My grandfather has built many houses. The house I know best is the one that sits on a corner block, a stone’s throw from the Rye foreshore. I have slept many nights in familiar-smelling sheets in that house, dragged shoes full of sand across the carpet in that house, worried about zits in the sun-filled bathroom of that house, and eaten thickly buttered raison toast in bed with Gran in that house. This was the last house my grandfather built.
My grandfather is no longer with us, and a few months ago Gran moved out, into a nursing home. The house is still there, and I think a lot about it and its riotous garden, which I imagine right now is a giddy wash of spring colour. I haven’t been there since Gran left, but I imagine that everything is still in its place: the two big moss-green armchairs in which my grandparents watched the footy and The Bill; Gran’s beloved piano in the front room topped with a photo of two-year-old me playing it; the mustard-upholstered chrome-legged school by the kitchen bench, next to the phone and the bowl of liquorice allsorts. If I sat there again, I might imagine talking politics with my grandfather while he does the washing up.
Last time I visited Gran at the house, she tried to give me the photo of little Andreana playing the piano. I conveniently forgot to take it home; it’s still sitting there on the piano. Because when I think about it, what I actually want is for that house and those things to be there forever, in the same spots. I want the house to remain as it is, always.
Humans, stories and things
I have heard it said that humans are the only creatures that tell stories, and that this, in fact, is the defining feature of our humanity. It is the story we tell of ourselves – where we come from, where we are going – that is, in a sense, who we are. Our narrative is our identity; we are our story.
I have just finished a wonderful stint at the National Trust, who describe themselves as story-tellers. The interesting thing about this organisation is that it is chiefly occupied by material places and objects. I have often pondered this: why are these things so important? Why is it not enough to just tell stories; why is it important that they are somehow told while standing in the servant quarters of the ornate mansion, or hovering close to the hand-printed floral silk cape?
The reason, I think, is because as enfleshed creatures, our ability to remember is rested in some profound way on the ground on which we walk and the things we can pick up in our hands. Our stories, it seems, are best served when they are embodied in physicality. This is why I want my grandparents’ house to be there forever, with the same fiddly lock on the front gate and the magpie statue still perched by the heater.
From what I understand, the rooting of memory and story in physical place is, for many Aboriginal people, extraordinarily strong – to the point where the land and all it contains is sacred. I think that settler people like myself only experience the very beginning of that connection, because our relationship to this place is so recent and so fraught. This is why we often crave a return to our homelands (for me this is in Europe), to find where our ancestors lived and where they are buried. Our homeland is where a large part of our story – and therefore our identity – abides.
Why we need heritage conservation in Australia
If our identity-forming stories find their homes in the physical places and objects of our lives, then it is vitally important that these things are conserved. This, I believe, is the raison d'être of heritage conservation.
In Australia, the work of heritage conservation is critical. We are a country with a tense, conflicted relationship with our physical place, because we are a nation founded on a place that is stolen from others. It was not just the land that was thieved, but its memory-containing markers as well: the stone houses knocked to the ground, the farm land destroyed by sheep, the water sources muddied and fenced off.* It was an erasure not just of things but of memories; an attempt to render the land terra nullius (because it wasn’t), and make room for the physical markers and legitimising stories of a new people.
Even though founded on theft, the physical markers of the colonisers and all that came after them (where they lived, what they wore, on what they sat) are deeply important. These are the frames on which to hang the stories of the past. And whether we like it or not, these are the stories that tell us who we are.
When we are able to celebrate our 80,000+ year old civilisation (the oldest continuing culture in the world!), moan the way it has been disrespected and abused and acknowledge its resilience, remember the colonisers and the destructive, wild and brave lives they lived, and embrace the memories of our many waves of migrants – it is then that we will know our story. And when we come to terms with our story – look it in the face, know its shape and its texture, its beautiful bits and its ugly bits – it is then that we will be able to heal as a nation.
Our stories are our essence, and our humanity seems to demand that these stories are embodied in stone, dirt, sap, water, wool, acrylic, wood and flesh. The physical places and objects of our lives contain so much of who we are – and this is why heritage conservation is so very important.
* If you’re interested in reading more about the agricultural practices of Aboriginal people in Australia, check out Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu.