The online resource for the historic environment

1.02 Unit overview

The concept of cultural significance underpins the whole philosophy of architectural conservation. Historic buildings and sites are part of our cultural heritage and require special attention and treatment. The determination of cultural significance…is the first and most crucial step in every successful conservation project. The success of every conservation project depends upon understanding a site’s cultural significance. It is the common thread that holds all aspects of the project together and forms the aim of any investigation undertaken.”
Stirling, Bolling. Framework document 2002

This Unit is intended to introduce you to the concepts on which the significance of a building or site is based. Cultural significance and its assessment is vitally important. It underpins all other actions. The consequent assessment of that importance imposes on you a responsibility to question your motives for intervention.

Why are you doing this, what is important about this building, what deterioration processes are occurring, how are they threatening significance, how are you to protect it, what are you doing it for and how shall you achieve it? You must always question your motive for intervention; you must never automatically accept the correctness of your reasoning.

Aim of this Unit

This Unit is designed to stimulate and encourage you to ask yourself some fundamental questions about why and how you intervene in the historic environment. Perhaps an even more fundamental question to address to yourself is — what, why and how is this building important enough to make me question my motives for intervention and how shall I plan and execute any works of intervention?

Additionally, it is intended to stimulate you to improve your understanding of cultural significance, its use and interpretation and how it informs, assists and underpins any intervention process affecting the historic environment. It outlines personal challenges, skills and procedures necessary to enable you to evaluate cultural significance.

“Cultural significance means the aesthetic, historic, scientific or spiritual value for the past, present and future generations.”
Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter 1999.

Reflect on why the above quotation is important to the philosophy and ethics of conservation.

The preceding paragraphs emphasise your need to understand.

The Unit is divided into nine sections that are equivalent to and in compliance with the 1993 ICOMOS Education and Training Guidelines.

Each section comprises textual and illustrative information that together with the essential reading, recommended reading, additional reading and web sites to visit will assist you in gaining an understanding of what cultural significance means and how to evaluate it.

Self assessment questions are designed to test your understanding and comprehension of each section and the overall concept of cultural significance. They are rhetorical in nature and require you to respond in your own way. The in-text questions are progressive in nature.

You should answer these questions by reference to both the text of this Unit and by reading the material suggested. Omission of these actions may reduce your understanding of the Unit; completion of the reading suggested will provide better understanding of the discipline of conservation and how professionals within it function and operate to preserve and protect the historic environment: You should consider how the body of conservation knowledge is constantly being questioned, expanded and added to by specialists within the field and how the principles, ethics and philosophy of conservation informs and structures any intervention response. A personal acceptance of this fact will help you to understand that you must also continually expand your own knowledge of conservation philosophy – it is subject to continuous change and your understanding of it needs constant updating. The important fact to recognise is that it is a process of personal improvement that needs to be self-generated through enthusiasm for the subject!