Ainslee Meredith

Ainslee Meredith (PhD in Cultural Materials Conservation, 2021) ‘The Public Value of Conservation in Australia: A Social Justice Framework’

Access to conservation, and thus to cultural heritage, has economic, social and cultural benefits; lack of access can lead to loss, both of cultural materials and of the opportunity to enjoy the benefits stemming from conservation. In Australia as in many other places, however, conservation is not widely accessible outside of the major collecting institutions where the profession has developed. This thesis explores patterns of access to conservation in Australia, the risks facing collections, and the experiences of those working to conserve collections across the country. Interwoven with new readings of conservation’s public value, and its links to social equity and justice, these studies clearly demonstrate the need for access to conservation to be broadened, and the ramifications of an unchallenged status quo.

A tripartite methodology is established, encompassing discursive, quantitative and qualitative studies. First, a background to the concepts of value, social equity and justice is given, with critical discourse analysis of key texts in conservation and heritage. Two statistical mapping studies follow, examining the geographical distribution of access to conservation, and environmental risks to collections associated with climate change; both are interested in the ‘uneven development’ of the conservation sector in urban, regional and remote Australia, and the increased burden of risk for the national collection carried by those with low access to conservation. In the third part of the thesis, the focus on place continues in the results presented of a series of qualitative interviews held with 39 people working with collections at the periphery of dominant conservation practices in Australia. The conversations elicited participants’ thoughts on the value and significance of their collections; the types of risk they encounter; their needs and challenges; the effects of any actual or potential losses; and the benefits collections bring to their surrounding communities.

To understand the interplay of these themes in the interviews – and the wider thesis – a dialectical framework is developed to theorise the persistent co-existence of binary oppositions: value and risk, impact and need, preservation and loss. This framework constitutes the thesis’s central contribution, together with the findings that emerge from the data analysis. These reveal the presence of inequities in the field, both in terms of accessing conservation and where the risk of material and opportunity loss lies; the impact of disasters, both sudden and incremental, on collections; and the mitigative effects of different forms of conservation and caretaking. A significant finding is that community collections, which are formed in response to the needs of particular places, require a decentralised policy approach that prioritises the embedding of conservation within collections.

Each part of the thesis informs a final synthesis of the sector’s needs for consideration in future national conservation policy. Towards this goal, a set of indicators for understanding the broader impact of conservation is also posited. The findings have implications for how conservation in Australia is understood, mapped, theorised, and – it is hoped – more adequately supported by governments. As it reflects upon the various modes of analysis used as forms of evidence for conservation’s public value, the research maintains the importance of listening to the voices of those who are conserving collections.

Supervisors: Professor Robyn Sloggett, Dr Marcelle Scott