Gardens as sanity-building and peace-building activism?

This post has been written by Stuart Read who described himself as a horticulturalist, bureaucrat and educator – I will let him make the call on the order. I worked with Stuart for a number of years and reached out because I wanted to get an expert’s perspective on the landscapes around us. What Stuart has written is a powerful and touching piece on how the simple act of gardening can heal, connect and nurture. Bad things happen in this world and if the simple act of planting a seed can build a bridge, well maybe we should look at gardens with a whole new respect.

Stuart Read is a horticulturist, bureaucrat and educator on landscapes. He helps the NSW Heritage Council identify, list, assess and manage key parks, gardens and sites.  Stuart has worked for the Australian Heritage Commission and Environment Australia’s world heritage & biodiversity units. He has studied gardens in Australasia, the Middle East and Europe, including a 2005 Pratt Foundation overseas fellowship study tour of Spain, and then in 2010 he led a tour of Spanish historic gardens. Stuart contributed to the National Trust (NSW) book Interwar Gardens … (2003), Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens (2002) and Gardens of History & Imagination: Growing New South Wales (2016). He wrote Spanish lessons for Australian Gardens… (2005) and regularly contributes to Garden Drum and Australian Garden History.

I recently really-enjoyed reading a book called ‘War Gardens – A Journey Through Conflict in Search of Calm’ – check out my review. This book is fascinating and relevant. We will keep going to war. Stealing each other’s land. Yet somehow gardening – planting a seed, nurturing a plant, gazing at and smelling a flower, picking and savouring a fruit, screening some unattractive view, creating a retreat, remain as fundamental and nurturing human acts. Sanity-preserving rituals we continue to do – need to do.

Havana, Cuba’s organoponicos – shared cultivation zones in otherwise unused spaces around and between nondescript apartment blocks aren’t war gardens but are survival and motivation ones. They bring nutrition and hope to people with slim resources and options. Check out more on them.

SBS TV years ago, ran a series ‘Over the Fence’ on neighbours in suburbia and some weird and wonderful things going on here and there. Like Riverwood’s (Sydney)’s two grandfathers, one Vietnamese/Australian, one Iraqi/Aussie, both ex-army and shell-shocked by the horrors of civil wars in their former countries. Both quietly cultivating vegetables on adjoining bits of land. Snake beans on one plot, chillies (I think) on the other. Neither spoke a word of each other’s tongue. Yet both drew some solace, some catharsis, by tending their green patch daily, glancing ‘over the fence’ at each other’s. Exchanging nods and the odd smile of admiration. Peace-time gardening, somehow both healing wounds and building community bridges.


A very old mulberry tree, collapsed but still thriving and full of fruit (Cambria, Tasmania: Stuart Read)

A necessary thing in an increasingly fractured, nervous world with too many of us retreating into insulated siloes, watching and listening only to media of our own (non-world-threatening) choosing. Increasingly drawing up drawbridges, growing distance and alienation. We should be doing the opposite. Peace-building; together. That’d be a far-better use of resources, time and effort.

Allotment and community gardens are long traditions in some cultures accustomed to dense, urban living. Where space is tight. They may be across town. Or right outside: under and between homes. Yes, negotiation is an integral part of sharing space. Yes, things may get pinched (though more players can mean more presence, surveillance having the opposite effect). (Find out more about allotment gardens).

Community gardens are a growing thing – I’ve lost count of how many have sprung up across not only Sydney but also across New South Wales. Historians looking back at the 1990s and 2000s might find this movement of interest – a ‘collectivisation’ in direct opposition to our increasingly individualist (d)evolution. Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Project funds vegie and fruit gardens in schools nation-wide. Run by children they’re linked to learning how to pick, prepare and cook simple, fresh, wholesome food from their produce. This is such a useful and encouraging trend. Lunch need not be ‘fast’, fried or in heaps of glossy packaging. And might be a heap of fun and satisfying to make: more so when you’ve had a hand in growing it and cooking it. Kindergarten grounds (even the German word means children-garden) suggest strong possibilities.


A ripening fig on the bough (right). Fresh cherry on the bough (Cambria, Tasmania: Stuart Read)

Aged care homes and over-55 age apartment complexes and town house clusters suggest other opportunities to rethink gardens and build bridges between isolated social groups. Why couldn’t grandchildren, neighbours including children come together to tend these over-trimmed, under-thought and under-used spaces, to encourage isolated people in society to mix? Have a look at these sites from the Australian Ageing Agenda and Better Health Victoria.

Both the elderly and the young are ‘looked after’, corralled, kept apart. Both have a bit too much spare time: too few visitors. Social stimulus lacking, beyond a nurse with a cup of tea, or a busy childcare worker. Yes, there are issues: security: trust: organisation: resourcing involved. Yes, things could go awry. Not everyone’s abilities and motivation are up to it. But isn’t it worth a try?

Heritage places often have gardens, sometimes the only ones left in subdivided estates, ever-smaller lot suburbia. These of course are potential community assets – and tending those (often neglected) gardens offers opportunities for education, exercise, community-building, socialisation, even employment-generating skills and experience. Again, this takes organisation and effort – but isn’t such ‘infrastructure’ worth investing in? Don’t the benefits outweigh the necessary effort? I think they do.

A hazelnut / filbert ‘walk’, Cambria, Tasmania (Stuart Read)

Lines to Nowhere?

The High Line, New York

How do we adaptively reuse rail infrastructure sites?

If you speak to most heritage professionals they will tell you that the best way to keep a heritage asset is to use it. Reusing heritage assets has enormous benefits. There are economic benefits that come from not having to demolish and dispose of an existing building. Socially and culturally the heritage places that surround us create a connection with the past. Jane Jacobs famously described it when she said new ideas need old buildings. There are also environmental benefits that come from the embodied carbon in existing buildings. This article is a couple of years old but it gives a good overview of the sustainability benefits of adaptively reusing buildings.

Adapting heritage places while still retaining what is significant about them can be a real challenge. How do you integrate changes but avoid facadism? Can significant door architecture be retained when the doorways are all 5cm to narrow according to the latest construction codes? Should access be provided to second floors if the existing stairwells do not meet contemporary standards?

These are all problems faced everyday but, all in all, the reuse of buildings is a solvable problem. It might take some innovative and creative solutions combined with a bit of latitude from consent authorities but it can be done successfully.

Comparatively speaking the reuse of buildings is easy. Infrastructure sites, particularly railways, provide a whole new set of challenges. These are sites that are not necessarily commercially viable for adaptive reuse.

What if it is a lone railway building 20 km away from everything else? Technically the building could be adapted but how do you get a business in it; not a lot of passing traffic.

Being sites that had industrial uses there are often contamination and environmental issues. Access and safety can be major issues preventing reuse of former railway stations. A good example is the island platform. Between two active lines this site below in Raglan, NSW has limited reuse opportunities as it cannot be safely accessed without expensive footbridges being built.


It has been shown that timber road and rail bridges degrade more quickly once they stop being used. Exactly why is a mystery. The best explanation I once got from a bridge engineer is that it might be that the vibrations associated with use ‘shakes’ water out of the bridge. I’m sure there was more to it than that but when I was told it was the end of a long few days and a morning standing in 30+ degrees heat.

Legislation can also play an active role in preventing the reuse of rail lines and rail infrastructure. Sometimes an Act of parliament is required to change the use. The best idea in the world can get caught up in the political cycle. After all, governments have important things to discuss; legislation to change the use of a disused piece of rail line is always going to be very low on their priority list. The State government here in NSW just went into caretaker mode, so no decisions of this nature are happening for at least another six months.

Having said all this there are successful examples of the adaptive reuse of railway infrastructure. Urban areas provide the best opportunities for reuse such as New York’s Highline or Atlanta’s Belt Line. Adaptive reuse of railway buildings in cities can be very successful – Paris’ Musee d’Orsay, housed in the former Gare d’Orsay Railway Station, Brazil’s Julio Prestes Train Station now home to the Sao Paulo State Symphonic Orchestra and Sydney’s Eveleigh Railway Workshops now commercial buildings and public spaces.

The Victorian Government here in Australia ran a program from 2013 to 2016 designed to restore disused regional railway buildings community use. The Community Use of Vacant Rail Buildings Program provided for the adaptive reuse of buildings in 13 towns for uses ranging from art galleries, tourism enterprises and meeting and office spaces.

A popular use of disused rail lines is Rail Trails. These provide walking and cycling routes through towns and the countryside. Examples abound in Australia and internationally such as the Otago Central Rail Trail (New Zealand), Burgundy Voie Verte (France), Via Verde de la Sierra (Spain) and the Great Victorian Rail Trail (Australia).

But rail trails do not work on ‘build it and they will come basis’. They must tie into broader tourism and economic development initiatives, there needs to be a reason to visit these areas. The trail itself is only the conduit to explore the history, culture and life of the places it goes through.

The challenge that railway infrastructure sites pose is that they combine all the most difficult aspects of adaptive reuse. The issues around the adaptive reuse of single building is there. So, too are the challenges of trying to re-purpose infrastructure that has no obvious reuse opportunity; rail lines, water towers, turn tables, platforms. To find successful solutions to adaptively reusing rail infrastructure there needs to be collaboration across governments and jurisdictions.

Government, business and the community need to come together to solve these challenges. I would love to be able to end this post by giving you a solution, but that is not going to happen.

So, I come back to my original question, with a slight change, how do we successfully and sustainably adaptively reuse rail infrastructure sites?

Heritage as Commemoration

Myall Creek Massacre Memorial (Source: Heritage Council of NSW)

The initial title of this article was going to be ‘The Heritage of Commemoration’.  It seemed like an obvious choice because of the commemorations surrounding November 11. In doing my research I came across a lot of excellent articles and can recommend the writings of a colleague of mine Stuart Read on this topic .

The heritage of commemoration takes a variety of forms: engraved inscriptions, mausoleums and works of monumental sculpture. More modest elements reflect vernacular traditions or dedicated landscapes such as cemeteries or memorial gardens.

I was ready to give up on this post then I realised what I was missing. Heritage is commemoration. In fact, one of the major reasons we give heritage protection to places is to commemorate something.

Commemorating the sacrifice of war is obvious. Here in NSW the Martin Place Cenotaph is on the State Heritage Register. Other similar listings that commemorate our war efforts and losses include the ANZAC Memorial and El Alamein Fountain.

But there are hundreds of places that are on the State Heritage Register to commemorate something. It might be the home of a beloved entertainer such as Slim Dusty or talented artist such as where Brett Whitely painted some of his most iconic works.

Or maybe we need to never forget terrible events. The Myall Creek Massacre or the stealing of Aboriginal children from their families.

Sites are heritage listed for what they tell us about society, the nature of our community, how we have come together and how we have been torn apart.

Commemoration is remembering and celebrating. It is paying tribute to something and observing what that means to us as individuals and a society.

There is a stream of heritage that specifically can be considered commemorative in one sense of the word. More broadly most of the places that we consider important to us are places that helps us to remember or celebrate something.

So that is why the title to this blog changed from ‘Heritage of Commemoration’ to ‘Heritage as Commemoration’ because ultimately that is what our heritage recognises. Our heritage systems recognise and commemorate the places that mean something to us. These places are recognised because they help us remember things that we shouldn’t forget. Things that are good, bad, brave and beautiful.

But it’s not meant to sound like that!

The title of this post comes from a discussion – well actually a series of discussions – that I have been having with a bridge engineer.

We were standing under the timber truss road bridge outside of Lithgow, NSW when a car drove over it. It is a McDonald type truss road bridge built in 1893 (for a bit more detail about different timber truss types have a look here or here .

The discussion was focused on works that are needed to repair the bridge and ensure that it could cope with predicted traffic loads.

Let me give you two versions of the same event.

Version 1 – The Heritage Professional (me – excited and rambling)

Wow. When you are under here you really hear that rumbling and clacking. I remember this from drives when I was younger. I’ve been speaking to people and that sound is one of their most recognisable and consistent memories of these bridges. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the sound of a car going over these bridges and how people respond to it is almost as significant as the construction technology and social value.

Version 2 – The Engineer (not me – exasperated and measured)

Wow. That sound makes me want to not stand under here. All I hear is loose timbers and bolts that need tightening. If you needed any further justification for why the deck needs to be replaced that should be it. Do you know that originally when the decking was laid it ran diagonally and was tight? It would have been as quiet as crossing over a modern concrete bridge. The decking that is here now is probably the third or fourth deck laid. It has been considerably modified and doesn’t reflect the original design intent or aesthetic of the McDonald trusses.

As time goes on and places are used and experienced, people’s perception of them change. What is considered important or significant invariably changes.

When it comes to timber truss bridges we have a situation where people have developed a connection with something that, from an engineering and design perspective, is considered a flaw.

Timber truss bridges are a class of artefact in which different values inform how they are viewed and what is considered appropriate treatment.

For the local who needs to cross the river to access the town or move produce or stock the importance of the bridge is in its function. Crossing the river is the most important thing. If the bridge needs repairs or modification to continue this, any solution, including demolition and building a new bridge, is valid.

For the bridge engineer who appreciates the history of timber truss design and recognises the rarity of this element, keeping the trusses on a working bridge is the primary goal. This means that all other bridge elements may be able to be modified, including the decking, piers and buttresses.

For the tourist or casual visitor, usually in a car, their remembered experience of the bridge may be that few seconds of driving over it. The clumping of tyres on timber and metallic rattle of loose bolts and stays. If you change this, you change the very nature of the bridge for them.

These types of bridges show us that what is important or significant about a place can change over time. Many places have significance today for reasons that were never thought of at the time of construction.

What is significant about heritage places is a moving feast and being able to recognise and manage this change in types and levels of significance is always a challenge; particularly if what is considered to be significant, is ultimately a design flaw.

Brett Whiteley, Dragons and Didthul: the importance of meaning in landscapes

bcn heritage

The listing of the Brett Whiteley House and Visual Curtilage on the NSW state Heritage Register a few weeks ago was quite interesting. In addition to listing the garden, also listed was, the house, its setting and the views….as the inspiration for the considerable body of Brett Whiteley’s art undertaken here.

The Heritage Council of NSW felt that the setting of the house and what these harbour views revealed about Whiteley’s art, life and genesis of his paintings was a significant aspect about this place. The view has meaning in the context of Brett Whiteley, his house and the art he produced there.

This got me thinking of the importance of landscape and the meaning that landscapes can have. I could give you a complicated academic description of this but I won’t. The simple way to describe it is that landscape and places have meaning and the way that we use places, change them and interact them is based on this meaning.

Meaning is dependent on who we are, our social and cultural background and what is important to us.

‘In front there is a Red Bird followed by a slow-moving Turtle at the rear to the left is the Azure Dragon and to the right a White Tiger’.

Sounds appropriately mystical, right?

This quote is from the Li Ji or Book of Rites. It is one of the Five Classics of the Confucian Canon and was written around 213 BC and describes the social forms, governmental system and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC).

One of the topics this book covers is Geomancy, or the art of placing or arranging buildings on sites auspiciously. According to the Li Ji, where you should establish a settlement should be dictated by these features. The Phoenix should be to the south catching the sun. A source of water nearby. The Tortoise, Dragon and Tiger all providing shelter from prevailing winds, giving shelter and privacy to the settlement.

These principles were used in the establishment of a Chinese settlement in the Snowy Mountains of NSW in the 1860s. The principles set out in a book written in 213 BC helped define the location of their campsite.

They built their camp where there was a water source where the sun came from (Red Phoenix) (south in the northern hemisphere, north in the southern). A rocky outcropping behind the settlement (or the strong protective back of the Dark Tortoise), protected from prevailing winds and prying eyes by small hills to the east and west (the Green Dragon and White Tiger).

Elsewhere I look at the south coast of NSW (somewhere around Kioloa) and see a network of settlements, both extinct and extant, that reflect early European colonisation. They place a layer of meaning that links timber tramways, maritime infrastructure, roads, managed forests and any other number of elements that have organised and shaped the landscape. It has a meaning and internal cohesion.

Yet this landscape also has a different layer of meaning. The largest complex of Aboriginal middens on the south coast of NSW, Gulaga and Didthul (Mount Dromedary and Pigeon House Mountain). This is a landscape that was created by the Dreamtime serpent. It has a meaning that came from and informed how this landscape was used. Where Aboriginal people feasted, met, hunted, gathered and buried their dead are all intertwined with the meaning and significance of this area. You cannot understand the people without understanding how they viewed and lived in this landscape.

A church is on a hill because that is where it is closer to the glory of God; Three Mile Dam was three miles from somewhere; Lime Kiln Bay do I even need to say it?

What are the layers of meaning in a landscape that we are not even aware of?

So next time you look across a landscape it is worth remembering that there is meaning there. The symbolic and mythological, mundane and practical all place layers of meaning on the landscape. if you know the rules that meaning can be read today; all you have to do is find it.

The Spectre of The Heritage

The Heritage was become a sorcerer of dreadful power, master of shadows and of phantoms, foul in wisdom, cruel in strength, misshaping what it touched, twisting what it ruled, lord of werewolves; its dominion was torment

Let me tell you a story of a town living in the grip of an insidious evil.

Although the good folk of this town do their best to live their lives there is the constant reminder of the evil that besieges them. They never know when it will happen or who it will happen to. But from time to time the dark and baleful ‘Heritage’ reaches from the sky into the town. Where its hand rests an unimaginable curse of darkness and anguish is placed upon the land. The land and those who dwell in it are doomed to live thereafter in a state of perpetual limbo, unable to ever move forward.

Sometimes the citizen’s will rally. They will go to these dark and cursed places. The young and reckless among them will stand up and say. “No. Let us not live in fear of The Heritage. Let us go forth and lift the curse from these places. Make them alive again, fit once more for human habitation.”

But the wise old Burghers calm the crowd and offer their own advice.

“Do not be so reckless as to do anything to anger The Heritage. For it watches us. Your hearts are pure and you seek to help those afflicted but heed our warning. Once The Heritage has marked a place it is marked for all time. Do not risk the wrath of The Heritage. Go to your homes, protect your families and pray for those for whom it is too late.”

These wise words would disperse the crowd. The curse of The Heritage was too unimaginable a fate for any to risk displeasing it; drawing its gaze upon them. Thus, with no other recourse, the good folk of the town do their best to live their lives with the constant reminder of the evil that besieges them.

Okay so it is not quite that bad and I do apologise for paraphrasing Tolkien at the start there.

The above tale was inspired by a newspaper article about a town in New South Wales that was looking at seeking potential heritage listing now that the Council had changed because the former Council believed that heritage listing would ‘sterilise’ the place (although personally I think the article would have been a bit more colourful if they had used the term ‘unimaginable curse of darkness and anguish’).

I often hear that there is not enough information available about the heritage system. But I disagree. I did a Google search for ‘heritage listing NSW’ and of the top eight results; six specifically lead to pages that provide information about heritage listing:

The spectre of heritage listing is put forward as a reason why kitchens cannot be updated, why homes cannot be extended. It is given as a reason why no development can take place.

I feel that there are three groups when it comes to misinformation about heritage. The first is the group that relies on what they may have heard once or saw on Grand Designs, but don’t bother trying to find out the real situation. The second are those who have a vested interest on presenting heritage listing in the worst possible light. The third are those who truly do not know because it has never arisen for them before.

Having worked in and out of government I acknowledge that there is a problem with communication. I am the first to admit that communicating with the public is not something government departments do well.

I know that there is a lot of information about the heritage system out there. I also know that there is a whole floor full of people in Parramatta who are passionate about heritage and want to work with people to find a meaningful way to look after and preserve heritage places while still acknowledging that they must continue to be used.

The spectre of heritage is put forward to justify people’s lack of knowledge or their laziness or to support their own self interests.

But like all spectres it can be banished by shining a light on it, by presenting the truth about heritage and what it means.

So next time someone says sorry you can’t change the bathroom in your heritage listed property; or heritage listing gets in the way of poor hard-working developers who are just trying to make Sydney a better place; or asks how many children will die if hospitals have comply with heritage legislation – consider their motivations.

If you want to find out the actual situation give me a call. Or if you don’t want to take my word for it call the NSW Heritage Division on 02 9873 8500. Someone there will be able to talk you through how the heritage system works.

Having opened with Tolkien I’ll leave the last word to Jane Austen.

And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as what one reads about may produce – Have you a stout heart.

How Cultural Heritage Tourism Changed My Life

This post has been written by Meg Pier of Best Cultural Destinations, an online travel magazine featuring local perspectives on the world’s cultures. I asked Meg if she would be willing to write a piece about the intangible aspects of heritage and culture. What Meg provided was a deeply personal piece that shows those things that we consider intangible can in fact be profoundly life-changing. Thanks Meg.

Meg Pier is an award-winning professional with a progressive 25+ year career blending expertise in writing, editing, interviewing, public relations and brand building. She has a diversified set of credentials: publisher and editor of website www.BestCulturalDestinations, which explores the world’s cultural traditions; a corporate career as the founding member of PR departments for four major financial services firms; ongoing consulting assignments creating communications platforms/infrastructure/campaigns; and a portfolio of bylines as a published writer for mass media. Meg would love to hear from you and can be reached at

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

I spent 25 years in corporate media relations with financial services and asset management companies. Fairly early on in my career, I came to believe I needed to have all the answers.

More than two decades of this self-imposed pressure eventually culminated in four cancer scares in two years. Faced with my own mortality at 48 years old, my priorities underwent drastic revision, albeit kicking and screaming.

I left that career and began to travel. Through a series of personal, one-on-one cultural encounters that continue today, I discovered a new way of life that is vastly more rewarding than the exile of believing myself to be the Answer Lady.

I began approaching the unknown with curiosity instead of as a risk to be mitigated. I came to know the power of an authentic interaction vs a contrived transaction. I engaged with people not for an outcome but for an experience. I began to care more about listening and less about being heard. I stopped spending so much time managing conversations and started to let them unfold. I began comparing less and identifying more.

The result? I became happier, healthier, and more connected to myself, and to others.

Let me share just three of these life-changing experiences with you.

After three weeks travelling across Estonia, I had come to the end of the road, literally, arriving at the far southeastern corner of the country, in area known as Setomaa, or “Land of the Seto.” The Seto are an ethnic minority whose land spans the Estonian-Russian border.

My guide Elina and I made our way to the center of Varska and the community swing, a time-honored gathering spot for Estonians. I saw these structures all over the country in my travels, huge wooden platforms that can accommodate a crowd. And at the Varska swing, I enjoyed another tradition that is a cornerstone of Seto identity, leelo, an ancient polyphonic style of singing.

Gathered around the enormous swing were members of a Seto leelo choir:  Veera, 84; Anna, 82; Lidia, 80; Maime, 64 and Veera’s grandaughter Ruti, 16, who is an honorary member.

The group sang a song of thanks to the men who built the village’s swing, which gives the people such pleasure.  The lyrics tell of the girls giving the builders Easter eggs, a reference to the fact that a village’s swing would be built during that season.  In mid-March or April there was no agriculture work to be done, and the men’s thoughts turned to courting—the swing site is where romance blossomed among the village young people.  The mothers of the young bachelors would also come here, to eye the eligible girls, check out their posture and handicrafts, and assess who was good enough for their son.

A component of the traditional folk costume for both Seto women and men is a braided belt, which is considered both an item of everyday dress with a functional purpose, as well as “jewelry”. Men’s marital status is signified by which side their wear the knot on.  Village life required quite a lot of heavy lifting and the Seto girded themselves with the belts tightly, like a weightlifter, which made their strenuous movements easier—it also contributed to the upright posture for which the Seto are known.

When a woman married she must have many belts, as she was expected to give them as gifts to all the members of her new extended family.  The ability to do handicrafts was important and a woman was considered “useless” if she didn’t know how to make belts.

Lidia remarked “The songs are very long because we have so much to say,” but I learned another reason for their extended length is that the Seto women also had a lot of work to perform, much of it monotonous, and the singing made it go by more quickly.

The group performed a rousing “party” song, one typically sung at a gathering attended by both men and women. Periodically one of them would let loose a cry of “Ai-YAH” with a great spirit of jubilation. I was later told that the high-pitched sound is called killo and uttered by a woman when she wanted to try call attention to herself.

Veera said with a twinkle in her eye “When a Seto wife is chosen, a man looks not just for someone who is a good cook, but someone who is a good singer, it’s the family’s entertainment!”

On that note, Haime and Ruti set the swing to rocking, stationing themselves on opposite sides of the platform–Haime crouched at the front and Ruti standing tall at the back. Both expertly worked with the force of gravity to build up motion and speed and soon the giant swing was high in the air, with the duo practically parallel with the ground.  The other women began to clap and Anna and Lidia’s canes were forgotten as they began to step and sway together in a little dance. The swing gained even more momentum, the clapping quickened and laughter began to bubble. Giddy with the excitement of the ever-rising swing, I laughed and laughed until my cheeks hurt…and I understood why the women’s eyes sparkled and their faces glowed.

Our time together concluded with a lullaby.  The women sang the chorus in unison, its whimsical refrain somehow universal “Ah-ah, Choo-choo, Choo-choo, Lu-lu.”  It was infectious, and even someone as tone-deaf as me felt comfortable joining in.

As I said my good-byes, Anna impulsively took off her braided belt and handed it to me.  It is a cherished gift from the generous Seto souls who shared their songs, their laughter and a poignant lesson for this reformed workaholic about the power of play, a dimension of life I had left behind with my childhood.

On the island of Cyprus, I experienced another cultural encounter that taught me not only about an ancient local tradition, but about a way of being that was a revelation to me.

My guide David led me from Limassol’s harbor through narrow streets, stopping abruptly at a storefront. I followed him into a sun-filled studio and the company of saints. David exchanged greetings in Greek with acclaimed icon painter Myrianthi Constantinidou, making the motions of introducing me. The petite brunette welcomed me with a wide smile, pulling a chair over for me to sit next to her at her workspace.

She faced her easel, on which sat a large canvas depicting the image of a haloed and bearded man against a rich gold background.  To Myrianthi’s left was a table spilling over with paints and brushes, and propped up around her on other easels and the floor were other works-in-progress, in various stages of completion.

With David translating, I asked the Myrianthi about her process.

“Inside of me I feel something that pushes me,” she responded.  “I might start an icon with one idea and something happens and that says ‘no, I will do a Virgin Mary instead.’

She said the way she feels on a particular day will influence her painting.  Some days she comes into her studio and looks at what she had done the day before and says ‘What?!’ and starts over.  She can’t predict how long a piece will take.  In the morning she can think she will be done in an hour and she is still working at 7:30 p.m.  If she has been commissioned to do a piece and is under a deadline, she gets nervous and anxious and it affects the flow of her work.

I nodded my head vigorously—I often had similar such experiences in approaching my writing. David conveyed my empathy to Myrianthi, who gave me a radiant smile; despite the language barrier, a connection had been made.

There is a Constantinidis family tradition in iconography, which began in 1961 when Myrianthi’s father George began studying the art in Athens.  He later was a pupil of Father Kallinikos of Stavrovouni Monastery, an icon in the realm of this religious art form who died in 2011.

Her father did wall painting on Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for ten years.  Myrianthi helped him from an early age and saw from close up the processes and secrets involved in hand-painting icons and frescos.  Her brother does wall painting at churches; she believes they both inherited their passion from their father.

Through David’s continued translation, Myrianthi said that in 1999 her father got sick and had a liver transplant.  There was an order at George’s workshop at that time from the abbot of Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for an icon painting of the Virgin Mary.  George was so sick he couldn’t do it and he encouraged Myrianthi to create the painting.  When it was completed, George told her that because it was her work, she should deliver the painting.  It was the first piece she had done and she was anxious and insecure when she brought it to show the abbot.  He told her that it was so good he wanted her to make a workshop in the monastery.  Two years later her father died and ever since she has felt his presence, motivating her.

I ventured to speak, and share that I too felt that my vocation had been influenced by a parent, now terminally ill.  To my embarrassment, my voice broke and my eyes welled up.  I tried to apologize but it came out as a small moan.  I was mortified and felt my face flush; I could only stare at the floor.  Then David, an American ex-pat who chose Cyprus as his home 30 years ago, said “In this country, people are comfortable with feelings.”  I dared to look up at Myrianthi and saw the emotion in her face. Despite no words having been uttered, she too had been moved, and we smiled at each other through tears.

Today, in my own studio, an original Myrianthi Constantinidis representation of the Virgin and child sits near me.  Among the pieces I have collected in my travels, the icon is special, a reminder that there is something of the divine in the spectrum of human emotions, and the grace that calls them forth.

It was through a bit of circuitous serendipity that some might call grace that I learned of the Mayan phrase “In Laakeech” which means “I recognize in you my other I.” This philosophy serves as a guiding principle for Best Cultural Destinations, despite my previously long-held belief that co-existence meant eat-or-be-eaten.

On a trip with my husband Tom to the Yucatan, we toured Chichen Itza with guide Julian. Over the course of several hours with him, we shared some of our personal circumstances, including Tom’s recent diagnosis of a very tiny benign but inoperable brain tumor on his optic nerve.

Tom and I had felt for some time like we were weighted down with some serious bad energy. We were trying to ride it out, but it was going from bad to worse. We felt stuck waist-deep in an icky morass of toxic circumstances that we just couldn’t seem to extract ourselves from, try as we might. Our own best efforts, practical and spiritual, did not seem to be lightening our load. And so, when Julien offered to introduce us to a Mayan shaman to perform a cleansing ceremony, we couldn’t accept fast enough.

We soon found ourselves meeting Jose Santos Tamay, who led us to a leafy green ceremonial space in the jungle grounds of Hacienda Chichen. A gardener brought Jose a plant and half of a coconut shell filled with water, and Jose instructed Tom to close his eyes. Jose then dipped the plant into the water and began brushing it down Tom’s head, arms and legs, while speaking incantations in Mayan. He then repeated the process with me.

While the language and ritual were unfamiliar, I realized I was experiencing the privilege of someone praying over me. It was comforting, and doubly so that Tom and I were experiencing it together. I was also moved to recognize how far I have come in my journey, and that the connections I have made in my travels have ever-so-gradually opened my uptight mind and shut-down heart to the point where I was not only comfortable but grateful to receive blessings in another language from a stranger.

And those blessings continue. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Jose gave Tom and me the coconut bowl and suggested we make a practice of performing a cleansing ritual on each other back at home. The coconut shell sits on our kitchen counter as a reminder to my husband and me that we can choose to bless each other at any time. While I can’t claim it is a daily occurrence, it is a regular one! And lo & behold…life continues to get better!

Cultural heritage tourism has been a bridge to connecting with myself, with others, and with the divine that is in each of us. I thank Jose, Myrianthi, the Varska leelo choir, and all the countless people around the world who have shared their cultural heritage—and their way of life—to my great benefit.

The Importance of Fairy Bread

Driving to work last week on successive days I heard a couple of stories on the radio. The first was in response to the President of France suggesting the baguette should be heritage listed. Josh Zepps (I was listening to ABC Radio Sydney) asked for people to call in to nominate foods should we heritage list here in Australia; lamingtons and fairy bread were mentioned. On the following day, he ran the story of Alexandra who put an ad on Airtasker offering $500 for someone to give her a pasta recipe that replicated her nonna’s pasta.

I started to think about how we as heritage professionals would describe this. These are examples of Intangible Heritage which is defined in the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage as the means practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities recognise as part of their cultural heritage (there is more to it than that but you can read that for yourself (

Research has shown that when you ask people what is heritage, the answer is generally the tangible; buildings and places. The Saraton Theatre, The Great Barrier Reef, The Sydney Opera House.

But when you rephrase the question and ask people what is important to them the answer is different. What is important to individuals are experiences and the emotions they evoke. There is no way that a piece of white bread with margarine and hundreds and thousands sprinkled on it is, in and of itself, of heritage significance. However, Fairy Bread was, in my experience anyway, an essential component of children’s celebrations and parties. What it means and the emotions and memories it evokes, well that that is where its importance and significance lay.

Arabic Coffee is listed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity not because it is coffee (although being addicted I would suggest this is enough of a reason) but because it is a symbol of generosity. The importance is not in the coffee. The importance is in the doing. The preparation and sharing, the experience it imparts and the emotions and motivations behind it.

Whether it is Arabic Coffee, Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo, Kolo Traditional Dance or burik (a deep-fried piece of pastry origami filled with either potato or egg that I grew up with) it is the individual and shared experience that becomes important.

When Alexandra put the ad on Airtasker she wrote: I can’t articulate the sensation I had with nonna’s pasta sauces but there’s a warmth and cosiness to it that I can’t recreate myself.

It is easy to see from Alexandra’s words that she is not after a bowl of pasta. She is seeking the intangible aspects of what the pasta represents to her, the memories and emotions.

I have been asked too many times; What is heritage? or Is that heritage?

But that just looks at heritage from a narrow perspective; it is just looking at the stuff. Importance and value comes from the doing and the experiencing. If we just frame heritage in terms of buildings and places we forget the human element.

Do you know what a flying buttress is? It is a buttress slanting from a separate column, typically forming an arch with the wall it supports, check out some examples. They allowed the walls of churches to be thinner and less heavy, allowing more and larger glass windows.

Do you know what a flying buttress does? It defies darkness and allows God’s words to be revealed in light. Churches became lighter, the deeds of the Saints and word of the God could be shown on windows for all to see.

Now what is more important the flying buttress as structural support or as a means to enhance people’s connections with God?

This is why the intangible is so important because the intangible brings people to together. It is food and drink and dance and craft and industry. It creates friendship and memories and importance. The intangible builds churches, presses hundreds and thousands into white bread for children’s parties and makes pasta.

So, if you were to ask me what is heritage I would in turn ask you what is important – because the answer to both questions is going to be the same.


Experiential Archaeology – It’s Time We Give People a Chance To Take Part


Taking part. That is what life is all about isn’t it? We want to take part, engage, and have those hands on experiences that create emotional connections.

Viniv winery is located at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux. Take a trip out there and you can tour their partner vineyards selecting the plots you want your grapes to come from. Go at the right time of year and you can be involved in the harvesting and processing.

Now this is the cool bit. Guided by their expert wine makers you get to make your own blend of wine. All the decisions right down to the lable design and naming are yours. And all for just $14,000 a barrel.

If chocolate is more your thing how about Rabot Estate, Saint Lucia. Guests can tour the hotel’s cocoa plantations learning about the process of chocolate making. They can select ripe pods for harvesting; see the nursery, fermentation, sun-drying, grinding and mixing. Finally they get to make their own bars directly from the bean.

The tourism industry understands the importance of emotional experiences. People should go places and do things and feel they have had a special privilege.

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Centre was established 30 years ago outside of Cortez, Colorado. Fieldwork program participants ranging in age from school kids to retirees do real archaeology. They excavate alongside the professional staff and work in the lab analysing artefacts. The Centre’s underlying philosophy is that education and experience are not the same things and that the public has an important role to play in archaeology, not only as observers but as participants.

The common feature of Crow Canyon, Rabot Estate and Viniv winery is that the specialist goes from being the sage on the stage to the guide on the side. Participants start to take ownership of their experiences. They become dependent upon themselves for their own learning and develop their own authentic stories. Fundamentally, this is what makes those experiences matter to them.

Public engagement with archaeology in Australia is limited. We preserve archaeological sites in-situ making them the focal point of new developments; artefact displays are accessible; interpretation tells the stories. Open days give the community a chance to engage with archaeology and archaeologists. People can see the sites, speak with the archaeologists and hold things that might have been buried for centuries or possibly millennia. But that is essentially it.

In the Arts, the value of volunteers is well appreciated. This is the notion of the Enlightened Amateur. There is an acknowledgement that to get community engagement with the Arts there has to be an active program of up skilling. This is more than just trying to get people to come to performances it is about providing people a way to access, contribute and participate. Go to any performance of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the majority of people you see on the stage will be volunteers.

There are a number of logistical barriers that will need to be overcome if we are to develop a truly experiential archaeology in Australia.

  • WHS – Work places are dangerous and there are issues having people there who are inexperienced or untrained.
  • Insurance – Everyone has to be covered who bears this burden.
  • Time – With the tight timeframes associated with most archaeological work there is unlikely to be time to train inexperienced personnel.
  • Core Business – Providing a visitor experience is not part of the core business or training of archaeologists.
  • Attitudes – The archaeological resource is too precious to risk it being lost or damaged by allowing amateurs to be involved.

Can we overcome these barriers? Can we utilise Enlightened Amateurs in archaeology? The answer is it is already being done.

The English town of Folkestone was the focus of a three year community archaeology project called A Town Unearthed: Folkestone Before 1500. One component was the excavation of a first century AD Roman Villa. The majority of this work was undertaken by three professional archaeologists working with over 200 volunteers.

CSI Sittingbourne was a conservation lab set up in a vacant shop in the main street to conserve artefacts excavated from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery site. The program enabled volunteers, trained and supervised by professional conservators to conserve the finds. Over 18 months the program had 20000 visitors and 2000 volunteers. This equated to 5000 volunteer hours.

The World War 1 Australian submarine the AE2 was sunk in 1915 in the Sea of Marmora. This boat played a pivotal part in the Gallipoli landings. It was found in 1998. A program to undertake survey, inspection and protection activities was undertaken in 2014 under the auspices of the AE2 Commemorative Foundation. This team was made up of volunteers oversighted by a professional maritime archaeologist.

The lesson we can learn from tourism is that participatory experiences create emotional connections. Things matter when people feel a connection with them and things will always matter more, be remembered better, be more relevant after doing rather than just seeing or hearing.

If we can foster an emotional connection with archaeology, archaeology will matter. If it matters there will be greater capacity and desire for understanding and greater understanding and appreciation are essential to protect sites and the information they contain.

By taking part we establish an emotional connection. Giving the community, giving people, a chance to take part will make archaeological sites and their values matter more. People will understand them, appreciate them and want to protect them. Drawing on the philosophy behind enlightened amateurs and experiential tourists its time to stop thinking of archaeology in Australia as a spectator sport.

It’s time we give people a chance to take part.

The Clay Studio, the Sydney Symphony and Googong School: Lessons for audience development in archaeology in Australia

On the face of it the Clay Studio, a ceramic studio established in Philadelphia in 1974; the Sydney Symphony Orchestra; and the archaeological remains of Googong School, east of Canberra and abandoned since the early 20th century would seem to have little in common.

But dig a bit deeper and the connections are there.

Within the arts the concept of audience development is not a new one. It is developing patterns of broad community participation. Good audience development uses technological and cultural participation opportunities to overcome perceptual and practical barriers to participation.

Identifying ways to build your audience and building the level of engagement is a business imperative for the arts in Australia. The Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) reported that the number of initiatives to target specific audience segments has doubled and in some cases trebled over the last seven years ( Increases in audience numbers, school and education programs and workshops are having direct flow on benefits for the major performing arts in Australia.

The Clay Studio ( has a goal of promoting access to the ceramic arts, at all levels of interest and proficiency. This is being achieved through one basic idea: making it easier for people to get to know you. Rather than just running 10-week courses, this organisation saw that introducing different class formats to accommodate different skills, financial resources and interests was a way to develop their wider audience. These measures increased enrolments and revenue. This success only coming through developing multiple ways for people to ‘get to know them’.

Recent archaeological excavations at an 1880s schoolhouse at Googong, outside of Canberra, reflect the same audience development principles. Through providing a way for primary students to engage and interact with this site over 100 students from three local schools are getting to know archaeology in Australia (

The Western Sydney Audience Development Strategy, prepared for Arts NSW states the following on page 23:

The challenge for the arts is to extend programming and audience reach beyond the loyal audience base and to engage with new audiences seeking [to] understand and to take part in community cultural life.

I believe that right now in Australia there is a need to rewrite this sentence as follows:

The challenge for archaeology is to extend audience reach and to engage with new audiences seeking to understand and experience the way that our archaeology is discovered and interpreted.

Archaeologists must start to explore innovative ways of providing a way to allow the wider community to ‘get to know them’. This must include different forms of engagement, changing mindsets on who should be allowed to actively be involved in archaeology and ultimately understanding that archaeology is more than just a practice. It is a way to connect people with their past, their heritage. Developing an audience is the first step to a allowing the wider community a greater understanding of archaeology and the role it can play in our society.