Physical conservation of building structures at Kakadu National Park
From the 14 to 20 April I had the opportunity to participate in a five day course with the Institute for Professional Practice in the Arts and Heritage, Australian National University (ANU) held at Kakadu National Park. Wondering what tropical climates and timber buildings would hold in store for our nationally listed ‘people’s’ house, I admit to being wonderfully surprised. Along with six other specialist professionals from Victoria, South Australia and WA, and seven ANU graduates, over the five days we trekked from one historic site to another, discovering the wonders of timber joinery and the story of Kakadu.
Since the formation of the park in 1979, organisational programs and resources are directed to the management of the world heritage natural environment and rock art sites, in partnerships with traditional owners.
However, many historic sites exist throughout the park representing significant 20th century contact, social and industrial history. We visited sites representing timber milling camps, safari camps, hotels and residences, all vividly linked to the living memories of park rangers and traditional owners.
While I could discuss the technical aspects of tropical building and design; or the degradation due to climate and pest species, the lasting impressions that relate so closely to our house were:
- Spirit—the historic sites compliment and vastly increase the potential of the story of Kakadu, its audience, its product, its offer… it provides the visitor with a unique and authentic Australian story in its context, while potentially providing unique insitu experiences (these might include non-air-conditioned safari cabins in a tropical jungle by a billabong)—‘immersed within the spirit of the place’.
- Significance—the passion and commitment of the park rangers and traditional owners for these sites and the significance they represent as a multi-layered and continuous history is awe-inspiring, particularly as important contact sites between many cultural groups. The physical evidence represents events, memories and stories only a few generations removed, and the oral knowledge of these sites is currently being recorded.
- Custodianship—the degradation processes are aggressive due to the climatic conditions, and the main threat to all the sites is neglect. Lack of maintenance for any structure leads to damage, in tropical environments trees grow and propagate rapidly, leaf litter and grass growth is thick, termite channels, timber rot and mould remain untreated, iron corrodes rapidly leading to plumbing leaks, and so the cycles continue and accelerate.
The commitment to cyclic maintenance is fundamental to preserve the physical structure. But it is how we preserve the physical that will determine the spirit of the place through maintaining the authentic and significant.
Determining a vision for the historic sites, incorporating this aspect within the overall park mission will begin the process of valuing and protecting the material fabric. As part of the course we analysed a particular site as a case study, providing heritage values, condition assessment and recommendations for sustainable conservation of the physical structures, a ‘road map’ for our Park partners. As practising professionals we were all aware of the additional resource implications the historic sites will incur for management but out weighing this was the level of commitment the participants felt in maintaining an involvement. Consequently many generous and creative ideas were proffered. Many were prepared to volunteer, or set up in-house training for the rangers to carry out some of the building maintenance.
I know my experience of Kakadu was all the richer for better understanding its origins, its characters and their incredible stories, in such an astonishing environment, in front of the structures that provided shelter and hope. It was truly the enthusiasm and appreciation by participants and rangers alike that really resonated, as there were no knowledge boundaries, we all shared the significance and value of the experience.
Our house has a proud history of custodianship supported through the spirit of the place and passion of the people. Through this, us (the people), our significant national stories, events and memories can be valued and shared.