Moved Buildings for Museums: not an easy solution

Don't Be Hasty

Many museums or heritage sites try to use buildings moved from another location. While this may appear an ideal solution for both an old building and the museum, experience has shown that there are many pitfalls that are not anticipated at the outset. Moving a building is not necessarily an easy solution.

Hawkesbury Heritage Farm

Hawkesbury Heritage Farm: The Hawkesbury Heritage Farm contained 26 buildings moved from various locations in the 1970s. Pictured are an 1835 cottage from North Richmond, the 1823 Bank of Australasia and the Riverstone Police Station, 1891. Their positioning confuses rather than enhances their heritage value. In December 2001 the farm closed down. The overwhelming cost of maintaining such a large group of heritage buildings was a contributing factor to the farm's demise. Photo: Sarah-Jane Rennie

Significance of Context

Historic buildings are valued by museums as they provide a tangible link to the past. The more intact the building, the stronger the historic story the building tells. The heritage significance is strengthened by related contents and setting. For example a shearing shed has more meaning in a paddock surrounded by pens with piece picking table and wool press in place than it would if removed to the main street of town between two shops. By moving the building, the attributes that make it significant are reduced or lost altogether. It is harder to understand how it once worked or appeared.

Common arguments for moving buildings

To "save" the building. The main argument for moving a building is to save it from planned demolition or neglect. There may be irreversible activities such as a dam construction, which would destroy the building. However, in general, a building won't be destroyed if it is left in situ. Moving it may cause destructive change or damage to the fabric and will reduce its heritage value, as the surroundings cannot be taken with it.

To "improve" the museum. It is often argued that additional buildings on a site will increase visitor experience and expand the heritage value of the museum. However, further buildings will undoubtedly alter the historic nature of any site, as well as placing the building being moved in a new context.

To provide more space for storage or exhibition. Unfortunately, museum collections and historic buildings don't always mesh; the interiors are often too small for exhibitions or storage units; old buildings are not generally designed for disabled access, the walls cannot be drilled or altered, light fittings and hanging spaces are difficult to install and environmental conditions (dust, heat and too much light) may not be ideal to display or store collections.

To make the building more accessible and visible. It is sometimes argued that redundant rural buildings should be moved into the museum so that they can be seen and appreciated by townspeople and visitors. By moving the building out of its remote location the significance is greatly diminished and visitors can no longer experience the building in context.

The building provides a cheap, new space. There are many hidden expenses in moving a building. These may include the cost of the purchase of the building, removal, repairs and reconstruction after moving, installation of amenities and long term maintenance (which should not be forgotten). This may double or triple initial estimates. This may leave moved buildings in a worse state than before they were moved.

A moved building may also exclude a museum from assistance. As there are limited funds available for heritage buildings, funding bodies concentrate on buildings of significance. Funds are not usually available for restoration, repair or additions to moved buildings as their significance has been greatly diminished.

Some buildings are designed to be moved. Some buildings such as portable schoolhouses, police lock ups and transportable homes were designed to move. However, if the building has remained on a particular site for a period of time, it is likely that it has developed an association with its surroundings and should not be moved.

Moved Buildings: Not a good idea

Some buildings can't be moved

There are building types that cannot be moved without losing integrity. These include slab huts, mud brick, pisé, early concrete, stone or brick buildings. By the time their components have been reassembled, original material (such as lime and shell mortar in an old brick building or textile/newspaper linings in slab huts) will be lost. A contemporary reconstruction of the original building is not the real thing.

Early Australian structures that are intact are rare. If you are fortunate to find an early building that is intact on its original site, its value to the Australian community is so high that every effort should be made to retain it as is, where it is.

Options for retaining in location

It's important to consider all options for retaining a building in its current location. Consult with your local government heritage adviser or local planning department about possible options.

Consider:

  • Maintaining its current or original use. If the building is valued by the community, there may be ways of maintaining or updating its current use. While a church may no longer be used for weekly services it may be ideal for special occasions such as weddings, study classes or community gatherings. There may no longer be sheep on a property but the shearing shed may be leased to shearing contractors.
  • Sympathetic commercial use. Where this is carried out sympathetically, heritage information can be retained and even promoted as part of the enterprise.
  • Caring for the building in situ. The energy required to move the building could be put into caring for it in situ. A local community group with the guidance of a conservation management plan, may provide documentation, weekend working bees, signage, or manage designated open days. Showing an interest in the building will lessen the risk of vandalism.
  • Use by sympathetic groups or individuals. It is likely that someone will want the building on its original site. For instance, the isolation of some historic buildings can be turned to advantage. Isolated locations are popular as artists' or writers' retreats and provide welcome shelter for bushwalkers. Such individuals can carry out basic maintenance in return for accommodation.
  • Changing the situation. Look at options to make it an attractive proposition for an appropriate new use. Sell or lease the property, with heritage covenants to protect the original building or site - in some cases public open days have been negotiated as part of the arrangement if a building is highly significant to the community.
  • Mothball. Consider boarding up and protecting the building from further deterioration. Another community or generation may find a new use for the building on its site.

Hawkesbury Heritage Farm

Kosciusko Huts Association: The Kosciusko Huts Association conserves the huts and homesteads in Kosciusko and Namadgi National Parks. Caretaker groups are assigned to each hut to monitor their condition and to carry out maintenance as needed. Studies have been carried out on a number of the huts and the association maintains a database of the huts. Photo: K. Medson

Investigating Heritage Significance

Before making decisions about a building it is important to evaluate and document it carefully. Record the building material, state of repair, construction, interiors, associated collections - however ephemeral, surrounding land, buildings and outhouses and the people who use or have been involved with it. This will provide information on its significance and condition that will enable the building's story to be told. Talk to the local heritage adviser and check if the building is identified as a local government heritage item identified in any heritage studies or listed by the National Trust, State Heritage office or Australian Heritage Commission.

As a last resort

If, after assessing all options, it appears appropriate to move the building, contact your local heritage adviser or officer at your local council.

You can also discuss the proposal with the following:

  • Your State or Territory heritage agency
  • The Australian Heritage Commission
  • Your State or Territory National Trust office
  • Australia ICOMOS.

The Australian Heritage Directory lists contact details for these agencies.

Another agency to discuss proposals for moving buildings is Museums Australia tel: 02 6208 5044 email: ma@museumsaustralia.org.au

You may also want to contact others who have gone through the process, former owners or users of the buildings and local museums or historical societies.

This information was funded by the Australian Heritage Commission, and produced by the Museums and Galleries Foundation of NSW with the assistance of an Expert Heritage Advisory Group.