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10.00  Changing Experiences: How the Lens of Oral History Makes Community Heritage Visible in Australia’s National Capital

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9:00, Tuesday 7 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

This paper will argue that oral histories allow access to the dynamic existence of heritage places as ever-changing sites of experience. Individual and community use in the context of shifting and contesting discourses builds up layers of meaning, memory, and identity within heritage places, before and after listing. Oral history offers a complex and sensitive method of tracking and documenting this experience and reframes the question “what does heritage change?” in the context of communities’ lived experiences of place. Our paper will explore how the practice and theory of oral history activate understanding of heritage places as sites of a local community’s identity-making amid the urban grandeur of a national capital.  

Our paper is framed by scholarly work on heritage, history, and collective memory stretching from Benedict Anderson’s analysis of nationhood (1983) and David Lowenthal’s fluid and multiple understandings of the past (1985). More recent scholarship in public memory and heritage such as Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes’s collection “Oral history and Public Memories” (2008) highlights the potential impact of oral history, both as a methodology and a critical theoretical position. We suggest that the collection, analysis, and use of oral histories articulate the role of heritage places as an active force in people’s lives, linking past and future communities through knowledge of lived experiences. The selection and organization of information as well as forms of storytelling within oral history narratives play into and expose the discursive construction of heritage meanings, thus making the construction of community heritage visible.  

We will analyze several examples of the community experience of heritage places in Canberra, Australia, collected through oral history and other personal memory forms. Canberra is a designed national capital city that is only 100 years old, with much of its urban history within living memory. The national and local are deeply intertwined in the community’s experience and in expressions of it. In Canberra’s heritage discourse, one way in which this has played out has been through a challenge to the dominance of “national significance” by strong community interest in the local heritage of the people who built the place as a city and community. In this context, we analyze oral histories associated with places constructed by the federal authorities that served the basic needs of a local community: public government-built housing and the city’s first fire station. Through them, we tease out the elements of heritage that, with an oral history lens, are visible as an active force shaping and reshaping the community experience of Canberra, and ultimately reshaping heritage itself.

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