communications business called The Editorial Suite.
Thanks Ailsa, it’s great to know that we have friends in many places who are happy to support us and our work in Ballarat East.