Weighing the value of heritage sites

Implicit in the Jubilee celebrations' heritage theme is the notion that emotional ties to a common home, with which national symbols of the past are endowed, justify closer attention to certain monuments, buildings and sites. As part of this effort, a nation- wide survey is to be conducted to get a full sense of the social and cultural value of such places to people.

Dominant ideas of heritage management associate "important places" with history, architecture, particular communities, uniqueness and nationalism. The authentic and the monumental are deemed the inheritance of future generations that call for protection, under the banner of national identity. Preservation often adheres to the widely-accepted principles enunciated by Australia's Burra Charter.

As the value of places tends to be determined by experts and those in authority, criticism has been directed at the influence of power relations and the marginalisation of the views of ordinary stakeholders. However, a survey to gather the latter can also be problematic. People's affiliation with particular spots might be awakened or heightened by threats, as was the case with Bukit Brown Cemetery which was hardly cherished earlier and the Old National Library Building which was hardly talked about once. A wistful affection for old neighbourhoods, past eras, long-lived amenities and distinct landmarks might also prompt a range of effusive comments.

So, how would one evaluate the merits of arguments invoking "heritage"? The acclaimed Burra Charter, which itself had to be revised to take into account demands for community inclusion, points to how worthy heritage spots enrich people's lives, "often providing a deep and inspirational sense of connection to community and landscape, to the past and to lived experiences". Thus, the meaning of such places to people is also drawn from their uses, rather than just bare claims of sacredness or the "fetishism of the monumental", as some critics put it.

These are issues worth pondering as heritage is given more emphasis on the national stage. There could be debate over the relative allocation of funds for restoration and the appropriate uses of historic buildings renovated at huge cost. Pragmatic considerations will also come into play when one has to decide how much should be preserved, particularly if critical infrastructure projects are held up in the process.

On top of space limitations and perhaps bouts of nimbyism, future planners might also have to contend with hands-off heritage markers, if one is not discerning about what to conserve. Decision-making on what to preserve as heritage should not rest solely with the authorities but must reflect the views of various segments of society if we are to foster a sense of shared identities and experiences.