Local Government Magazine
LG Magazine

Cultural heritage information and councils

Taonga heritage strategy
By Amanda Cossham and Sarah Welland, lecturers at the Open Polytechnic of NZ and co-directors of Lindisfarne Information Consulting.

Local authorities manage cultural and historic heritage of many different kinds, according to their legislative responsibilities, and maintained or managed cultural (historic) heritage plays an important part in our culture by preserving the past, documenting local and community history, and providing evidence of cultural heritage decision-making.

This includes activities such as the identification and ongoing preservation of cultural heritage, the administration of good practice around cultural treasures, the creation and management of records that document cultural heritage, and the oversight or governance of libraries, museums, art galleries and other heritage institutions.

Our particular area of interest is ‘cultural heritage information’. This is information that documents the community’s heritage and also information that is heritage in its own right (archives for example). Our work with local authorities has shown that cultural heritage information is often managed well in public libraries, in council archives and shared archival facilities, and in local museums.

However, despite a common source of funding from the local authority, there can be few links between these collections, resulting in little visibility and a less-coherent approach to cultural heritage information. There is opportunity to improve the visibility and accessibility of cultural heritage information within a local authority and to strengthen a community’s understanding of its own history.

Cultural and historic heritage is documented in district plans and long-term plans, frequently in the context of the relevant legislation. Heritage is documented in council records and is visible to the community on council websites and documents. Some councils have heritage strategies, such as the Christchurch City Council’s Our Heritage, Our Taonga Heritage Strategy 2019-2029. Other councils have highly visible lists of cultural heritage buildings, places, sites, trees, and structures complementing web pages covering the culture and heritage of the local community.

A few councils actively use the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) New Zealand Charter, Te Pumanawa o ICOMOS o Aotearoa Hei Tiaki I Nga Taonga Whenua Heke Iho o Nehe to support their understanding of the conservation, preservation, maintenance, and restoration of cultural heritage.

Many councils work in conjunction with local iwi to assist with Maori cultural heritage preservation although sometimes this is only obvious from council websites. For example, Kapiti Coast Council’s Whakahoatanga Manatu Declaration covers a ‘photographic archive of taonga’.

It is not always clear the extent to which local authorities consider records and archives to be heritage in their own right, as opposed to providing information about more tangible cultural heritage.

That is, records and archives have a dual nature: they document the work of a councilhttps://localgovernmentmag.co.nz/2016-lgnz-excellence-awards/, and they are also historically important in and of themselves. They provide evidence of compliance and accountability and contribute to council planning processes related to tangible heritage. They can also enhance cultural connections, grow community identity, promote council services and support regional tourism and lead to a greater awareness of cultural heritage for recreation, research, memory-making, and genealogy and local history.

Councils manage archives to a high standard, but frequently in isolation from other significant collections of community heritage information that are also, technically, part of council. These are found in public libraries, museums, historic houses, and galleries. Other collections may not be directly funded but council-supported, such as genealogical and local history collections often managed by volunteers and societies.

Public libraries cater to community interest in local history and genealogy, while museums and historic houses may have many documents that support their physical collections or that are historic in themselves (e.g., diaries and letters, company records, old newspapers, photographs, maps). It is possible that there are resource and cost efficiencies which could be achieved by a more coordinated approach to this kind of heritage.

In reviewing council websites (a convenient metric for determining what a council considers important to its community, especially during a pandemic) we found few links between protected records and archives and other collections of community heritage information that are directly or indirectly funded by councils, such as public libraries, local museums, and historic buildings.

There were clear links to these cultural heritage institutions as entities in their own right, but few links between the content. While larger councils have separate archives of a size to warrant their own websites and approaches, creating cross-links between council archives, libraries, museums and galleries and other regional institutions with heritage information collections, such as historical [and cultural] societies would be helpful for the community, visitors/tourists and researchers.

For example, we found that few library websites provided links to council archives (or pages about council archives and records) on their heritage pages, and few councils provided links between pages about council archives and pages about local heritage.

It is understandable that where records and archives are seen as a key tool for running of the local authority (which they undoubtedly are) there would be no obvious reason to create these links. However, a stronger picture of a community can emerge when links are provided between heritage institutions, collections and services in the area.

This is a different challenge to that being addressed by online databases of local authority archives such as Archives Central, because the focus is on linking collections of regional cultural heritage information for the benefit of wider community, not just on bringing together and collaboratively managing council archives.

Some councils are bridging the gap between these collections of cultural heritage under their responsibility in different but effective ways. Puke Ariki brings together a public library, research centre and museum, Invercargill brings its Library and Archives together in one organisation, linking archives with family and oral history resources, as does Masterton. Upper Hutt provides digitised heritage collections through its Recollect platform. Smaller councils use their websites to link or highlight heritage collections.

There are other options, both formal and informal, that could also be considered. One council we worked with had a well-managed archive and an excellent local history collection in the public library, but no formal way for staff in these two collections to work together. This meant that it was harder for staff to improve the management of the collections and increase their visibility and use by the community.

While informal collaboration was a possibility, it relied on the individuals involved and was lacking, not due to unwillingness by staff, but because it was not formally supported by council process and therefore could not get traction or leverage for a more robust and sustainable approach.

Other local authorities face different issues. For example, we have spoken to people working in public libraries and in council records and archives who frequently do not think about or consider collaboration across the wider heritage information landscape that encompasses all forms of cultural heritage information.

While this may be the result of ‘needs must’ thinking in light of day to day demands and core responsibilities, it can result in a narrower focus on the community and its history which can hinder wider understanding and use of tangible heritage and heritage information collections.

In a small country such as ours with limited budgets for these specialisations, thinking collaboratively and actively working together to increase the value and safety of cultural heritage information can lead not only to a much more positive outcome for the community but also to more cost-effective and shared solutions, robust facilities, and improved access.

Council websites could link information about documentary heritage (including protected records and archives) to their information about community historic heritage, public libraries, museums and other heritage organisations. Doing this would improve their ‘brand’ and aid the visibility of unique regional heritage. Creating more links across a website increases findability of cultural heritage information without incurring additional cost to a council and provides better information for the end user/stakeholder/ratepayer.

Ultimately, a thoughtful strategy encompassing the management of cultural heritage information across a council (as in and between libraries, council archives and records, museums) combined with possibilities for web-links in council websites to other heritage services outside council ambit could work better for councils and for the end users, with economies of scale.

Sarah Welland and Amanda Cossham can be contacted at:
sarah.welland@openpolytechnic.ac.nz and amanda.cossham@openpolytechnic.ac.nz

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