Asking questions about heritage management in Australia

I sometimes wonder whether archaeology as a discipline in Australia has been bought.

When I began working towards a degree in archaeology in the mid 1990s it was a common view that there were  no jobs and that most of my fellow students and I were unlikely to find any form of employment as archaeologists.  Ten years later, the Australian economy expanded in part through mining and there was a boom in demand for archaeology graduates and experienced archaeologists to work in heritage management. Most employment for archaeologists now comes from the heritage sector and this growth manifests in other areas such as increased enrolments at Universities and new positions in (some) Government regulatory bodies. Development has been very good to archaeology in Australia, but has it been good for heritage management and our knowledge of the past? Maybe? I wonder.

CC Image by Ben Hoskings, http://www.hoskingindustries.com.au/

It’s not a question I can answer here, but what concerns me is that there are not many people asking questions. Consultant archaeologist Gary Vines, who works in Victoria, has a recent post  that I’ve just noticed. He bemoans the lack of strategic planning in cultural heritage management:

There are more Aboriginal archaeological sites being recorded than ever before.Nearly all are identified as part of predevelopment environmental approvals. Management entails salvaging some, leaving a few in reserves (very occasionally with some form of interpretation or on-going management but more often than not – not), of doing nothing – or next to nothing as the ‘contingency arrangements’ that rely on contractors and developers keeping an eye out.

The discipline needs more of this. Critical reflection and open debate – outside of academic journals – about the difficulties, challenges and long-term problems that such a tremendous amount of development will pose for conserving and enhancing the heritage values of particular regions. One Aboriginal group I work with – the Alngith People at Weipa – have had approximately >70% of their country irreversibly damaged through mining. It’s been dug up, reshaped and left to the weeds by thirty years of mining. The situation is worse in cities as landscapes are cut up, and we ‘manage’ points on maps with the least amount of effort possible rather than – as Gary suggests – thinking about the wider landscapes within which they occur.

Government regulators and consultant archaeologists need to be more actively promoting heritage planning at a regional level, cutting across policy and tenure boundaries. Professional archaeology associations need to be leading the way by reviewing and enhancing our codes of ethics. Governments won’t lead, they’re only capable of following and are far too interested in royalites and re-election, consequently promoting an extractive, violent and naive approach to managing a country. It’s just one knee-jerk reaction after another, all terribly short-term thinking that is ultimately about maximising profits. History has lessons for us on such matters, but we’re not much interested in history.

Archaeologist of all persuasions have a  moral obligation to be talking about these issues in openly accessible forums. I know many who do, who submit opinion pieces to newspapers, who get involved in local council issues or heritage organisations. But we need more. Academic publications are fine, but they emerge from the review/publication process too slowly to make any significant influence on public debate in a 6 hour news cycle.

Anyway, I digress. I actually just wanted to suggest you should go and read Gary’s post:

Australian Archaeology: Where is CRM archaeology going?.

 

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