Why heritage is as much about the future as the past

Professor Hannah Lewi and Dr James Lesh tell us why urban and cultural heritage is more dynamic and future-oriented than is recognised – and why that matters for our cities.

Image of the Melbourne Convention Centre on a sunny day

Heritage has long been associated with ‘the past’ and understood as a preoccupation of those who – through nostalgia-tinted glasses – see that past as something to preserve over the possibilities of the future.

This is in part down to how heritage has put itself out there,” says Research Fellow in Urban and Cultural Heritage at the University of Melbourne, Dr James Lesh. “It’s too often framed as an apparent battle between heritage and conservation against progress and development.

A new series of Melbourne MicroCerts in Urban Culture and Heritage seeks to challenge this vision of heritage. Designed for professionals with an interest in sustainability, history and heritage, the program focuses on the innovative things happening in the reframing of heritage, providing practical tools and new ways of thinking.

We want to encourage people to think innovatively about the possibilities of heritage concepts and places. What is heritage currently doing? What could it do better? How can heritage address complex histories, community expectations and environmental imperatives?” says Dr Lesh.

The MicroCerts highlight what is already understood by many in the sector: that it is a dynamic, ever-changing field concerned with sustainable development, sophisticated design, people and the future.

As Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, Hannah Lewi, says “heritage can be defined as ‘what we do with history in the present. As custodians for future generations, it’s not counterintuitive to think of heritage as just as tied to the present and the future as it is to the past.

Like everything else, heritage is subject to the changing world around it. In response to shifts in cultural and social values, and to the challenges posed by climate change and technological advancement, urban and cultural heritage must adapt to the preoccupations of the present.

Take for example the COVID-19 pandemic. With restrictions on movement and activity, people's relationship with place was altered. Place became more important; the way we want to use space changed, particularly outdoors and outside the home.

Places that people might not have used before – because they exercise at the gym, or socialise at a cafe – suddenly become important. We’re now walking in a local garden run by the National Trust or enjoying time at a heritage golf club that's now open to the public.

Technology is another force making heritage more dynamic. New technologies allow reworking of old processes for documenting buildings and structures. We now have the means to collect more information about our buildings and places – and to do more with that information. Tech like LiDAR allows the digital scanning of buildings and the creation of high-resolution 3D representations. Machine learning combined with access to unprecedented volumes of data means computers can now speculate about lost aspects of the built environment.

Not only innovative in terms of method and tools, such technology also “allows us to see places, people and things in new ways,” says Professor Lewi. “When we analyse people’s reactions and attachment to sites through data and social media, for example, new knowledge is opened up that can potentially change the meaning and significance of heritage yet again.

Then there’s climate change. As well as the impact of more powerful storms, flooding, fires and drought testifying to heritage as anything but static, the intersection of climate change and conservation also points to its proximity to future issues.

Some heritage places – especially those that are highly adaptable – can be assets in understanding resilience strategies (Daly, et al., 2018). As Professor Lewi says, “they can help us predict what's going to happen in thirty years' time – when the water level rises, for example – and how to mitigate the effects of climate change into the future.

With climate change a defining issue of our time, this speaks directly to the importance of understanding heritage as something fluid and dynamic. As Dr Lesh puts it: “If climate change is important to us, we need to be thinking about sustainability and resilience in heritage.

As well as environmental concerns, heritage can also be a powerful way to reflect on and challenge current social and cultural norms.

A heritage approach to Footscray Psychiatric Hospital – slated to be knocked down as unloved brutalist architecture – illuminates both a history of changing ideas around mental health practices and the role of design and architecture in expressing such ideas.

In parallel, the City of Melbourne’s 2020 post-war heritage studies of the CBD demonstrate that what people value from the past, and want to keep into the future, is changing. Such studies offer exciting challenges to those working in the heritage industry who must attempt to simultaneously interpret the past and present – and predict how this might be done in the future.

Professor Lewi says, “physical things can constantly be reinterpreted in each generation. We’ve got to stay ahead of the game a bit, by second-guessing what we might think is valuable not just now but into the future. And it's not just the remarkable places we need to keep. It's the everyday places too.

Perhaps most importantly, heritage could also be a way to engage with our devastating colonial past and the ongoing impacts it has for Indigenous peoples and cultures. By asking different questions of our heritage places, we can change their meanings and associations, as well as our collective understanding of our past.

The current World Heritage review of the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, for example, can provide an opportunity to rethink the meanings and associations of ornate Victorian architecture.

The REB was built for the purpose of hosting grand exhibitions celebrating the British Empire and its constituent nations. The heritage of this place thus provides an avenue through which to re-engage with Australia’s founding as a British colony, and to question how this history continues to operate today.

"All sorts of things can be refactored into heritage places in new ways,” says Dr Lesh. “Our expectations and demands for heritage are changing.

"Colonial architecture is Colonial architecture. Victorian-era architecture is Victorian architecture. Modern architecture is modern architecture. But the values and significance of them evolve based on what we desire and need at the present moment and into the future as well.

Professor Lewi adds: “Thinking in such nuanced ways about heritage is incredibly important in a settler-colonial society like Australia. Places are, and need to be, contested. They challenge our narratives.

Dr Lesh agrees: “If we just look at the veneer and don’t dig any deeper, we ignore the fact that our cities and urban heritage is not neutral, but rather intermingles Indigenous dispossession, continuous redevelopment, changing design sensibilities and everyday social experiences.

When we view heritage as complex and marked by change, we gain a whole range of lenses, tools, frameworks, methods, ways of thinking and case studies for exploring how we can sustain our world, and ensure continuity into the future,” suggests Dr Lesh. “Aside from all else, it’s a custodial responsibility.

Explore the Urban and Cultural Heritage MicroCert series now:


  • Sustainability