Marilyn Truscott
Cultural Heritage Consultant, ICICH (ICOMOS International Committee on ICH)

This paper looks at the current situation for intangible cultural heritage in Australia, a place of great cultural diversity. Australia is a continent, a vast country, with a migration story 65,000 years old, when the first humans arrived, after homo sapiens sapiens left Africa. Since then, migrants from around the world have come to this continent, particularly since British colonization in 1788, resulting in many ethnic and cultural groups settling.

The 2016 census highlights the ethnic variety in Australia’s population of 25 million. Indigenous Australians form 3 percent, being descendants of 300 different language groups and cultures of the first peoples, with a continuity and revival of tradition and cultural expressions. The census records further diversity as nearly half of Australians (49 percent) had either been born overseas (28 percent first generation Australian) or one or both parents had been born overseas (second generation Australian)—the highest in any country.1

The census data also demonstrate the considerable variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the population, with 60 percent of those born overseas being from non-English speaking countries, increasingly from Asia. Such diversity has always existed, despite the White Australia Policy enacted by the new enacted at federation as the Commonwealth of Australia upon federation in 1901. At that time, 25 percent of the four million population were not the English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, and Cornish from Britain. They were from elsewhere, the many Chinese who came to the 1850’s Gold Rush, Afghan / Punjabi cameleers transporting goods throughout the desert being two thirds of Australia, and Lebanese and Greek merchants.

Migrants have always come from many different countries. From Europe, increasingly from Mediterranean countries: Italy, Greek, the former Yugoslavia, and Malta, from Turkey and continuing from Lebanon. Waves of refugees arrived from Eastern Europe after World War II, from Chile in the 1960s and 1970s, and 80,000 from Vietnam in 1975 and many more since, along with Laotians and Cambodians. More recently, migrants have been arriving from Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Many Chinese and Indian students remain after graduation.

Many ‘new Australians’ experience displacement from home in this different world. Continuing cultural expressions enables such newcomers a retain their identity and staying connected with others from their culture is central, taking place in social and sporting clubs in most large cities. Smaller groups will gather for special traditional events at a community hall. For example, the Theo Notaras Multicultural Centre in Canberra has a range of different sized rooms for events, teaching, special cultural activities, and office space available to migrant cultural associations.2 However, other than living in similar areas in the cities for perhaps one generation, no ethnic enclaves have formed long-term, such as the ‘Little Italy’ of other new settler countries. The next generation moves on, buying houses elsewhere in the capital cities where most live.

In 1973, the Australian government launched their policy for multiculturalism in Australia, following a similar move by Canada in 1971. The concept understood that migrants had the rights within mainstream Australia of expressing their cultural identity, acculturating rather than assimilating to the majority culture. As such, Australians have multiple cultural or ethnic backgrounds, retaining unique cultural markers of language, food, customs while these have also become familiar to Australians of other ethnicities.

However, Australia has not ratified the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, similar to other Anglo countries—Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, United Kingdom, and USA. How then are new migrant groups’ intangible cultural heritage gaining wider recognition? There is now an increasing recognition of intangible cultural heritage in heritage place statutes, guidelines, and practice.

The nationally applied heritage criterion for social value states that “the place has outstanding heritage value to the nation because of the place’s strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons.” Also, the Australia ICOMOS nationally adopted heritage guidelines, the Burra Charter, stresses the role for the relevant community’s role in identification, protection, and management of this living value where identified. In October 2017, Australia ICOMOS adopted its national ICH committee’s Practice Note: Intangible cultural heritage and place.3

There is recognition and support of cultural continuity and expression in many government programs, such as Festivals Australia, with a focus on the arts and cultural projects in regional and remote communities. Projects can include a parade, performance, workshop, installation, or exhibition.4 Cultural mapping is applied at the local government level to identify cultural assets and places of community association, such as where intangible cultural heritage is expressed.5 Non-government national groups include the Australian Folklore Association that fosters the continuation of “the full diversity of customs and traditions existing in our multicultural society, including the folklore of indigenous and immigrant groups.”6 The Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia represents Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds promoting multiculturalism as a core value in the twenty-first century.7

And there are hundreds of individual bodies that foster particular aspects of living heritage: music, dance, song, food, and much more by different cultural groups. Such groups will often present these traditions, from bagpipes to Chilean whistles, at multicultural festivals held throughout Australia, celebrating food, song, dance, music, and more of the country’s diversity. However, at such festivals such sharing of ICH is not usually on its traditional date, being celebrated by the relevant cultural group elsewhere.

At the time of Australia’s federation as one nation, there was a construction of ‘Australian identity’, rather than British. Poets, writers, and designers, focused on the unique flora and fauna, and on the romance of the Bush (the term for the rural countryside) in what was then already a highly urban society. The bushman, the pioneer, and the legend of ‘mateship’ has formed the Australian character of ‘fair go’. Suburban life in cities has developed other traditions, such as the Lamington Drive—selling this traditional iconic cake to raise funds for primary schools, or church or scout groups. The local public primary school has also become a venue for children of different ethnicities sharing cultural traditions on special days.

One aspect of migration is the loss of place and spaces where traditional cultural expressions take place. Various ethnic groups have found new settings. For example, migrants arriving since the 1950s from rural Macedonian villages to urban Sydney lacked a place to celebrate the traditional sredzelo, a gathering, almost a picnic, in the fields surrounding their village on special feast days. The Royal National Park to the immediate southeast of Sydney is where such events are now celebrated.8

Whereas most current migrants in the past century have come to the capital cities, earlier migrants of non-mainstream ethnicities were also in rural areas, Chinese staying on in country towns after the Gold Rush, and Lebanese and Greeks often having market gardens and being green grocers. Usually in small numbers, there is a larger and active Chinese community in the former gold mining town of Bendigo. Every year since 1871, the traditional Chinese hold dragon parades, but not during the Chinese New Year rather at Easter, as the Chinese wished to contribute to society and have their intangible culture celebrated by the wider community.

In the late nineteenth century, an early Indian migration of Sikhs from the Punjab came to work on sugarcane farms in northern Queensland, and eventually south to the banana plantations on the northern coast of New South Wales (NSW), many eventually becoming landowners. Today the small coastal town of Woolgoolga, the Sikh population of almost 700—10 percent of a population of 5,000—continues a vibrant Sikh culture.

In the case of Indigenous Australians, for some fifty years, there has been more protection of their heritage, with a recognition of sacred sites, and increasing acknowledgment of their control over decisions about their culture. Very recently, there has been statutory amendments to Aboriginal heritage legislation to acknowledge intangible cultural heritage traditions not specifically located at any site. This has been in two states that have been colonized the longest—NSW and Victoria. NSW recognizes in its 2018 proposed amendments that “Aboriginal Cultural Heritage (ACH) consists of both tangible and intangible elements.”9

Victoria affirms that its 2018 amendment encompasses beyond the current Aboriginal heritage definition of the “environment, places, landscapes, objects and materials, also living, traditional or historical practices, ancestral remains, representations, expressions, beliefs, knowledge and skills”. Change in such living heritage is also acknowledged as being “passed down across generations with or without adaptations and evolutions.”10

An example of an actively revitalized, recreated traditional practice by the Barengi Gadjin people in western Victoria, is the traditional Bakang Dyakata, the Aboriginal earth oven.

This annual event, held on the banks of the Wimmera River, brings the community together to cook using traditional techniques and to taste native foods. It’s an example of the rich intangible heritage of Aboriginal communities in Victoria, as well as the resilience and revitalisation of cultural knowledge and practice.

This account describes Australia’s response to its wealth of ethnicities, how new, and old, cultural groups are retaining, maintaining, and sustaining their culture, including their intangible heritage. More formal recognition is evolving.