Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Launch of Australian Heritage Week Heritage with Heartbeat at Rymill House in Adelaide

18 April 2013

Tony Burke: Thank you so much and good morning.

I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we're on and their elders past and present.

I want to thank so much to Luke and Kali for having us here. I've had a quick opportunity to go through what is simply a magnificent building and I'll say a bit more about it in a moment. But I do want to acknowledge you at the outset and your hospitality today.

To my parliamentary colleagues, Federal and State and also to those representatives of local government.

One of the first things that I took on when I was given the portfolio of heritage when I became Environment Minister, was to establish a heritage week.

I thought it was important to have an opportunity where for a week we would encourage the nation to actually focus on heritage issues. Because I think across the nation, most people miss the point with heritage.

Very often we define heritage simply by being the nice old building and the architecture is all that matters. It is not what heritage is about.

Heritage is about the fact that stories live in places. Some of those stories are natural, some of those stories relate to our Indigenous heritage. Many of those stories relate to the settlement that's taken place and most of those stories are still living the next chapter right now.

I walked through the grounds and then inside this magnificent house and it was a great example of the stories living in the place.

I had someone when the first acronym was dropped just then say to me that does warrant a poem. I have a rule with my department that once they get to the third acronym at any meeting they have to read a poem to the group, because I have a great hatred of acronyms and a great love of poetry.

But one of my favourite poems is one by T. S. Eliot called Burnt Norton. When they're walking through the ruins of an old church and living the experience of everything that used to occur in what is now those ruins. And there's a line in there which I think explains pretty much the whole of the reason we have heritage policy. The line in the poem is, other echoes inhabit the garden.

That's why heritage is so important, because the stories that exist don't simply exist in memory, they exist in place. As I walk through the grounds here, you don't just see a magnificent house. You see trees that would have been climbed by the Rymill children.

I think not only of Henry and Frank as the two brothers who purchased the property, but Henry very much who was responsible for the construction.

I think of Frank's grandson John, dyslexic. Great trouble reading but grew up with an incredible sense of adventure and became one of our most significant Antarctic explores. I wonder when he used to visit this house, what sense of adventure John would have had.

His voice as a little boy playing on the steps or climbing in the trees and running around the gardens, that gave rise to someone who then went searching the world and eventually found money from the Royal Geographic Society, to conduct an exhibition that went across two winters in the Antarctic, that last, great, unknown frontier. But his story is inexplicably linked with where we stand today.

I think we need to use the opportunity of this week and every moment to make sure that the story we tell is not simply a story of beautiful buildings. We very easy fall into that, because the story of the architecture is the most obvious and we can get to that and grasp that straight away.

But it's actually the story of the people that lived within the architecture, who built the buildings, who had their lives full. Just as the Rymill family before them and the Constantine children of today, have had so much of their lives formed and shaped by place means that the story of Rymill House is not simply a heritage story of the past, but one that has very much a living history continuing into the future.

We also, I think, need to acknowledge some challenges that governments State and Federal must continue to grapple with. That is preventing the destruction of heritage is not enough to sustain it. Often we find the key arguments and moments when we get media attention for heritage is when it's a battle between the building and the bulldozer. That's the important battle to win. It's pretty hard if the bulldozer wins to keep too much of the heritage of a place going.

But that should never been seen to be the end of it. For places to be properly maintained and restored, there are trades which are very much dying out which we need to find a way to sustain them. You can find architraves, you can find ceilings. You can find work around the outside of buildings, where the number of skilled tradespeople that we have to maintain and in some cases re-invent what was previously there. But these individuals are falling in number at a rate of knots.

When we had the heritage work that came as a very big burst during the Global Financial Crisis, an investment - I wasn't minister at the time - but it's an investment as a member of the government that I'm tremendously proud of. We made sure that some of those skills through a new generation were brought up to date. But if we allow those skills to disappear and if we allow ourselves to have a situation where the relevant trades people in the years to come are only able to think in terms of components, then we will have beaten the bulldozer, but we would still lose.

I believe it's a challenge, but while I'm not standing here with an immediate answer to it. While what we did a couple of years ago helped, it's something that needs to continue to be front of mind. Without those correct trade skills being in existence, we fall short and fall short badly.

But the final thing that I think we still need to lift our game on with heritage, is making sure that the story is told.

One of my favourite museums in the world is actually Te Papa of New Zealand. They don't have an incredible collection. They've got some wonderful items, but it's not one of the best collections in the world by any stretch of the imagination. But what they do is so brilliantly tell the story. You walk into that museum and then walk out with a completely different understanding of New Zealand, its natural, physical, cultural history.

In the same way, I think it's important for us to capture that. We established some time ago an app that you can now download on smartphones so that wherever you stand in Australia, within about 15km, you can get information on the local environmental and heritage sites.

Now, a lot of that information we need to get the story around. We've started in some places now, collecting oral history that we can then GPS back to place, so that when people are standing in a heritage site they can hear the voices that have been recorded to explain the stories and the colour that bring the places to life.

At the end of all of this, I think we simply have to remember with Heritage Week that it's not building week. It's not old building week, it's Heritage Week. And, with heritage, we need to ensure that the full depth of the passionate arguments, the laughter, the echoes that inhabit place, are stories that help explain to Australians our past and thereby better and have an understanding of how we can build for that future.

That is what brings Heritage Week to life. That's the story and conversation that builds our nation. And that's the conversation that I hope everybody engages with in earnest this week, so that each week we can, not simply protect and restore, but build.