The Midland Railway Workshops project

Natural Battleground Midland Railways.jpg

History and heritage are not synonyms, something made clear in A Natural Battleground: The fight to establish a rail heritage centre at Western Australia’s Midland Railway Workshops, historian Bobbie Oliver’s most recent work, published on the 25th anniversary of the closure of the WAGR Railway Workshops at Midland. It weaves together several stories. One, a historian’s project to document and record the histories of a great industrial workforce and site after its wrenching closure. Another, the continuing official ambiguity (at best) or planned neglect (at worst) in managing the heritage fabric and spaces that embody those histories. The book is in part a recording of a community history movement, in part a passionate questioning of those who are responsible for the place, and in part a melancholy reflection on a struggle all too-familiar to historians who chose to work in the heritage field. Midland Railway Workshops has been a natural battleground in more ways than one.

A Natural Battleground is one outcome of many from the original Midland Workshops History Project (1998–2004). The book describes the Project structure and mechanics, which form something of a manual for activist and community historians engaged in or considering such projects. Challenges around how to represent workers' spaces in a heritage centre; placing the workshops within the bigger historical context of the diaspora of British skilled labour, ideas and technology; the difficulties in interpreting and presenting historical workplace initiation rituals; the influence within the broader Western Australian labour movement of political activities in the workshops; and the sequence of technological and workplace changes evident in the transport industries and industrial spaces and contents of the place. The book finally looks back at what has (or has not) been learnt since 1994, and responds to a ‘what now’ question on the future of the Midland Railway Workshops as a heritage place, and the rather tawdry end-game now being played-out by a fading State agency.  

I live only a few minutes-walk from the old workshops and often ramble around the echoing lanes and cavernous sheds. In one sense, the place is now a re-developed, tarted-up and empty monument to the banality of 40 years of neoliberalism, but Bobbie Oliver draws us to obscured histories, and reminds us of an alternate future that was once within grasp.

The Midland Workshops History Project commenced in 1998. Of particular note are the seven principles that underpinned the project. These, for instance, mandated collaboration between historians, union officials and past employees, prioritised the workers’ own stories, and provided training for volunteer interviewers. All worthy, inspirational even, and a very lively project ensued, but a fatal flaw eventually became clear. The Project assumed that by 'being a vehicle for informed debate about the preservation of the site and of industrial heritage in general' (Principle 7), the establishment of a living rail heritage centre within the workshops would be a natural outcome. Operating industrial machinery, historic trade skills being practised, and access to the project archives would be features.

However, in retrospect it seems the State agency in which the whole site was vested in 2000, the Midland (later Metropolitan) Redevelopment Authority (MRA), never really bought into the Project’s goals. Governments have come and gone but the MRA has stayed the course. The limited heritage interpretation that was developed was closed down in 2008 for ‘public safety’ during site remediation works. Oliver is particularly scathing of the incremental watering-down of interpretation requirements by the MRA, to the point where all that remains is an ephemeral glossy e-document of interpretive suggestions for developers.  

She argues: Millions of dollars have been expended on this site and yet there are no resources to ensure that any developer receives professional assistance for interpretation that should be mandatory upon any heritage site development. (p.105) Questions of requiring heritage site interpretation, and public assistance to developers to do so, point to larger issues about who benefits from a heritage system that remains dominated by property and design interests. Oliver writes: Too often historians have been regarded as merely adjuncts in heritage conservation and interpretation. Architects have been granted precedence because heritage is often regarded as being just about buildings.(p.12) This is emphasised with a quote from urban historian Peter Spearritt, 'historians have not to date claimed much expertise in the matter of taste', although that hasn’t stopped the property industry and design professionals from articulating their ‘expertise’ in history. Questions of cui bono are worthy of study in their own right, but a more reflective question for the historians’ craft lies at the heart of A Natural Battleground.

Oliver touches on the constructed ‘forgetting’ of the site’s history by its current stewards, which leads to the $64 question: why couldn’t the Project create a different outcome? This is a poignant question that permeates the book, and I think the answer lies in the system not the Project. In my experience, historical knowledge and understanding, no matter how popular, engaging and well-articulated, will rarely change the desires of those able to control public spaces, especially if that control is short-term and the knowledge is externally generated. Neoliberalism requires the deterrence of questioning and obscuring of meanings, the very things that historical training and practice depends upon. In its place we get disconnected public art as a substitute for cultural meaning, the momentary sensory experience replacing enduring intellectual and emotional satisfaction, belittling historical remembrance and validating intentional forgetting. In the Midlands Workshops context, history is dangerous because it invites critical thinking and opens doors to alternate futures. It reveals presentist fakery. A Natural Battleground incites questions of whether it is timely for historians to ask if there is any real value in engaging with a heritage system focused on façadism.

Despite all the studies and assessments, the Midland Railway Workshops site was listed on the State heritage register only in 2008, after numerous demolitions and the distractions of a vacuous ‘icons’ program that swept the country in the early 2000s and achieved precisely nothing. The MRA is now vacating the site, and demanding $8M from the City of Swan for all the ‘improvements’ it has carried out, without even the hint of a blush. The Heritage Council of WA is apparently on the verge of reconstitution and change, with the possibility of a new council in which real estate agents, designers and architects form less than 88 per cent of members. Change is abroad, but the omens for the site remain mixed, the tea leaves still swirling, and the historians are kept at arms-length, bemusingly vexed and on the fringes. A Natural Battleground is essential reading for any historian involved in community history and heritage activism, in learning to practice their craft in a coming era of citizen history. I think Tom Stannage would have approved.

Dr Bruce Baskerville MPHA

Originally published in Professional Historians Association (WA) Inc Newsletter, Issue 137, June 2019.


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