David Siebert, Research Assistant
Maybe there’s a mall where you hung out with your first teenage crush. A park where you had a picnic with your grandparents. The back alley where you learned to skateboard. The office building where you had your first job, or worst job, or met your spouse. As we move through life our experiences embed certain emotions in places. They become significant to us. These are emotions and experiences that the builders and designers didn’t intend you to have in those places, but being human we had them anyway.
In the history of built heritage conservation, the interest in non-physical values is relatively new idea. Architectural conservation started sometime in the mid 1800s, but it wasn’t until much more recently that we started to break away from the idea that old and pretty buildings were the only ones deserving of being saved. The Burra Charter, created in Australia in 1979 and most recently updated in 2013, is a really important document for the built heritage world. It says that there are values that we cannot necessarily glean from looking at a site, and it gives ways to research, express, and designate such cultural sites. These values are intangible, but no less meaningful.
Looking at places for more than their physical structures means that all kinds of sites become interesting. Sites that, on their surface, don’t seem particularly beautiful or special or all that old. Places like old gas stations or a drive in movie theatre might have value beyond the built, material bits. The Burra Charter says that “cultural significance is the sum of the qualities or values that a place has,” whether these are “aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value[s]”. These values are located in the physical make-up of a place, but not in a tangible way. One might value a park for it’s physical design; it’s trees and streams and park benches. But one might equally value a park because it’s where something emotionally significant happened.
I am working at Heritage Saskatchewan this summer on a project looking at places of faith in southern Saskatchewan and how they have changed, or are changing. “Places of faith” is a very generic term, and that is intentional so it can accommodate a broad spectrum of places, practices, and experiences. Places of faith, not limited to synagogues, mosques, and churches, can be everything from a gathering in a house to an ancient monument built by the Indigenous people. There are shrines and cairns and stories and chapels all across the south stretch of the province. The strikingly beautiful Co-Cathedral in Gravelbourg was built with a seating capacity of 1500. The 2011 census shows the population could all sit comfortably in the Cathedral. Indigenous sites across the province are changing too, but more in our perception of them. As a people, Canadians are recognizing Ingenous sites are not dead, that they are living and continue to live. The recent unearthing of truly ancient artefacts on a road project near Biggar demonstrate that the public are aware of these shifts, even if policy is slow to catch up.
For me, one of the most important parts of the Burra Charter is a sentence in the preamble. I will let the Charter have the last word, although I have changed the word "Australian" to "Canadian":
“Places of cultural significance reflect the diversity of our communities, telling us about who we are and the past that has formed us and the [Canadian] landscape. They are irreplaceable and precious” (Burra Charter, 2013, pg 1)
The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance, 2013. Accessed July 8, 2019. https://australia.icomos.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Burra-Charter-2013-Adopted-31.10.2013.pdf
Statistics Canada, Census Profiles: Gravelbourg. Accessed July 8, 2019. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=CSD&Code1=4703071&Geo2=PR&Code2=01&Data=Count&SearchText=Gravelbourg&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=All&GeoLevel=PR&GeoCode=4703071&TABID=1