Last weekend I had the great privilege to attend and (briefly) speak at the Ontario Heritage Conference in Huronia.
The Ontario Heritage Conference is jointly presented by Community Heritage Ontario and the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, and attracts a variety of people from many parts of the province. Given the nature of the organizing groups much of the programming focussed on built heritage, but there were also sessions exploring other aspects of heritage including tours of local museums. The program for conference and description of events can be found as a PDF here.
I was part of a panel of younger heritage folk assembled by the seemingly tireless Kayla Jonas for a session called Emerging Issues in Heritage — A Young Professional’s Perspective. This session explored some of the themes that are emerging for the newest generation of heritage professionals and volunteers. Kayla has assembled some of the tweets from the conference (and from the youth panel in particular). I suspect a few of the other participants may also be posting their post-conference thoughts in the coming days.
As I found my way to different sessions and talked to a variety of people at the conference, several themes seemed to recur. Here, then, are a few of the major ideas I took from the conference; as per usual, I invite comments below.
HERITAGE IS CULTURE
This probably seems obvious to people from other parts of Ontario, but it’s easily forgotten in Toronto, where culture and tourism seems to be driven by the desire for the next shiny new thing that will finally allow the city to call itself “world-class.” Heritage, in Toronto, is often seen as a barrier to innovation, rather than the driving force behind it, as exemplified by the latest David Mirvish / Frank Gehry proposal which treats the existing heritage buildings on the site as a nuisance, rather than as a resource.
In many other communities, however, locals have seen their existing heritage as both a source of community identity and as the basis for their community’s future. I‘m simplifying a bit here; often this case still has to be made and the process is still a difficult one. The thing is, though, I’ve been so obsessed with examples of communities aspiring to obliterate their old buildings in the name of culture and progress that I’ve overlooked times when communities have capitalized on their heritage to restore landmarks or boost tourism.
So many of my heritage committee meetings have been bleak and doom-ridden, but this conference was largely uplifting and inspiring, feelings which, sadly, I am not at all used to experiencing when discussing built heritage. At one session, Robert Shipley suggested that heritage advocates make more of an effort to praise governments and developers when heritage is recognized and incorporated into the community and, by gum, I’m going to try to do that.
BUILT HERITAGE IS CONNECTED WITH OTHER KINDS OF HERITAGE
Sometimes, heritage advocacy seems like it is more about knowing legislation and zoning bylaws than it is about recognizing the historic value that heritage properties embody. Several people at the conference raised excellent points about the need to acknowledge and integrate other forms of heritage, including music, dance, food, clothing, language, and pop culture. After all, many of these concepts are what first excite us about history and draw new people to heritage.
This seems especially relevant in Toronto, where newer waves of immigration may have left their mark on a community several decades after the buildings were first erected. A building’s first use isn’t the only source of its value. What matters isn’t just the form, but also the people who have used the building and the events that have taken place there. (And of course these other forms of heritage are valuable unto themselves, and need not be exclusively framed around buildings.)
YOUNG PEOPLE ARE VARIED
I’ve grown accustomed to older folks asking me what the secret is to attracting younger people to heritage, as if all young people are the same and can be attracted and cultivated in the same way. Hopefully, this conference served as a reminder that there is no single young heritage professional’s perspective.
Kayla’s young professionals panel showcased a variety of persons, both in terms of what people are passionate about and the road people have taken to penetrate the heritage community. Some started as volunteers like me; others have been attracted through studying architecture or planning, through the arts, or through more intangible forms of heritage.
While there may be a few trends emerging with the new generation, you cannot paint everybody under thirty with the same brush, or assume that all young people will respond to something in the same way.
THE BITS IN BETWEEN THE OFFICIAL EVENTS WERE JUST AS GOOD, IF NOT BETTER, THEN THE FORMAL PORTIONS OF THE CONFERENCE
Conferences aren’t just about scheduled events; they are about socializing with peers. Most industries call this “networking,” but that feels like such a gross, sinister word to me that I’d rather just go with “socializing.”
I knew very few people at the conference and thus spent much of my time introducing myself to random strangers. Not only were people surprisingly approachable, but everybody I talked to had interesting things to say, and common ground was easy to find. Veterans shared experiences similar to mine, and several told me that my tale of how I first got involved in heritage reminded them of their own beginnings.
This conference left a full half-hour in between sessions, during which people had plenty of time to grab a snack and have one or two conversations with fellow delegates. In some cases, people used this time to reflect and build upon the ideas raised in the previous session; other times people struck up new conversations. I can’t help but think how much better high school, university, or even the professional world would be if we all got unstructured, unhurried half hour breaks throughout the day. And I think I’d feel a lot better about a lot of my committees if we ended by going to the pub.
I NEED TO SPEND MORE TIME EXCHANGING IDEAS WITH OTHER HISTORIANS AND HERITAGE FOLKS
While I’ve spent quite some time sitting on committees and learning from the members of my local historical society, most of my conversations with other heritage people are framed around specific projects. Very rarely do I find myself talking to other public historians or heritage advocates without a specific purpose in mind.
This is something that really should change. When one gets caught up with a specific idea or project, it is so easy to lose track of what larger ideas one wants to convey, or why we do what we do. And when you’re a volunteer with a full-time job, time is precious; there can be pressure to only make contacts who are immediately useful. Several speakers at the conference, including the Friday dinner speaker (and former Toronto mayor) David Crombie, spoke of heritage representing the inter-connectedness of life. It drove home that there’s little predicting just who will be a useful contact to have down the road.
Last weekend reminded me that some of the best discussions are ones which come up by accident, or which go in unpredictable directions. I left this conference hungrier to hear even more ideas and opinions, and determined to have more lunches and after-work beers with fellow history/heritage folk.
And I’m definitely looking forward to the 2014 conference!