Culture and heritage


Making comparisons

Why do we need to compare heritage places?

Making comparisons between heritage places or objects is necessary and useful for two main purposes: to help in developing a statement of significance, and to work out a level of significance (such as local, state or other).

Working out a level of significance for a heritage item is based upon an understanding of its context or themes. Knowing whether an item is important to a local community or to the whole of NSW helps to determine the best way to manage it and whether a local listing or state listing is appropriate. Generally, it will be difficult to find out its level of significance without making a comparison, and it is best to approach this task without a predetermined idea of what that level should be.

The important factor in making comparisons is that 'like is compared with like'. For example, it will probably be unproductive to try to compare a ferry with a train, whereas comparing a ferry with other ferries or other waterborne means of transport may be helpful.

Identifying comparable items can be difficult. There are two issues to consider: what element(s) of the significance of the item shoulde be compared, and what resources are available to find comparable items.

What should you compare?

As a general rule, it is advisable to develop a preliminary statement of significance based upon research of the item. This should identify the significant aspects of the place or object in isolation, such as '1860s brick house', or 'designed by Edmund Blackett', or 'example of avenue of date palms', or 'Presbyterian church'.

Comparable items would, respectively, be other mid-19th century brick houses (a type), other buildings designed by Edmund Blackett (a designer), other planted avenues (a type) and other religious places (a historical theme).

Typically, many items will posses several elements to their significance, such as 'late colonial shop with attached residence of vernacular timber slab construction with some surviving early 20th century garden features and plantings and demonstrable associations with Mrs Jane Brown'.

Comparable items will contain at least some of these elements - built in 1890s-1900s (a period), combined retail and residential functions (a historical theme), vernacular construction techniques (a type), locally derived materials (a type), surviving garden elements (a type), and definable associations with a named person (a historical theme).

What resources can I use?

Once the comparable elements of significance have been defined, comparable items need to be located. There are a number of resources that can be used, and these continue to expand.

The State Heritage Register can be searched by historical theme (such as Convict, Aboriginal Cultures or Education), item type or group (such as homestead, park, archaeological site or railway yard), and designer (such as James Barnet or Paul Sorensen), as well as by local government area and name.

There are many specialist publications available in bookshops and libraries that are useful for comparisons, such as Historic Court Houses of New South Wales (Peter Bridges, 1986), and War Trophies from the First World War (Major R Billett, 1999). Searching of bookshop and library catalogues will be needed - the State Library of NSW catalogue is particularly recommended.

Many heritage conservation documents have been produced that are useful for comparisons such as Royal National Park Cabins Conservation Plan (NPWS 1994), and Federation: a national survey of heritage places (O'Keefe & Pearson, 1998). Locating such documents will generally require searching specialised library catalogues, such as universities and government agencies, as well as the State Library catalogue or the Heritage Branch Library.

Searching for comparable items that have been associated with a person can be difficult. Biographical dictionaries are a good starting point, notably the Australian Dictionary of Biography [1788-1939], (12 volumes, 1966-1990). Historical sources such as post office directories and other directories can also prove useful. Libraries and local historical societies should be useful in finding such materials, as well as the Society of Australian Genealogists and the Royal Australian Historical Society libraries.

Comparable items can also be uncovered by local fieldwork. Generally, this will involve walking or driving around an area looking for similar items, and is most useful where aesthetic values (such as architectural style or landmark status), or technological values (such as the use of a particular material or a construction technique) are an important element of the item's significance.


Click on the three topics below to see examples of comparative analyses. Note the way in which the item is placed in a context, and note the references to comparable items and to resources used in making comparisons.

For further information contact the Heritage Branch.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012