What is moveable heritage and why is it important?

Moveable heritage is a term used to define any natural or manufactured object of heritage significance. It does not include archaeological relics found underwater or underground.

Like other types of heritage, moveable heritage provides historical information about people's experiences, ways of life and relationships with the environment. It also helps us to learn about people who may have been left out of written historical accounts, including women and migrant communities.

Moveable heritage can prompt memories and reflect family and community histories.

Moveable heritage can be as important for indigenous people as land and cultural sites. It assists them to keep their culture alive and maintain traditions and practices.

Because moveable heritage is portable, it is easily sold, relocated or thrown away during changes of ownership, fashion and use. For this reason, moveable heritage is vulnerable to loss, damage, theft and dispersal, often before its heritage significance is appreciated.

Moveable heritage items may be an integral part of the significance of heritage places. It can also be associated with cultural groups, communities or regions of New South Wales.

For further information please read the following publications:

Moveable heritage is more than trains and vintage cars!

Moveable heritage ranges from significant everyday objects to antiques and may be a single item, a group of items or a whole collection. It includes:

  • machinery from industry, such as tractors, ploughs and the contents of sheds;
  • furniture, domestic collections, letters and accounts books and other items in heritage places;
  • transport items, such as trams and ferries;
  • collections and archives relating to sporting and community organisations;
  • religious or ceremonial objects which are important to indigenous people or other cultural groups;
  • natural items such as fossils and botanical specimens; and
  • museum objects and collections.

How does the NSW Government support moveable heritage?

The Heritage Division can advise on identifying, documenting and caring for moveable heritage items and collections. Grants for conservation management plans, thematic studies and conservation works for items in places and in collections are available through the Heritage Assistance Program.

The Ministry for the Arts supports the programs of museums and galleries in NSW and can assist museums and historical societies with funding for collections and conservation activities. Phone (02) 9228 5533.

The Museums & Galleries Foundation of NSW is the principal service provider for the museums and galleries sector and can advise on the display, storage, care and interpretation of items in museums, historical societies and galleries. Phone (02) 9358 1760.

The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Australian Museum can advise on natural and indigenous items of moveable heritage. Phone the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service on (02) 9585 6444 and the Australian Museum on (02) 9320 6000.

What can you do?

  1. Document moveable heritage

    Documenting moveable heritage helps us to understand an item's importance, including its relationship to people and places. Documentation creates a record of the item's location, its arrangement and details of manufacture, ownership and use. When items are moved from their context, documentation helps us to recover their history, trace their use and reinstate them when circumstances change. If you are the owner or curator of moveable objects, it is important to keep copies of documentation with the site and building records and the items themselves. These are some of the things you can do:

    • photograph the place in detail, inside and out, showing the arrangement of moveable items in their context;
    • make an inventory of the items and record their relationships to places and people;
    • talk to people who used the items or remember their history. Record how the items were used, who owned them and where they came from;
    • research the local history of the region, place and community. This provides a context to understand the items and the reasons they are important in local history;
    • research historical changes and uses that have influenced the design or current condition of the items;
    • carefully examine the items to see how they were used, looking for evidence of wear and tear, repairs and adaptation;
    • assess the significance of the items
    • prepare a conservation management plan and follow its recommendations before making decisions on moving, disposing, or restoring items and places.
  2. Keep moveable heritage in its place

    It is important to retain moveable heritage in its context - either in the place where it belongs or within the cultural group, community group or region with which it is associated.

    A moveable heritage item can usually survive for long periods in the place where it belongs, as long as there is basic security, protection from pests and shelter from the elements. Items can be easily damaged through hasty and poorly planned actions. Maintenance, conservation or removal should only be undertaken when the item's significance is understood. Follow the recommendations in the conservation management plan.

    If a heritage place is being reused, there may be opportunities to keep moveable items in use or to carefully store them in a room, roof space or shed on the site, or somewhere adjacent. The following measures can help conserve moveable heritage:

    • minimise direct physical access which can put items at risk of wear, damage, disturbance and theft;
    • consider storing important archival records elsewhere for future research;
    • secure and store items during conservation works to a building or site;
    • remove small and valuable items to protect them during conservation works;
    • record any conservation work in notes and take before and after photographs. Add these records to the documentation file;
    • seek advice from a museum conservator before applying treatments to items. Painting can damage or destroy original materials, as can repairs, reconstruction and adding new parts to make an item operational.

What if an item has to be moved?

Moving an item may diminish its significance and create new storage and conservation problems in another place. It is important to explore all possible options for retaining moveable heritage in its heritage place, cultural group, community or region.

It may be necessary to relocate moveable heritage when it is under direct and immediate threat. The conservation management plan and the wishes of cultural groups and communities should guide decisions about moving items. Even if it is necessary to relocate moveable heritage from a heritage place, there may be options to retain some of the item's significance by keeping it in its cultural group, community or region. Remember to keep copies of documentation with the item.

Find a good home

When there is no alternative to moving items, it may be best for a local group, museum or historical society to acquire them. A good home allows community access and interprets the items' links to places, people and the region's history. A well organised museum will have a policy identifying what it is collecting and interpreting, in co-operation with other people in the region.

Museums have to be very selective about what they acquire because caring for moveable heritage is a major on-going commitment. Sometimes museums will decline to acquire items. This decision will be based on the museums' collection policy and its capacity to safely store and care for the items.

Safe in the shed

Historic farm buildings and machinery reveal how people once lived and worked on the land. We usually think of historic machinery as examples of old-fashioned technology. But can you explain how and where it was used, who owned it and the stories about working with it?

Some people may remember these things, but their memories and experiences are rarely written down or recorded. In most cases, the way machinery is catalogued, labelled and presented in museums does not do justice to the stories it can tell us about people, places and the hard labour of farming life.

Historic farm machinery needs to be looked after through careful conservation decisions and writing down its history. Safe in the Shed, a joint publication by the Heritage Branch and Ministry for the Arts, provides some practical advice on how to record and care for farm machinery.

You can download the PDF file of Safe in the Shed. (safeinshedfinal.pdf, 774 KB)

The Niagara Cafe, Gundagai has a large collection of 1930s shop fittings and items including photographs, mirrors and wall lights. The building and collection tell the story of traditional cafe service and a continuous association with successive generations of Greek families. Photograph by Joy McCann.

The Niagara Cafe, Gundagai has a large collection of 1930s shop fittings and items including photographs, mirrors and wall lights. The building and collection tell the story of traditional cafe service and a continuous association with successive generations of Greek families. Photograph by Joy McCann.

A lot in store

A Lot in Store; Celebrating our Shopping Heritage uncovers the heritage behind something that is part of our everyday lives: shopping. A Lot in Store tells the story of NSW shopping and retailing and investigates why our shopping heritage is vulnerable. It explains how to identify, conserve and interpret historic shops and collections. It also explores opportunities to keep historic shops in business and celebrate this living aspect of our communities.

A Lot in Store is available online as a pdf file. You need to have the Acrobat Reader to view and print these files. Install the free Acrobat Reader.

What's in store

What's in Store; A History of Retailing in Australia can be purchased through the Publications Page. It was published by Powerhouse Publishing in association with the Heritage Branch in 2003 and is a fully illustrated account of Australia's retail heritage.

Page last updated: 08 February 2016