Lecture to advocate ‘supernatural values’ in heritage

Published 15 April 2008


A public lecture at the University of New England this week will explain the need to take account of “supernatural values” in the heritage conservation of objects and places that have local significance in the context of popular religion.

The visiting lecturer, Dr Denis Byrne, will focus on South-east Asia – and Thailand in particular – where official policy has sought to exclude consideration of what it regards as “superstition” from heritage conservation programs modelled on those of the West.

“Popular religion, with its emphasis on the magical-supernatural, is a key factor in the way that archaeological objects and sites are contextualised within contemporary local culture in Thailand – as elsewhere in South-east Asia,” Dr Byrne said. (A Thai shrine to a local spirit is pictured here.)

“Popular religion invests the material past with a supernatural agency whose effects lend a peculiar intimacy to the relationship local people have with old objects and places,” he continued. “The failure of most heritage practitioners (either local or international) to acknowledge this reality disenfranchises the majority of the population from having a meaningful voice in heritage conservation and is a major obstacle to conservation policies having real traction at a local level.”

Dr Byrne, Research Manager for the Cultural Heritage Division of the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change, is the author of Surface Collection (2007), a set of archaeological travel essays set in South-east Asia. His lecture at UNE – the John Ferry Heritage Lecture – will be titled “Divine heritage: the place of the supernatural in the popular valuation and conservation of Thailand’s religious heritage”. It will be at 5.30 pm on Thursday 17 April in Lecture Theatre A2 on the ground floor of UNE’s Arts Building.

The annual John Ferry Heritage Lecture, organised by UNE’s Heritage Futures Research Centre (HFRC), honours the memory and work of the UNE-based historian Dr John Ferry (1949-2004). Dr Andrew Piper, Coordinator of the HFRC, said: “The mixing of history and heritage, of people and the built environment, of analysis and description were key elements of Dr Ferry’s scholarship and practice as an historian. He also believed in the important contributions made by family and community members, and the need to ensure their ownership of their history and heritage.”

For more information on Thursday’s lecture, contact Dr Piper in UNE’s School of Humanities on (02) 6773 2764 (e-mail HFRC@une.edu.au).