When it comes to heritage, family history trumps museums

Family Camping at Phillip Island, Victoria, 1951. Photographer: Leslie E. Chambers.
Unsplash/Museum Victoria, CC BY

Emma Waterton, Western Sydney University

Heritage has significance. It’s evident in the furor over the mid-year beheading of Christopher Columbus statues in the US and the spraying of graffiti on Captain Cook statues in Australia. It’s also there in the popularity of television shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Every Family Has a Secret.

But heritage — collections, buildings, archaeological sites, cultural traditions and other intangible traces of the past — matters in different ways to different people.

New analysis shows public heritage — professionally run historic monuments, archaeological ruins, state memorials, national museums and grand homes — does not have broad appeal. Private family histories, meanwhile, have wide appeal.

The most recognised, visited and liked heritage site in Australia is the Australian War Memorial; the least liked is Port Arthur.

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Australian attitudes to heritage

We surveyed 1461 Australians, including a main sample and “boost” samples for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and Italian, Lebanese, Chinese and Indian Australians. We asked about heritage visitation and memberships, and presented lists of types of heritage, so participants could nominate the ones they liked most and least.

Similarly, participants ranked a list of Australian and international places of heritage according to those they’d heard of, visited and/or liked.

We found Australians’ tastes are heavily influenced by demographic variables like education, occupation, age and location.

More than half of those surveyed were almost completely disengaged or lacking in knowledge about public history: they rarely used the internet to search for it, did not hold national park or museum memberships, and they visited very few, if any, places of heritage in the year prior.

Still, some 41% of Australians hold multiple memberships and subscriptions to heritage organisations. Some are connected to a local history or archaeology club (4%), the National Trust (3%), a local or national museum (14%), a national park (8%), the History Channel (17%) or an online family history website (13.4%). They also use the internet on a monthly (17%) or weekly (19%) basis to seek out heritage information.

Those with tertiary and postgraduate qualifications are much more likely to have an active interest in public heritage. The same is true of those employed in managerial and high-level professional roles.

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Some 23% of heritage lovers will engage with some of Australia’s heritage but are most interested in international places, such as Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, the Vatican Museums and Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand. This group, largely urban dwellers aged mid-30s to mid-40s, express interest in Aboriginal and migrant heritage too.

Another group (21%) has a deep interest in local area heritage, as well as cultural landscapes, open-air museums and sites depicting colonial/settler heritage, such as Port Arthur, Sovereign Hill and Fremantle Prison. These Australians are highly engaged at the domestic level, but have only a mild interest in international heritage. They tend to be in their mid-40s to mid-60s and live in small towns, semi-rural and rural/remote locations.

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In the family

Family history — under the banner of private heritage — is liked more than any other heritage genre, with 57% of the main sample and 46% of our boost samples liking it best, followed by “Australia’s national heritage” and “world heritage”.

Family history is a favourite for Australians who self-identify as working class (38%) and those who claim middle-class status (44%). Only 9% of those who said family history was their most-liked form of heritage identified as upper-middle and upper classes.

Family history is favoured by 61% of 18–24-year-olds, 57% of 25-39-year-olds, 55% of 40-59-year-olds and 57% of those over 60.

This popularity was confirmed in follow-up interviews, with almost half specifically mentioning their efforts to learn about and engage with their family’s heritage.

Many expressed deep pride in particular features of their genealogies, like lineage (number of generations traced), identified individuals (well-known historical figures and those associated with national narratives), and a sense of “pedigree”. As one interview put it:

… every one of our great grandparents were born in Australia. And most of our great, great grandparents … Yeah, no, most people can’t say that.

For another respondent, a source of great pride was traced through connections to Gallipoli:

Me, personally, my grandfather was in the first battalion that landed on Gallipoli … so I’ve grown up with that culture, that heritage.

Our data reveals family history is an area of heritage that appeals to broad swathes of the population (across ages, genders, a range of educational backgrounds and the working and middle classes) — and a few in the “upper classes” too. The Conversation

It seems lots of Australian families are keen to uncover family stories.

Emma Waterton, Professor in the Geographies of Heritage, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Stain or badge of honour? Convict heritage inspires mixed feelings

Merran Williams, La Trobe University

A recent report in Molecular Psychiatry identified a “warrior gene” connected to criminal behaviour. This inspired renewed speculation that a convict ancestry might make Australians more predisposed to violent crime.

This fear of genetic contamination from convict ancestors has existed in Australia since early settlement. Between 1788 and the end of transportation in 1868, around 162,000 convicts were sent to the colonies of New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Western Australia.

An estimated one in five Australians has convict ancestry. In Tasmania, the figure is even higher. In 2009, 74% of Tasmania’s population was estimated to be descended from convicts.

From source of shame to pride

Today, a convict ancestor is a matter of pride, a connection to the rough and tumble of early Australia. But for past generations, including some convicts themselves, it was a shame that had to be hidden at all costs.

Freed convicts celebrated their fresh start by giving false or deliberately mis-spelt names to government officials. Some went to the effort of returning to England, then “emigrating” respectably as a free settler under a new or married name.

Following the end of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, the colony itself underwent a name change. In 1856, it was renamed Tasmania in an attempt to purge its convict past. The word “convict” was rarely used and access to the state’s convict records was closely guarded.

As late as the 1960s, Tasmania’s Library Board refused permission to doctoral student Peter Bolger to publish convict names for fear of embarrassing their descendants. When he published his thesis as the book Hobart Town, he cited the duplicate British records.

In an attempt to remove the convict stigma, in the early 1900s, the newly federated NSW government planned to destroy its convict records. It was held back only by concerns that the records might be the property of the British government.

Australia celebrated 150 years of European settlement in 1938. It was also the year in which the last transported convict died in Western Australia.

Attitudes towards convicts were changing. Australian nationalists began to view the penal past as an era when the British ruling class unjustly persecuted noble workers and revolutionaries. Sent to Australia because of their “struggles for freedom” or trivial offences, they had demonstrated their good character by founding a prosperous democracy.

But not everyone was happy to embrace Australia’s convict heritage. The Chronicle in Adelaide reported that officials organising a re-enactment of the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney as part of the 150th-anniversary celebrations had been insisting that the terms “transportees” or “deportees” should be used instead of “convict”. After a fair amount of ridicule, the following announcement was made:

The existence of convicts in early Australia will be officially recognised. Where necessary convicts will be included in the historical scenes, but no special float showing convict life will be included in the pageant. Neither will any attempt be made to single out convicts for special attention.

Meet the ancestors, whoever they were

In the 1950s and ‘60s, historians argued that Australians should not romanticise either the convict system or the people within it. Manning Clark and Alan Shaw viewed the convicts as a “disreputable lot”. They were considered to be perennial petty thieves who made an active choice to supplement their grinding poverty with criminal spoils, rather than suffering virtuously, like the poor people who didn’t have a criminal conviction.

Mollie Gillen memorably described them as:

… raggle-taggle nobodies … who walked the streets as idle and profligate persons.

In their book Convict Workers, first published in 1988, Stephen Nicholas and Peter Shergold challenged these assumptions. Their analysis of NSW convict records revealed a greater proportion of literate and skilled convicts than expected.

Portrait of a Convict by Peter Fraser Gordon.
National Library of Australia

Further studies by Tasmanian historians such as Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Lucy Frost used the stories of individual convicts to provide insight into the convict system in general, revealing a more nuanced picture of convict lives.

Today, enough distance has passed to allow Australians to look back on their convict heritage with interest rather than repugnance. The former convict settlement of Port Arthur is a tourist attraction that draws more than 290,000 visitors a year. Convict descendants can research their ancestors’ stories through sites such as LINC, Tasmania’s online archives, the National Library’s TROVE newspapers and genealogy websites.

The proceedings of London’s Old Bailey court, where many convicts were sentenced, are available in a searchable online database. Some records contain information about convicts’ families, occupations and conduct records. There are detailed descriptions, including distinguishing features and tattoos.

And the fear that we might be cursed with a genetic predisposition towards criminal behaviour? A 2001 Victorian parliamentary report on crime in Australia found that, adjusted for population, Tasmania – with the highest proportion of convict descendants – had the second-lowest crime rate in the nation.

The Conversation

Merran Williams is PhD Candidate at La Trobe University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


I have been reminded once again of how much Australians neglect our past. I have thought this for a long time and my visit to the Nabiac/Failford Cemetery reconfirmed my thoughts on the matter.

In the case of cemeteries the state of a cemetery quickly betrays this state of mind. Generally the lawns are very poorly maintained and most of the older (and a good number of the younger) graves are very poorly maintained. If there are gardens and/or lawn plantings – these also will be neglected.

When it comes to trying to read a headstone, generally speaking, the older the headstone the more difficult it is to read. Most of the older headstones are in varying degrees of decay (so to speak).

This neglect is not limited to cemeteries. In my travels around the country I have seen many examples of our heritage being allowed to fall into further ruin through neglect.

I really do think that the majority of Australians do not appreciate our heritage and history. Perhaps we are still too young as a country.