Report: Burra Charter Review 2013

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Australian national committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Australia ICOMOS) has released a revised edition of its landmark publication The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance.

It has also published seven Practice Notes in a new series designed to explain how Burra Charter principles and processes can be applied in practice, and advises that suggestions of topics for further Practice Notes will be welcome. The Practice Notes are easy to read and should encourage greater confidence in using and applying the Burra Charter.

Significance International congratulates Australia ICOMOS on its commitment to maintaining The Burra Charter’s currency. We’re pleased that the revised edition encourages greater consideration of movable cultural heritage in the context of significant places.

Earlier in 2013, we contributed suggestions to the review process for the Burra Charter and several of the Practice Notes. We are pleased to note that the revised Charter:

Significance 2.0 is referenced not only in the Burra Charter, but also as a Primary Resource in two of the Practice Notes: ‘The Burra Charter and Archaeological Practice’ and ‘Undertaking and assessing cultural significance’.

The Practice Notes share a similar structure which aids comprehension. Each opens with an introductory statement about its Purpose and concludes with a bibliography of online and print Resources. Most include a section on Terminology or Definitions, Concepts and Principles. The core discussion section is frequently presented under the heading Common Issues, in which a frequently-encountered “Issue” is clearly set in its Burra Charter context, and then is ‘unpacked’ and analysed in a useful Guidance sub-section.

Our input appears to have contributed to several minor improvements to the consultation drafts, including the addition of important resources:

Significance International respects The Burra Charter, not least for its influence on the structure of the ‘Significance’ approach for movable cultural heritage. It is largely thanks to The Burra Charter that there is now a successful methodology to underpin the characterisation of the Distributed National Collection and to generate greater awareness of Australia’s significant objects – as described in Significance: a guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections (2001) and its second edition, Significance 2.0: a guide to assessing the significance of collections (2009).

Missed opportunity

At this juncture, the identification and reporting structures for natural and place-based heritage are comparatively highly developed. We applaud the inclusion, indeed expansion, of ‘natural heritage’ in the latest edition of The Burra Charter and feel that this will enhance understanding. By contrast, this edition could have done much more to support movable cultural heritage – objects and collections – as important aspects of place-based significance assessments.

We are disappointed that The Burra Charter’s definition of ‘Cultural significance’ (Article 1.2) has not been updated. Presumptuously, it conflates with ‘place’ a very broad term (‘culture’) that is a fundamental human and societal characteristic. The Burra Charter should acknowledge that cultural significance is expressed in many ways, of which place is one sub-set.

For Australia ICOMOS’s next round of revisions to The Burra Charter and its supporting Practice Notes, we suggest:

  • Including in the Preamble an axiom about the typical tripartite division of heritage into natural, place-based and movable sub-sets. Reference could also be made to how ICOMOS works with equivalent cultural heritage bodies like ICA (International Council of Archives), ICOM (International Council of Museums), IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) and CCAAA (Coordinating Council of Audiovisual Archives Associations) to harmonise actions in response to emergencies through Committees of the Blue Shield. Any other high level collaboration – e.g. with natural heritage colleagues – could be mentioned here.
  • Providing definitions for the terms ‘element’, ‘object’, ‘space’ and ‘views’ – key terms that need interpretation in the light of their close connection with the way ‘place’ is defined (Article 1.1).
  • Giving deeper consideration to the philosophical framework for significance. The Burra Charter states (Article 1.2) that ‘cultural significance is embodied in the place itself’. We suggest that significance cannot be possessed by the place; instead, values and significances are projected by humans onto concepts, memories and substrates.
  • Expanding on the thinking behind the important Explanatory Note at Article 5.1, 'In some cultures, natural and cultural values are indivisible'.
  • Introducing a numbering system for the Practice Notes. At present, referencing must be to the exact title of each Note, and there is no consistency of naming across the ‘family’ of Practice Notes. Some of the titles are quite lengthy and don’t always position the document in the context of The Burra Charter.
  • Including as a Resource for the Practice Note entitled ‘Burra Charter Article 22 – New Work’ the Heritage Council of Victoria’s recent publication of 12 case studies and an issues paper on Industrial Heritage Adaptive Reuse.

Posted on Monday, December 2, 2013 (Archive on Thursday, December 18, 2014)
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