Assemblage of personal memories. Gifts, inherited objects, family photographs, and souvenirs displayed in a dining room cabinet are ever-present in my Mums everyday home life. Photo. Steve Brown, 2023
What is Everyday Heritage?
Steve Brown, Tracy Ireland
12 December 2023
From the outset, it is important to state that this blogpost does not provide a definition of ‘everyday heritage’. Rather, we use it as a concept that can be applied by individuals, heritage professionals, and communities to explore the cultures and practices of everyday life in all their richness, wonder, and familiarity. Furthermore, when utilised and applied by marginalised groups, everyday heritage offers a means to create visibility and awareness and, thus, is a form of ‘counter-heritage’. Let’s begin by looking at what is meant by ‘heritage’ and ‘everyday’.
Heritage is often described as ‘inheritance’ and ‘the things we want to keep’. This latter phrase may sound straight forward, but it’s not as simple as it may first seem. First, ‘things’ can vary from intimate objects (e.g., jewellery, family photographs) to large landscapes (e.g., the town of Braidwood in NSW) and are inclusive of practices, traditions, and stories. Second, the pronoun ‘we’ can refer to an individual as well as a diversity of social groups – family, local community, community of interest (e.g., railway transport enthusiasts), and a group of diverse communities that make up a region or country. Sometimes ‘we’ is inclusive, but sometimes it signifies who is included in the ‘we’ and who is not. Third, ‘to keep’ can refer to different timespans, some short (a few days), some longer (a human lifetime), and some extending into a distant and unforeseeable future. Furthermore, ‘to keep’ can be as much about remembering as it is about conserving.
Everyday means commonplace, ordinary, and ‘encountered or used routinely’. In the study of the everyday, there is a long history of writing on ‘everyday life’. For example, philosopher Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991), a Marxist and humanist, is recognised as a founding figure on this topic for his three-volume Critique de la vie quotidienne (Critique of Everyday Life), first published in 1947. Philosopher and historian Michel de Certeau (1925-1986) – in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) – argued that everyday life is distinctive from other practices of daily existence because it is repetitive and unconscious. A key purpose of such literature is to make the practices of taken-for-granted, everyday life visible, acknowledged, and valued.
Everyday heritage has origins in ideas of everyday life. Given that the latter has had a focus on urban life, as in the work of Lefevre and de Certeau, it is unsurprising that everyday heritage is often applied to urban landscapes. For example, Turkish landscape architect Saruhan Mosler (2019) has applied the concept of everyday heritage ‘as a place and people-led approach towards urban heritage and place-making’ and argues that everyday heritage can positively influence place-making in urban design. In a similar vein, geographer David Atkinson (2007) has suggested that an emphasis on everyday understandings of ‘mundane’ places can contribute to wider studies of ‘how place identities are constructed and continually remade by the quotidian practices and negotiation of social memory’.
Everyday heritage can also refer to activities undertaken outside of the work of academic researchers and heritage professionals. For example, many people engage with the past through seemingly ‘insignificant’ places, histories, stories, objects, and images – rather than headline-grabbing heroic or grand structures, collections, narratives, and commemorations. Consequently, the heritage practices and experiences of many groups within society are not well represented in national, State-Territory, and local heritage frameworks. Thus, heritage registers tend to exclude heritage associated with family history, gardening, and domestic-scale culinary, craft, and collecting activities, especially where they relate to the overlooked narratives of low-income, women, migrant, Indigenous, and rural experience.
From our reading on everyday heritage, we make three observations. First, ‘everyday heritage’ is a phrase used in scholarly literature, family history research, and, in some cases, heritage policy as having to do with ‘everyday life’ and ‘everyday lived experience’, of non-elite, or what might be called middle- or working-class community or family groups. Second, an estimated half of Australia’s adult population engages in family history or genealogy, a genre and practice of heritage-making that is seldom captured in official forms of heritage. Thus, family history, often connected to heirloom objects and associated places and stories, is a form of everyday heritage with high levels of participation and low levels of formal recognition in official heritage policy and institutions. It is also a form of heritage participation that has expanded because of the accessibility of digitised archives and a range of online platforms which develop new forms of community. Third, place-making, place-attachment, and sense of identity are forms of everyday heritage practice and experience characterised by repetition, routine, and regularity to the point that their very mundaneness can make them invisible or unrecognisable forms of cultural practice.
What, then, is everyday heritage? We conceptualise everyday heritage as ordinary, mundane and/or quotidian practices that can be investigated via our engagement with archives, places, practices, collections, and communities. In our work, we emphasise the role of engagement with archives through the affordances of digital collections and discovery techniques (e.g., Trove – the Australian free online research portal and discovery service). Such approaches exploded in use during the COVID pandemic years in Australia. The Everyday Heritage team will be using this blog to share some of our experiments with Everyday Heritage that may be of interest to professionals and communities interested in thinking about the heritage of everyday life.
Collection of children’s playthings found in the roof-gutter of a house. The objects comprise three toy racing-cars, a set of plastic handcuffs, and a 20-cent coin commemorating the end of the Second World War. Photo: Steve Brown
Gardens can be examples of ‘everyday heritage’ because they are places routinely worked in, cared for, and experienced. Gardens are where memories are planted and nurtured. Photo: Steve Brown