Values-Based Heritage Conservation: Historical Origins and Future Directions

The Burra Charter and its values-based model is embraced within Australian heritage conservation. For policymaker Max Bourke, it forms ‘the ethical basis for a contemporary “philosophy” of Australian conservation practice [becoming] a sort of “bible”’. Historian Graeme Davison reflects,

The Tablets of the Law handed down from Burra have now been translated, like a colonial Book of Leviticus, into the values-based model and an ever-expanding grey literature of heritage statutes, conservation reports, management protocols, and tribunal rulings that are, today, the multi-million-dollar industry of urban conservation management.

The entrenchment of values-based heritage means the heritage industry – comprised of consultants and policymakers, architects, archaeologists, planners and historians – has an agreed approach for managing heritage places. But this enthusiasm veils conceptual and practical challenges. The challenges of values-based heritage are both historical, linked to its origins in global conservation thought, and contemporary, limiting evolutions in how heritage interacts with communities alongside other social, cultural and environmental imperatives.

In Australia, the Burra Charter, first published in 1979 and then subsequently revised, has not led to a radical break with global conservation traditions, in which exceptional buildings and ideas of value have been prominent. In 1903, Austrian art historian Alois Riegl proposed commemorative value, art value, historical value and age value as a spectrum tied to historic monuments. Similarly, the Venice Charter (1964) linked the protection of monuments to human, historical, archaeological and aesthetic values.

The authors of the Burra Charter at Burra, South Australia in 1979: Jane Lennon, Peter Forrest, Jim Kerr, Josephine Flood, John Mulvaney and Peter Watts.

The greatest innovation of Australia’s values-based model was thus not to first introduce notions of ‘value’ into conservation, but rather to centralise the aligned concept of ‘cultural significance’. The cultural significance and values of a heritage place are intended to guide conservation decisions. In practice, however, cultural significance has typically been assumed as synonymous with traditional global conservation notions of authenticity and integrity as found in extant historic and old built fabric. Thus, the theoretical capacities of the values-based model to embrace the indivisible material and cultural aspects, the tangible and intangible attributes, that make a heritage place above and beyond its built fabric has not been realised.

An important feature of the values-based model has been to expand the kinds of cultural significance that might be considered in managing heritage places, to democratise conservation and engage communities. Conservation thought has long centralised aesthetic/architectural, historical and scientific/archaeological values. But, in another innovation, the Burra Charter, identified social value and then spiritual value in its 1999 revision. Both social and spiritual values are linked to community perspectives and the latter, specifically, to First Peoples, thus incorporating diverse knowledges and relations.

By recognising the attachments between heritage places and present-day communities, social and spiritual values might inspire people-centred conservation and unsettle traditional ideas of age value. This ambition for conservation aligns to the notion that heritage places are inherently socially constructed – with significance continually reconstituted, as much a product of the present as the past or future. Yet neither social nor spiritual values have been prominent in Australian conservation. Few heritage places have had social value assessments, and fewer still are protected based only on social value alone, nor conserved in collaboration with the public. The potential of the values-based model to democratise heritage management and to pluralise heritage expertise to equally embrace expert and community views has not been realised.

From the mid-1980s, the values-based model was substantively applied to First Peoples heritage. Even so, the emphasis has been on archaeology and landscapes rather than urban or built places. In other words, the conceptual and practical origins of the 1979 Burra Charter was in post-1788 British colonisation built heritage, rather than in First Peoples heritage. In 2004, archaeologist Sharon Sullivan wrote, ‘members of the Aboriginal community’ have argued that applying the Burra Charter ‘to Aboriginal heritage places and culture is a form of cultural imperialism, or at least a form of postcolonial impertinence or insensitivity’. 

Photographs of Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf, an industrial heritage site, Sydney, ca. 1982.
Photographer: Paul Scott. Courtesy of Paul Scott.

Today, First Peoples heritage is generally protected by different values-based approaches and legislation to non-Indigenous heritage. The benefit is that First Peoples agency is increasingly centralised in managing First Peoples heritage places: the principle of self determination. The challenge is that urban and architectural heritage is not recognised as always being on unceded First Nations lands and thus linked to settler colonialism, before then being managed accordingly. In other words, the conservation of First Peoples heritage is improving, while the conservation of non- Indigenous heritage has been largely unaffected by radical shifts in the way we think about the environment and the past in Australia, inspired by reconciliation and truth-telling imperatives.

Aesthetic and historic values also have distinctive conceptions within Australian conservation. Another innovation of the values-based model has been to authorise a transition from the more subjective tradition of architectural connoisseurship to more replicable and evidence-based decision making. The underlying argument and associated evidence for heritage decisions is documented in a heritage place’s grey literature, whether a Statement of Significance, a Conservation/Heritage Management Plan, or a Heritage Impact Assessment. This site-specific grey literature is produced with reference to long-standing listing criteria, historic themes, architectural styles and best-practice guidelines.

The problem is that the structural and site-specific grey literature is refreshed infrequently, so values-based heritage is difficult to implement in a dynamic way. The focus on comparative analysis and on referencing prior conservation decisions creates path dependencies. Within this self-referential system of values-based heritage, therefore, introducing new conceptions of aesthetic or historic values becomes challenging. The privileging of traditional notions of architectural style evades innovative architectural perspectives in addressing aesthetic value. New historiographies and difficult historical narratives elude historic value assessments.

Advocating for a Public Space as Heritage at Federation Square in Melbourne.

Explicitly defining heritage values inherently limits the remit of conservation. Some values are deemed as essential for conservation, while others are identified as extraneous. The traditional values of aesthetic, historic and scientific significance are universally agreed upon. Even so, as noted, their definitions have become more precise, self-referential and limiting over time. Whether other social and cultural values are actually heritage values is debated.

How conservation might engage with external or instrumental values and imperatives is equally contested. Due to climate change, economic inequity and social discord, heritage is increasingly linked to environmental, economic and social sustainability. Yet sustainability is not explicit within the values-based model, making it a peripheral rather than primary conservation issue. Values-based heritage has greater potential to facilitate diversity, inclusivity and accessibility, as well as community development and wellbeing, across conservation activities.

The remit of heritage and conservation is at stake. For traditionalists, the focus remains on aesthetic and historic values as tied to historic material and built fabric. A more contemporary approach is to give greater attention to social and spiritual values, adopt people-centred outlooks, engage new critical scholarships and embrace sustainability. Many decades of values-based heritage has, however, embedded certain assumptions, guidelines and practices.

For advocates of innovation and change, the path dependencies produced by the grey literature and legislative environment are a challenge, which will require concerted communal efforts to overcome. The strongest motivation for innovation in values-based heritage, however, may come from the lucrative opportunity of claiming a greater stake in the multi-million-dollar industry of urban conservation management.

James Lesh is a historian, heritage specialist and academic. His recent book is Values in Cities: Urban Heritage in Twentieth-Century Australia and his blog is

This essay first appears in John Stubbs, William Chapman, Julia Gatley, and Ross King, eds. Architectural Conservation in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands: National Experiences and Practice. 1st editio. New York: Routledge, 2023.

Features Image: Photograph of the partially demolished Bellevue Hotel in Brisbane, with a police officer in the foreground, April 1979. Photographer: Bud Brannigan. Courtesy of Bud Brannigan and the State Library of Queensland, 27044-0001-0002.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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