Big Things get even Bigger…

I wrote this piece for The Conversation, published this morning: Australia’s ‘Big Problem’ – What To Do With Our Ageing Super-sized Statues?

Australians have been fascinated by “Big Things” since the 1960s, when statues such as Adelaide’s Big Scotsman and the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour were opened to great fanfare. These super-sized structures can be found in other countries, too. The United States is known for its Big Donut, Canada has the world’s largest fiddle, but the attachment to Big Things here has an almost patriotic quality.

Many will recall childhood road trips punctuated by such highlights as a giant Merino sheep or a towering rocking horse, or an assortment of fruits – the Big Avocado, the Big Orange and the Big Mango. When the latter was reported “missing” in 2014, the news made national headlines, only to be later revealed as a publicity stunt.

But in a nation now littered with at least 200 Big Things, there is a sizeable problem. What to do with them as they age and wear out? Many Big Things were built cheaply from concrete and fibreglass – materials that inevitably fade and decay.

It’s since been picked up by ABC News, the NZ Herald, Australian Geographic and Brisbane Times, amongst others. Who would have thought people felt so strongly about Australia’s big things? (I did!)

Update, 19th September 2017: Perth friends – tune in to ABC Radio Perth at 2pm (your time); Sydney buds, tune in to ABC Radio Sydney at 3:10pm; Canberra folks – ABC Radio Canberra at 3:30pm; Sunshine Coast friends – tune in to ABC Radio Sunshine Coast at 4:20pm; NSW pals – tune in to your local ABC Radio for Statewide Drive at 5:40pm. It’s going to be a busy afternoon. People really want to talk big things!

Update 2, 19th September 2017: My article was discussed for the final ten minutes on ABC TV’s ‘The Drum’ panel news program. You should be able to see this on iView if you’re quick!

Update 3, 20th September 2017: Newcastle folks – tune in to ABC Radio Newcastle at 9:10am; Sydney friends, tune in to 2SER FM at 11:15am; Canberra pals, I’m on your radio again, ABC Canberra Radio Afternoons, at 1:45pm. All my pals in Melbourne – I’ll be part of a call-back segment on ABC Radio Melbourne after 2pm. And my Adelaide family!! Tune in from 4:05pm your time to ABC Radio Adelaide to hear me natter on!

Update 4, 23rd September 2017: Australian viewers can now watch my interview (filmed live) on Channel 7 Australia’s Weekend Sunrise. It may be accessible outside Australia, but this is dependent on geo-location.

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Australia’s ‘Big Things’

Once again, Australia’s collection of ‘Big Things’ has attracted the attention of international journalists (Phil Mercer, Australia’s obsession with ‘big things’, BBC News, 20 June 2017).

If you want a more detailed take on this phenomenon, next week at the Society of Architectural Historians Australia & New Zealand annual conference (University of Canberra, 5-8 July), I’ll be presenting my paper, Australia’s BIG Dilemma: Regional/National Identities, Heritage Listing and Big Things.

BigThings

For the record, I had put this paper together last year and it was under review in the early months of this year, so rather than jumping on BBC’s bandwagon, I was ahead of the game 😉

It will eventually be published as a double-blind peer-reviewed paper in conference proceedings, but in the mean-time, here’s a taste:

Super-sized structures that mimic or quote smaller ‘real world’ things have been a feature of our landscape for many centuries. Largely as a result of the introduction of the motorcar, a new phase of structures with amplified proportions swept North America from the 1920s: roadside cafes, service stations and hotels utilised what David Gebhard labelled ‘programatic architecture’ to capture the attention of passing motorists. This trend first appeared in Australia in the 1960s and peaked in popularity in the 1980s. Numerous ‘Big Things’ (to use the common Australian label) have been constructed in the past decade, such as the Big Golden Gumboot in Tully, QLD (2003), and thus the trend continues. Recent years have also seen the emergence of a ‘Big’ dilemma for local and State authorities, as Australia’s earliest Big Things start to decay, go bankrupt, or attract criticism for the outdated versions of Australian history and identity that they seemingly promote (as with the Big Prawn in Ballina [NSW}, the Big Lobster in Kingston [SA] and the Big Captain Cook in Cairns [QLD]). These roadside attractions have become significant landmarks with many layers of social, aesthetic and cultural importance at local and national levels, and their heritage value has begun to be acknowledged. In 2009 the Big Pineapple (Nambour, QLD) was inscribed on the Queensland Heritage Register, and as other landmarks have come under threat of closure or demolition, debate about the future of these structures has quickly followed. This paper will historicise Australia’s Big Things and consider the emerging heritage dilemma, and in doing so will reflect on the changing socio-political landscape that these architectural features occupy.

Will the death of ‘starchitect’ Zaha Hadid bring life to more of her designs?

I wrote a piece for The Conversation over the weekend:

Zaha Hadid built a career that was both celebrated and divisive. At the time of her death last week, Hadid, 65, had achieved an array of professional accolades including the Pritzker Prize (2004) and RIBA Gold Medal (2015). But she was also caught up in controversies over major projects such as her now-rejected design for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Stadium.

Hadid was a “starchitect”. Her designs for projects ranging from the London 2012 Olympics to the world’s largest airport passenger terminal in Beijing attracted international acclaim.

But what happens when a celebrity architect’s career ends abruptly, leaving numerous projects mid-construction, awaiting approval, or still …[read more]

 

[EDIT 5 April, 2016]

It seems this article struck a chord, as Architecture AU have picked up the piece too. The talented Sara Savage of RRR (102.7FM Melbourne)’s Parallel Lines programme has also asked me to chat live tomorrow (Wednesday, 6th April 2016, approx. 10:30am), so if you’re in Melbourne or want to listen online live, make sure you tune in!

Heritage Sites of Prominent Scientists: East Canada Edition

Over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling around parts of eastern Canada for research relating to my PhD.  At the same time, I’ve been trying to visit as many local heritage sites as I can, ranging from the fantastic Louisbourg to the equally well interpreted Dundurn Castle.

What has quickly become apparent, however, is that there is a significant collection of historic house museums or heritage sites in this part of Canada dedicated to scientists, inventors and ‘Great Men’ of history.  I managed to see a few of these, including Melville House (Bell Homestead), the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site and Museum, and the Marconi Museum.

Alexander Graham Bell Museum window

The quality of these sites varied quite dramatically.  The Alexander Graham Bell site was well maintained, perhaps even over-staffed, and though suffering from the wear and tear of any museum several decades old, its sheer number of artefacts and pacing of the themed areas made it thoroughly interesting to visit.  The architecture of the site greatly enhanced the overall feeling of place, both within and without.  The triangular design Bell used in many of his air and watercraft designs punctuate the fabric of the building, from banks of cheese-wedge windows to sweeping triangular gables at the entrance. Though not without faults, this is a site which uses its artefacts, its architectural features and the life of the man at it’s centre to great effect.

Melville House

Melville House, known variously as the Bell Homestead in reference to its most famous occupant, tells a more confused story.  Limited to two buildings, the original house and a relocated telegraph exchange, the site suffers from various maladies. Occupied for a few years by Alexander Graham Bell as a young man, the site tries to balance the comparatively small storyline of Bell’s time there with the much more significant lifetime of his father and extended family.  Torn, it would seem, between needing to encourage visitors to make the trip and wanting to pay tribute to the work of the rest of the Melville/Bell family, the site is a hodge-podge of half-finished narratives and confusing artefact displays.

To begin with, visitors are asked to self-guide themselves through the telegraph exchange building, which is aching for more thoughtful curation, more artefacts, and better information for visitors.  The fact that it was relocated next to the Melville House, seemingly because of the link between the telegraph and Melville’s famous inhabitant (Bell), is understandable if not disappointing.

Telegraph Exchange at Melville House

Once through the telegraph exchange building, a guide waits to take visitors through Melville House, which exists in a roped-off, frozen-in-time state of overstuffed despair.  Each room appears agonisingly pieced together, and upon further inspection it happens that much of the decor and artefacts were not owned by the Melville/Bell family.  While the guides are quick to point out that the house has been furnished with a combination of original and purchased “of the period” pieces, it is concerning that some of the most questionable artefacts have been brought in and placed at the behest of a curator, rather than belonging to the original occupants.  By way of example, many of the Scottish-themed paintings and drawings scattered around the house are not genuine Melville/Bell artefacts, and seem to have been placed there to play up the family’s Scottish ancestry.

While well cared for, and certainly led by informative guides, Melville House seems destined to remain caught between the genuine history of the site and the superimposed narratives of the telegraph technology, the work of Alexander Graham Bell, and even that of the well-trod Scottish emigrant story.

Marconi Museum

And finally, to end with the most concerning and confusing of all, the Marconi National Historic Site. Located in a remote part of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the Marconi Site is intended to commemorate the work of Guglielmo Marconi, who built transmission towers on the site at Cape Breton to send messages over the Atlantic to England. The site appears run down, sparsely informed with few artefacts, and deathly quiet.  Outside the building are the remains of some of the transmission towers – or at least, there might be; the signs point visitors in a specific direction but the site is overgrown and any remaining industrial archaeology is now hidden.

It is possible that the Marconi site lacks the emotional connection to the surrounding area that the two Bell-related sites have in abundance.  Marconi was Italian born and died in Rome; Bell, though Scottish in origin, spent a great many years in Canada and lived out his retirement in Nova Scotia.  But what I feel is more concerning is that these three sites are all nationally recognised heritage locations; the Alexander Graham Bell Museum and the Marconi Museum both part of the Parks Canada portfolio.  To see such a variance in interpretation, curatorial policies and site-use suggests a confusion at the core; made all the more concerning by recent talk of budget cuts within the heritage sector in Canada.

Finally, in observing just three ‘Great Men’ sites, it is possible to make the comment that without a strong central narrative and a substantial bank of personal artefacts, these types of museums/sites will struggle long term – regardless of the importance of the achievement they’re commemorating.

Divorced heritage

her·it·age

noun /ˈheritij/ 
heritages, plural

  • Property that is or may be inherited; an inheritance
  • Valued objects and qualities such as cultural traditions, unspoiled countryside, and historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations
  • A special or individual possession; an allotted portion

Heritage.   It is a term that can be a weapon, a drawcard, a badge of honour or an obligation.  It is used to assist education, community development, social cohesion and identity construction.  Some fear its financial and political implications, others seek it out as a vehicle for propaganda.    Many innocently assume it is a term that guarantees authenticity.

So troublesome and multifarious is the term ‘heritage’ that in recent decades we’ve found it necessary to tack additional words on, rather like goods carriages to a powerful locomotive.  We now need to situate the term (is it ‘Cultural‘? ‘Built‘? ‘Intangible‘?), and we also need to explain its genealogy.  Does the heritage belong to a ‘world‘, ‘national‘ or ‘regional‘ canon? Is it part of a ‘vernacular‘ or ‘indigenous‘ network of cultural and historical remnants and traditions?  Is it part of a ‘rural‘ or perhaps ‘industrial‘ environment?

While this summary of heritage subcategories might be useful within the established frameworks of heritage management, there are further descriptions of heritage that are much harder to pin down.  These examples of heritage fit into the subcategories I’ve mentioned above, but have additional elements that require further definition.  This is the heritage of disputed ownership, of painful pasts, of extinct cultures and remote locations.  This is the heritage that we often forget exists until an act of terrorism or neglect sees its destruction.

Several terms have been suggested for this heritage, such as ‘dissonant‘, ‘uninherited‘ or ‘disputed.’  These terms are often found scattered through heritage studies, and indeed are meritorious when applied thoughtfully.  My dilemma, however, is that I believe there is a category of heritage which doesn’t quite fit into these descriptions.

In several former colonial countries (India being the particular location of interest for my own research) there exists an array of structures that are acknowledged by both the former imperial power and former colony as being of heritage status.  The structures may be unpopular in their host country (for instance, the India Gate in New Delhi has survived several campaigns to have it pulled down, being regarded as an unnecessary reminder of imperial rule), or they may simply have been absorbed into the surrounding fabric, aesthetically still imperial but altered by paint, foliage or general decay to a point that they become easy to ignore.

Every now and then a swell of interest will see these heritage structures become important again: in India it often happens that a wealthy developer proposes demolition of a colonial-era building, provoking a local and sometimes bi-lateral (ie. from the former imperial power) outcry. Other heritage structures might be recognised as important, such as the fantastic Roxburgh Building in the Calcutta Botanic Gardens, but have as yet seen no conservation despite the best of intentions by local and former imperial powers.

Roxburgh Building, Calcutta

These buildings, halted mid-demolition or slowly disappearing under the weight of foliage and decay, are hard to describe.  Certainly they aren’t the subject of dispute, as both the former and current ‘owners’ of the heritage recognise their importance.  Similarly the heritage hasn’t been disowned or uninherited.  Further, while under threat of collapse or decay due to negligence, they aren’t the target of missiles or bombs, and therefore aren’t subject to any of the legislation regarding cultural heritage during war.

A further issue arises when you start trying to give them a genealogy or delegate responsibility.  It would be incorrect to call this heritage nationally important, because in most cases the current owners (and thus former subjects) consider the heritage as regionally important at best.  The former imperial powers are generally prevented by legal complications from categorizing the heritage as ‘national’ to them (despite it being external to their present borders), and this can be seen as a rather aggressive approach that might cause considerable upset in the former colony. Moreover, if the heritage isn’t regarded as nationally important, it can’t progress to the next step of internationally or globally important – and in almost all cases, the heritage in question isn’t of this callibre anyway.

So where does this leave the troublesome group of formerly-colonial, rather neglected but not disputed heritage as described above?  The only term I have thought of which comes close to describing this phenomena is ‘divorced‘.  Much like modern divorce, which sees a negotiation of physical assets which both parties have at least some interest in, divorced heritage is retained by one nation previously involved in partnership with the other nation.  The term also goes some way to hint at the heritage’s origins and current situation, much as the term signifies certain elements of a person’s past.  Finally the term is suggestive of the potential issues that could plague the relationship between the two parties that are interested in the heritage – while many divorces are amicable, squabbles and past hurts can get in the way of a successful post-marriage friendship.

The romantic in me also likes the small sliver of hope that such a term allows – it acknowledges a relationship now ended, but it also accepts that the heritage in question has meaning to both parties (even if these meanings might be different).  In an ideal world, it also leaves the door open to a greater and more successful working relationship later on.

Bank of New South Wales, Queen Street Mall, Brisbane

Bank of New South Wales, Queen Street Mall, Brisbane

One of my favourite buildings in Brisbane, the former Bank of New South Wales Building is now home to a modern Australian bank but shows minimal signage on the exterior.  The buildings pictured in the far left of this picture line the pedestrianized Queen Street Mall – many of these lovely buildings exist in facade form only, with entirely modern interiors and additions hidden from view.

Resurrecting History

Though previously historical re-enactments and related phenomena have passed me by without me giving them much consideration, I’ve recently had cause to ponder the entire concept in more depth.  Purely by coincidence I discovered the fantastic Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm television series’ at around the same time that I was finishing a conference paper on Highland-themed open air museums in Scotland and Canada, and the combination of the two has really made me ponder the role of historical re-enactment in modern society.

Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Scotland. Source - Museums Galleries Scotland.

One of the main criticisms of any historical re-enactment, whether they be a recreated historical landscape with costumed actors (interpreters), a working period farm used for archaeological and anthropological investigation (rather like the Victorian/Edwardian Farms), or even a recreation of a historic battle, is that it is impossible to achieve any degree of authenticity.  Some go so far as to call the whole gamut fake and misleading: what we are actually doing when we re-enact or re-create is not miraculously going back in time but instead fashioning a 21st century understanding, complete with our own period’s prejudices and attitudes, of an era that often lacks sufficient archaeological and historical documentation and is therefore impossible to replicate.

I can understand and sympathise with this view, as in the wrong hands any form of historical recreation could be mangled, misappropriated or downright Disneyfied.  This is a scary thought, and one that has cropped up regularly since open-air museums and historical reneactments gained popularity in the early 20th Century.

On the other hand, however, historical recreation can be a fantastic way to engage with a community that might otherwise have had little interest in the subject matter, or may have been put off by the traditional modes of communicating it.  Through my research on the Highland open-air museums, it’s evident that they are regularly the most popular tourist attractions in their region; they act as conduits for the local Gaelic and farming communities; they encourage hands-on learning experiences through demonstrations and classes, and in some cases they even keep an important dialect – Gaelic – alive.

Edwardian Farm (BBC). Source - BBC TV Blog.

In the case of this new breed of archaeological experimentation in the form of the Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm and their precursor Tales from the Green Valley, the benefits are obvious: reaching a nation-wide audience and achieving significant viewer numbers, it’s not hard to imagine that many more people now have a grasp of the challenges of rural and domestic life in periods that were otherwise condemned to academic papers and dry history texts.  Better still, these series’ aren’t Big Brother-esque, instead presenting the subject matter in earnest, intelligent and candid commentary from archaeologists, historians and agriculturalists (bravo!).

Of course in both the tv series’ and open-air museums cases, a fair amount of editing (in the case of the tv series’, quite literally) goes on in order to present an entertaining and engaging product to the public. Much of rural life is filled with poverty, humdrum and back-breaking hard work, and while this is addressed in the open-air museums and tv series, it’s presented in such a way that the viewer/visitor only experiences it for a limited amount of time (the museums close at the end of the day, the tv show finishes at its allotted time).

So how to weigh-up the pros and cons of these forms of historical re-enactment? On the one hand it must be acknowledged that authenticity is an elusive (and some might say impossible) dream, and that entertainment and engagement with the audience does call for editing and an element of theatre.  But do these downsides outweigh the positives? I for one am happy to accept a degree of stage-management and imitation if it means larger and more diverse groups within the community are seeing (and perhaps even interacting with) a version of history that might otherwise be touched by only a few. While I do have a healthy fear of the Disney-fying Monster that stalks these historical reenactments, I have faith that – in the case of the Highland open-air museums and the BBC’s Farm series at least – the expectations of credibility and integrity imposed by the public will ensure appropriate research and presentation standards in the future.

Further reading: Highland Village Museum (Nova Scotia); Highland Folk Museum (Scotland); Victorian Farm (BBC); Edwardian Farm (BBC); Alex Langlands website.