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Heritage identification and protection

Problems with terminology

The cultural heritage significance of a place is generally taken to mean the features that have value for past, present and future generations. Indigenous, natural and built significance can all have cultural heritage significance, although some sections of the community wrongly think that their interest area is the only cultural heritage, others that cultural heritage refers only to historic places. The Burra Charter explains that the terms cultural significance, heritage significance and cultural heritage value are synonymous and that significant values can be aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value. For more information on the Burra Charter visit the ICOMOS web page and click on Charters and publications.


The meaning of the term place also varies and you may need to check it in the relevant heritage legislation or government web pages. The Burra Charter (Article 1.1) defines ‘place’ as any site, area, land, landscape, building, group of buildings or other works, and may include components, contents, spaces and views. ‘Place’ can include memorials, gardens, trees, parks, places of historical events, urban areas, industrial places, archaeological sites, and spiritual and religious places.


Conservation has become an accepted term to describe the preservation of our natural environment, but it applies to all cultural heritage. It is important to remember that almost anything can be conserved; a house, museum, church, factory and objects such as a piece of broken china, a fire or water damaged painting or book, a textile or a piece of furniture. Conservation means looking after something in order to retain its cultural heritage significance. ‘Conservation is based on a respect for the existing fabric, use, associations and meanings. It requires a cautious approach of changing as much as necessary but as little as possible’ (Burra Charter Article 3.1).


Definitions of movable heritage differ. It can be defined as objects that people create or collect that can be artistic, technological or natural in origin and that can be assessed as having aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance or other special value. Movable heritage or objects can range from small domestic items to large transport vehicles, from a single item to a group or collection of objects. It can include machinery, furniture, transport items, religious and ceremonial items, museum objects and collections and collections and archives relating to sporting and community organisations. It can also include the non-tangible, what is felt, known or experienced. These traditions, customs and habits are increasingly being recorded and documented in photographs, films, tapes and disks.


The National conservation and preservation policy for movable cultural heritage was published by the Heritage Collections Committee of the Cultural Ministers Council in 1995. In 1998 the Heritage Collections Council Collections Management and Conservation Working Party drew up new National Conservation and Preservation Policy and Strategy which was published by the Cultural Ministers Council Heritage Collections Council in 1998, it is available for downloading on the CAN web page.


The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts has federal responsibility on the protection of Australia’s movable heritage. For more information write to Cultural Property Section, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, GPO Box 787, Canberra ACT 2601, or email


Documents or archival material held by historical societies may have significance at the local, state or national level and these invaluable records need to be preserved, catalogued and managed. The criteria for assessing the cultural heritage significance of archival materials are similar to those for other movable objects or place. Basically, do the item(s) have aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance or other special value for future generations as well as for the present community?