Ray Tonkin

Cultural heritage is critical to defining and celebrating our nation’s diverse history and character. Acknowledged as a national leader in cultural heritage matters, Ray Tonkin recently received a Public Service Medal at the 2010 Australia Day Honours Awards: a fitting acknowledgment of his incredible public service to the recognition, management and promotion of Victoria’s non-Indigenous cultural heritage.

Ray Tonkin has held an outstanding leadership role in heritage conservation and consultation for over three decades, most notably as Executive Director of Heritage Victoria, a role he retired from in June 2009.

Mr Tonkin managed Heritage Victoria for the unprecedented period of 22 years and was Executive Director of the Heritage Council and its predecessors. He skilfully balanced the requirements of government, a statutory authority and the general public, whilst developing a state heritage protection system that has the most comprehensive listing in Australia. He was central in engineering the extraordinary growth and profile of Heritage Victoria and in championing various policies and projects across the field of heritage conservation and consultation.

Ray Tonkin’s early focus on architecture and heritage was consolidated at the University of Melbourne where he received a Bachelor of Architecture in 1971 and a Master of Urban Planning in 1982. He commenced his architecture degree in 1966 with ‘a vision that I would spend the rest of my life designing houses (didn’t we all?)’.

The inspiration for his future career came in fourth year when George Tibbits ran the subject Australian Architecture. ‘This opened my eyes to the history of local architecture and introduced me to architectural history research,’ Mr Tonkin recollects. ‘George was inspiring and remained so, for me, until his death. I hold him responsible for many of the advances that came in heritage conservation in this state through his mentoring of so many students who were equally inspired by him. I guess it was inevitable that I would ultimately seek out work involved in architectural history and after doing some bits and pieces for the new Australian Heritage Commission, I was offered work for the relatively new Victorian Historic Buildings Council. The rest is history.’

In his Heritage Council farewell speech entitled ‘Thirty years in harness’, Mr Tonkin reflected on his career and drew focus to the achievements and progress Heritage Victoria has made since the 1970s. The transformation of this organisation and the government and community views around cultural heritage has been immense.

‘The Historic Buildings Register, established in 1974, contained 370 places - virtually all buildings constructed in the nineteenth century. By 2009 the Victorian Heritage Register supports over 2000 places (including buildings, landscapes, shipwrecks, objects and trees), the Heritage Inventory of Historic Archaeological Places contains 7500 entries.’

Indeed, Heritage Victoria is now a sophisticated operation, employing around 60 professional staff, and is acknowledged as an important arm of government in Victoria. In his stirring farewell speech, Mr Tonkin outlined the growth of interest in heritage issues and the changing nature and definition of cultural heritage. He noted that:

‘The community has become increasingly attached to its heritage places and individuals and groups (including local government) invest considerable resources in planning and other forums arguing for preservation and conservation. If in 1978 I had suggested to a number of municipalities that within 30 years they would be spending well over $100,000 per annum each for specialist heritage advice they would have laughed at me.’

Mr Tonkin’s own career highlights centre on the milestones that Heritage Victoria achieved during his leadership:

‘I was privileged to be at the centre of the great development of heritage conservation in the community’, he says. ‘In particular, to have the opportunity to help establish Victoria as the leader in heritage conservation in Australia and to lead a committed and dynamic team at Heritage Victoria. The inspiration provided by those people kept me going for many years. Also, the opportunity to relate to the broader community and to assist it in achieving goals was (and still is) very important to me. When I started working in heritage conservation in the mid to late 70’s it was not seen to be a real job and nor was there a professional group working exclusively in this area. There now is.’

While the achievements are significant, Mr Tonkin also believes that the future of heritage conservation in Australia depends on certain barriers being broken down. He identifies three challenges which require ongoing focus and development: the drawing together of the identification and management of the cultural heritage of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians; improved heritage place management; and the need to continue the development of a sound national system of heritage protection.

Although he has retired as Executive Director of Heritage Victoria, Mr Tonkin remains passionately engaged with various cultural heritage issues. He sees the challenge of dealing with ‘intangible heritage’ – essentially the customs and practices of our society - as one critical issue that will occupy the community in the future.

‘Intangible heritage has become a significant point of discussion in international heritage forums and the debates will inevitably find their way to our shores’, he says. ‘I doubt very much that the traditional techniques of listing and permitting can effectively deal with this aspect of our heritage, but I do see that this is an area that is shared between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Perhaps this is a key to my first challenge.’

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