about the article

Dr Cathie Clement's response to Dr Graham Seal's discussion paper, Who Owns Folklore?

about the author

DR CATHIE CLEMENT, MPHA is an historian and heritage consultant who is recognised as an authority on the history of Australia's North-West. She has produced and/or contributed to a broad range of publications and other media that inform people about that region.




In 'Who owns Folklore?' (Simply Australia Issue 9), Graham Seal raises some important and challenging issues. He asks the question: "Is it possible - and desirable - to establish a basis for valorising, conserving and developing Australian folklore of place in the same way that environmental, built and moveable heritages are valued, conserved and developed for the national benefit?"

My familiarity with heritage suggests that it would be possible. Whether it would be desirable is another question. To answer that question, Seal and/or others would need to determine
  • a) whether the work necessary to achieve his goal is warranted and
  • b) the extent to which the status quo can be altered without causing harm.
History is littered with actions that were meant to fix one problem but caused another. The introduction of cane toads and camels comes to mind, as does public liability insurance and its impact on recreational activities. Attempts to derive income from cultural resources can also create problems. So, with a view to assisting Seal and others to assess his concept in terms of its feasibility, desirability and possible outcomes, this article looks at issues associated with the use of stories and images. It does not pretend to offer answers. It merely puts forward a personal opinion formed during several decades of involvement with history and heritage. The comments that follow will give others insight into my perspective.

Seal's reference to folklore of place caught my attention because I am interested in:
  • How folklore informs research, writing and political agenda;
  • How the transmission of folklore changes its content; and,
  • How the lines between folklore, history and oral history blur as people discuss and interpret the past.
My interest in folklore relates to my interest in the history of Australia's North-West. I spend a lot of time, both as a consultant and as the honorary coordinator of the Kimberley Historical Sources Project, collecting and analysing data relevant to the North-West. In 1986, I established the Project as an extension of my honours and post-graduate work at Murdoch University. Since then, without any outside funding, it has brought together a vast amount of local studies material. I draw on that material to contribute information to publications and to cultural heritage documentation and signage.

In all of my work I try to gain the best possible understanding of past events by blending together snippets of folklore, oral history and historical data. Before any writing is done, a lot of analysis takes place to ensure that the folklore snippets enrich and inform, rather than distort, the material into which they find their way. Other historians do similar work but few are likely to look for folklore with the intention of trying to verify it or sift germs of truth from it.

Given the above, this response to Seal's discussion paper should be seen to come from someone who has a vested but largely non-commercial interest in a small segment of folklore. None of my comments should be seen to relate to such things as craft, costume, fairs or live performance. Those things can certainly be linked to folklore of place but their management calls for an approach that differs from that relevant to stories and images. My objective in writing this response is simply to show that the imposition of fees for the use of a cultural resource can have a negative as well as a positive impact.


We can learn a lot from the 'valorising, conserving and developing' of heritage places and items. Not least of those lessons is that both good and bad things are happening in the areas of environmental, built, moveable and Indigenous heritage. Places and items are being protected and conserved every day but only in the face of frustrating and divisive issues that include:
  • Assertions that the attribution of some heritage values lacks credibility;
  • Resistance to the attribution of heritage values by outsiders;
  • Resistance to the removal or curtailment of perceived development opportunities and/or economic gain;
  • Objections to increased development costs linked to heritage registration;
  • Disinterest in, or antagonism to, heritage on the part of some individuals who are responsible for its protection in a government, local government, corporate or private capacity;
  • Unintentional or covert destruction, desecration and vandalism of places and items of heritage value;
  • Theft or damage occurring as a result of identification; and,
  • Constant shortages of funds to identify, record, conserve, interpret and protect heritage places and items.


When it comes to valuing folklore of place, we need to acknowledge that only a minority of people will ever recognise or respect the heritage significance and provenance of folklore. To assume anything else, one has to ignore the evidence that exists in the other areas. Education programs and prosecutions have not stopped plagiarism. Nor have those things stopped the desecration, destruction, pollution and vandalism of heritage places and the environment. Any attempt to 'valorise' Australian folklore of place will therefore need to acknowledge that many people will either ignore or oppose an attempt to regulate the use of folklore.

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