Preserving and Passing on Heritage Trade Skills

Stephen Smith

Keywords: Engineering Heritage, Trade skills, Industrial Heritage

Download Full Paper (pdf)

This paper examines the significance of preserving and passing on trade skills which are an imperative component of the conservation of the nation’s industrial engineering heritage.

We have largely left the conservation of our industrial heritage to organisations such as National Trusts, Conservation Councils and self interest preservation groups, which in some cases have a capacity to restore or conserve objects based upon the traditional skills and knowledge of a few aging volunteers. However the majority of these groups are limited to superficial conservation (maintaining external appearance) and are without the appropriate knowledge or skills to conserve or interpret the object itself.

The paper encompasses the issues where, to comply with today’s legislation, prescribed standards and insurance requirements interference is required of the heritage fabric of an object or site by overlaying new materials, technologies and methodologies in an effort to comply with bureaucratic expectations while we seek to interpret, conserve and restore.

A case study will explore the current situation of steam pressure vessel inspections within Australia, the current rules and many inspectors not having the knowledge or skill to understand that steam boilers of the typical riveted and direct-screwed stay construction are based upon, over a century of engineering knowledge and application. Inspectors have limited knowledge of these pressure vessels, their strengths and weakness and (in some cases) unnecessarily deny certification to operate.

The discussion extends beyond the objects held within museums or collections to structures and utilities that are encompassed within our everyday life. One issues faced by those involved in preserving industrial heritage is many of these sites are of significant size and complexity compared to conserving a building or movable object. Industrial heritage has further issues in that many of these sites were in their day, places of significant new technologies and ways of achieving things and through time were subject to changes, modification and upgrading so as to continue serving their intended purpose and continue to be  operational sites. We need to find ways to maintain the heritage fabric of these sites in use and strive to find a balance between economics and conservation of the original engineering heritage fabric. This, it is propose may be found through utilising heritage trade skills that have for many decades not been taught to today’s engineers and tradesmen, such as traditional boiler making and fitting etc. We have no formalised methodology to pass on heritage trade skills specifically within the engineering industrial heritage arena to pass on the knowledge and skills of riveting, caulking, leading bearings, setting valve timing on a steam engine and numerous other dying skills which are imperative to preserve our important industrial heritage.

REFERENCE: Smith, S. 2007 Preserving & Passing on Heritage Trade Skills. Fourteenth National Engineering Heritage Conference 2007. Perth, Australia, 18 September – 21 September 2007. The Institution of Engineers Australia: Conference Papers.