Open Letter to St Kilda Historical Society

This is to register my deepest concern about the proposal, put forward in the December issue of St Kilda Times, that the Society’s name be changed to (a) St Kilda Heritage Society or (b) St Kilda Heritage Group.

First, the concept and study of history is an ancient discipline, a recognition of the continuity of the present as springing from the past. It is about connection and recognition of what has gone before. It is a word that says much, that is in turn, commonly understood and accepted. Although the Society has had a name change in the past, neither the words nor the concept were altered in any meaningful way because Historical Society of St Kilda and St Kilda Historical Society mean the same thing. This sort of word shuffling is lampooned in Monty Python’s film Life of Brian (1979) in regard to different liberation front organisations of ancient Palestine, which are essentially the same regardless of how they shuffle the words in their titles. It is no coincidence that most of the Python team came from a scholarly background and brought a fine appreciation of both language and history to their work as comedians.

Heritage is a much softer word than history, it is such a broad word that it means little and suggests no particular discipline. In 1990 a group of Elwood residents in the Shelley-Ruskin-Addison Street area formed the Elwood Heritage Group. We did this in a bid to stop the replacement of two houses in an intact Between-the-Wars streetscape with a multi-unit development. The group was an ad hoc community effort, organised overnight and having no official status. It was a wonderful thing and achieved a good result because that streetscape is still intact. Nobody questioned our formal status as an organisation because the name doesn’t suggest anything more than an informal assortment of individuals concerned in some unspecific way with preservation of an unspecific past or something handed down.

Historical societies are recognised as serious, worthwhile, formal organisations of often shared affiliations and broad community significance. All the other historical societies, especially the big players, won’t be racing to change their names. To abandon the concept of ‘historical’ is to abandon our own heritage as a society. The word ‘group’ suggests a loose affiliation, whereas ‘society’ suggests a body to be reckoned with. Societies are usually incorporated bodies with formal affiliations and recognition.

What concerns me most is the attitude manifest behind the name change proposal. At a time when the architectural/building fabric of Melbourne is being eaten up by rampant destruction and overdevelopment, when “old” has become synonymous with worthless and undesirable, when ‘new, new, new’ is the war cry of the assault on anything not produced last week, do we really want to throw away our own history in this attempt at rebranding and repackaging? Is the product so down on sales that we need to give it a makeover? Maybe the product is no longer wanted, maybe no-one cares any more about history – maybe they no longer know what it is, because those of us who do have done such a poor job of peddling our interest – but whatever the case, changing a name does not solve a problem.

Name changes of organisations/businesses usually signal the end of what has gone before. If the members of the St Kilda Historical Society want to wind it up, so be it. The Society’s charter is on the web, why was it not included alongside all the spruiking for the notion of heritage as a concept of dealing with ‘now’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘forward-looking’? A significant name change represents a significant change, in this case abandoning the past. The very reason I joined the Society was because I believe in the importance of knowing, understanding and preserving ‘history’ and ‘history’ is many things, all of them with ‘heritage’ value. ‘Heritage’ on the other hand, is an amorphous term, equally signifying the bad things we have been left with by the follies, misfortunes and wrongs of the past. The greed of our present consumer society will leave a heritage of waste and destruction and because it will be our heritage to have no historical societies, we will have no understanding of what happened and how we all ended up where we did.

Why even keep the name St Kilda? The municipality no longer exists. Call it the Port Phillip Heritage Group and really plant a stake in the future, a future in which the St Kilda Historical Society can be a quaint footnote on the fusty page dealing with the past. If you are going to kill it off, could you please give it a fallen hero’s burial, some respect and a chance for all of us to move on in our different directions. I do not want to be a member of the new ‘group’ and shall refocus my interest on the National Trust, which values history and heritage without compromise or embarrassment in the face of the newfangled and marketing groove-meisters peddling their throw-away philosophies.

Blazenka Brysha
Life Member, St Kilda Historical Society

Our heritage: In Barkly St, St Kilda, a new multi-unit development is squeezed onto a small block of land, until recently occupied by a very old, locally unique, weatherboard house. The plane tree in front was illegally mutilated, before the house was demolished. The pot plants were attached by someone to indicate that there should be growth on the now-dead limbs.

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