Art and Heritage

Art and Heritage

Contemporary art practice has for some time been allied with, and embedded within, heritage management practice. Both heritage practitioners and artists interrogate, understand and present heritage places and values to the public. Public art in particular has become a staple of local placemaking projects, which in conjunction with various forms of heritage interpretation, are being used to assist in developing community identity, and to enhance spaces and places in local areas.

History, historical places, and objects themselves are a rich source of inspiration for artists who are seeking to challenge the viewer to think about the world in different ways. Artists are often asking the ‘art consumer’ and the wider public to engage with artworks in ways that move beyond aesthetic experience towards an engagement with broader societal and cultural issues, many of which are tied to history of place, narrative and object.

Some contemporary art practices have overtly embraced the idea that there is a deep underlying philosophical connection between art practice and archaeology.

Feature Image: Interloop by Chris Fox

Many artists see themselves as participating in a form of contemporary cultural archaeology—they collect objects and analyse and present them in ways that reflect upon questions of society and material culture

Beyond these intentional connections, there are also relationships between art practice and heritage places and values that are incidental, but which can empower both disciplines without either having sought to leverage the value of the other. Such art works and events often occur where art practices coincide in their location with heritage places, or where the intent of an action at a heritage place also has an associated artistic value that can be recognised beyond the heritage framework. This provides unintentional but important connections between art and heritage place, practice and values.

Each of these avenues of engagement is an important part of the future of heritage practice.

Interpretation and Placemaking—Art and Heritage in the Public Eye

One of my favourite artworks that interprets the history of a place is the fabulous Interloop sculpture at Wynyard Station in Sydney. The sculpture uses two pairs of the original 1932 wooden escalators and has reconfigured them into a loop suspended from the station ceiling. Sculptor Chris Fox repurposed some of the significant original fabric of the station into an artwork that engages the public both aesthetically and conceptually. He draws attention to the mundane elements of the system and their potential to convey meaning about the past and future of the place:

Interloop is a project that really talks about past journeys and future journeys – this idea of two stitching stairways that interloop over each other using these heritage treads – Chris Fox, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 December 2017

This sculpture has a ‘wow factor’ that engages the public in a new appreciation of the heritage fabric and values of Wynyard Station.


Heritage interpretation projects undertaken by GML at places such as Sydney Harbour YHA at The Rocks, 200 George Street, Sydney, Mulwala Homestead Precinct, and Hill End Historic Site, among many others, engaged with artists to interpret elements of the places’ histories to the public. These examples illustrate aspects of art and heritage practice that engage the public in exciting, site-based appreciation of the heritage values of place.

Losing Our Place…

When removed from place-based engagement, art can engage the viewer with concepts and ideas of place and history through a different lens.

Several ICOMOS Conferences have included ‘Artists-in-Conference’ to provide alternative pathways to provoke thoughts around the conference themes. The 2013 Centenary of Canberra ‘Imagined pasts…, imagined futures’ conference included a public art engagement by artist Alex Lewis, who asked conference participants to re-imagine Canberra’s past, and also to conjure up one of many imagined futures, through an interactive artwork. Lewis prepared hundreds of laser-cut hexagon pieces of timber with portions of Canberra’s town plan etched into each. Conference attendees were invited to participate in creating an artwork from these town plan fragments by laying them out and joining them together in a way which could reimagine Canberra’s town plan.

Artists-in-Conference at the recent 2019 Heritage of the Air Conference, ‘Fred’ (Ursula Frederick) and ‘Flo’ (Caren Florence), presented performative artworks which focused on aircrew behaviour and fashion. Conference attendees were also presented with a screen-printed air-sickness bag which contained a HOT AZ (Heritage of The Air Zine) publication, complete with mock-up advertisements, safety announcements and detailed information on the often overlooked aspects of air travel relating to the environment and industrial relations.

Successful engagements between art and heritage need not necessarily be bound by place and placemaking but could expand to take the interpretation and revisioning of history and objects into different locations and different audiences.

One of my own creative outputs focused on creating a range of sculptures from historical objects and heritage fabric salvaged from the old John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) at the ANU. The original 1950s power points served as the sculptural underpinning for artworks which explore the research undertaken at JCSMR on the central nervous system and the nerves in the eye. Similarly, I repurposed laboratory air and gas pressure gauges to explore research into the human immune system and the chemical make-up of stress.

These sculptures, while relating to the history of a place, are not place-based artworks. They allow creative interpretations of history, of the building, the research and the people, to be transported into new locations and to engage new audiences.

Archaeologists and Artists—A Shared Philosophy?

Colin Renfrew, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, argues that artists and archaeologists have a parallel vision[i]—looking at, interrogating and ascribing meaning to material culture. He refers to those artists who engage with archaeological practice and archaeological sites, not as recorders of the site, not to reconstruct the past, but to bring with them ideas that are independent of the perspectives of the archaeologists.

An example of this was implemented by archaeologist Denis Gojak, who invited artist Geraldine Berkemeier to participate as an artist-in-residence at an excavation of the old police station in Marulan, NSW. In a conversation with Gojak, he told me that he was looking for an artist who would bring their own interpretation to the site, its processes and its outcomes.

In essence, the artist would produce a parallel interpretation and a parallel perspective on the site—unfiltered by the archaeologist and their particular cultural or intellectual baggage

Berkemeier created a number of works as a result of her time at the excavation including a range of prints and a sculptural installation. These works focused on the material culture and the objects as well as the soils and the site plan. One series of prints portrayed facsimiles of artefacts in clustered arrangements, while another series used the soils from the site as an ‘ink’, reconfiguring the site geometry from both the historical building plan and the archaeological excavation grid layout.

Berkemeier extended her view to consider aspects of archaeological practice through reinventing the sieving process inside the gallery, complete with carefully aligned stylised sieves, scattered artefacts and mounds of soil. Here she reflects on archaeological practice as well as the history and content of the site, in a similar style to works by artists such as Mark Dion, Varvara Shavrova, and Janet Hodgson.

This approach not only serves to engage the art viewer with the history and material culture of a site, but also engages the viewer with archaeology as an investigative discipline.

Incidental Connections

Less apparent yet worthy of more consideration is the coincidental occurrence of art practice, heritage practice and heritage place. By this I refer to situations where art practice coincides with heritage places, but does not have an explicit intent to interpret or present the heritage values.

One recent and highly public example of this was the installation of a neon ‘S.O.S’ sign in the window of one of the apartments in the Sirius building at The Rocks in Sydney. While this installation was a protest designed to attract attention to the political situation around the building and its residents, it also serves as an artwork that can speak to broader societal issues. The concept of ‘saving’ refers not only to the building itself but also to the general public housing sector, under pressure of redevelopment. A similar SOS could have been aptly installed in Canberra’s recently demolished Northbourne housing precinct, delivering a similar meaning.

Sydney’s Laneway/City Art, which ran from 2008 to 2013, was initiated to activate the laneways of the city centre (off George Street, between Market and Bridge Streets) ‘to inject new energy into the urban life and stimulate creativity and innovation in the city’.[ii]

This project, while showcasing a range of engaging art installations, also drew attention to the overlooked laneway spaces—part of the history of Sydney’s town planning.

The use of these historically functional spaces for a new artistic venture is an opportunity to remind the public not only about the existence of these spaces, but their contribution to the function of the city in the past.

The now well-known festivals of Enlighten in Canberra, Vivid in Sydney and White Night in Melbourne often use historical buildings as the canvas for projected light shows that encompass contemporary culture, politics and history. These festivals, while focusing primarily on the light show, also incidentally serve to highlight the shapes and fabric of these historic places in a way that can change the public perception and appreciation of them.

Where to From Here?

At present there are a range of art practices that connect with heritage practice. In some cases, this is place-based interpretation and public art. Artists in these projects are often an extension of the tools of heritage presentation, formulating an artist response to a prepared interpretive scheme or narrative.

Artistic engagements with history and heritage can, and often do, move beyond place-based interpretation, preferencing the artists’ vision for their own interpretation of the past. Art projects where artists can take the lead in analysing the material culture, history, cultural and industrial practices of a place have the potential to expand meaningful connections between art and heritage practice. Furthermore, some of the similarities in underlying practice for archaeologists and artists could lead towards a new way of exploring and expressing archaeology to the public. There are untapped opportunities for alternative views of themes, narratives and histories, through both place-based and fabric-focused artworks, to engage with the public in exciting and different ways.

Industry recognition that art practice sometimes coincides with, but doesn’t necessarily specifically focus on, heritage places can be seen as an opportunity for heritage practitioners to seek greater and more frequent collaborations with artists. This could achieve mutually supportive outcomes, particularly where these outcomes can reflect on political narratives concerning conservation.

Opportunities beckon for alternative approaches to presenting and experiencing heritage place and values through artworks. We need to broaden our perspective to recognise the different ways in which art and heritage can, and are already, working in mutual support.

[i]     Renfrew, C 2003, Figuring it out: What are we? Where do we come from? The parallel vision of artists and archaeologists, Thames and Hudson London.

[ii] City of Sydney, ‘Laneway/City Spaces’, viewed 24 November 2019 <>.