Professor Denis Byrne
Professor Byrne joined the Institute in 2014, specialising in critical heritage studies and the archaeology of the recent past. Previously he had led the cultural heritage research program at the Office of Environment and Heritage NSW.
His approach to heritage studies reflects his disciplinary background in archaeology and his research experience in the cultural politics of local and professional heritage practice in Australia and Southeast Asia. He is known internationally for his advocacy in promoting an approach to heritage conservation that is open to the emotional and affective relations people have with old places and things and the way heritage sites are enmeshed in local histories. His book, Counterheritage: critical perspectives on heritage conservation in Asia (opens in new window), calls for the heritage field to open its eyes to popular beliefs and practices in the Asian societies that provide the context for people-object relationships that often depart radically from Western expectations.
His current research, with Professor Ien Ang, on the heritage of Chinese migration to Australia (opens in a new window) and on the agency of recent migrants from China and India in Western Sydney as makers of heritage, rather than as mere consumers of Australia’s existing heritage record, advances his interest in heritage as a transnational social field and as a vector which migrants act in to negotiate ‘belonging’ in their adoptive countries.
Denis Byrne’s current research interests include:
- The China-Australia heritage corridor: investigating the built heritage record of migration from Zhongshan County (Guangdong) to Australia in the period 1840-1940s. The research documents and explores the ongoing transnational connections between sites associated with Zhongshan folk in Australia (including shops in Sydney’s Chinatown) and their home villages in China where many of them built houses, schools and ancestral halls with money earned in Australia. for more information, visit HeritageCorridor (opens in a new window)
- Heritage-making in Parramatta: exploring the meaning that Anglo-Australian heritage places in Parramatta have for Chinese and Indian migrants, and the agency in reconfiguring Parramatta’s heritage landscape.
- Anthropocene legacies: promoting awareness of the material legacy of centuries of coastal land reclamation in the Asian-Pacific and the challenge this poses in a world of rising seas.
His approach to heritage studies reflects his disciplinary background in archaeology and his research experience in the cultural politics of heritage practice in Australia and Southeast Asia. His book, Surface collection: archaeological travels in Southeast Asia, along with more recent publications, extend the possibilities for writing in the fields of archaeology and heritage studies, especially in regard to the emotional and affective dimensions of our response to old things and places.
His book, Counterheritage: critical perspectives on heritage conservation in Asia (opens in a new window), calls for the heritage field to open its eyes to popular beliefs and practices in the Asian societies which provide the context for people-object relationships that often depart radically from Western expectations. The standard secular-rational approach of heritage professionals, he argues, is hopelessly inadequate to encompass old objects and places that in the eyes of religious devotees are alive with supernatural potency. Equally, campaigns by archaeologists and heritage professionals against the private collecting and 'looting' of antiquities in Asia seem blind to the ways that these objects have been assimilated into local economies of value.
He is currently researching the history of travel and migration in the Australia-Asia sphere, focusing on the material traces which attest to this history and comprise its heritage footprint. These traces reflect the mobile lives and cross-border imaginaries of those who travelled, traded, laboured and loved in transnational space. As such, it calls for a heritage practice that transcends the nation-state frame. What is compelling about the topic of transnational heritage is the immediacy of its relevance to Australia's present and future.
- PhD, 1994, Australian National University
- MA, 1974, University of Auckland, New Zealand
- BA, 1972, University of Auckland, New Zealand
Honours and Awards
- 2019: Fellow, Australian Academy of the Humanities
- 2014: Invited by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture and the Congressional Commission on Cultural Patrimony to address conferences in Cusco and Lima and take part in roundtables on the drafting of a new heritage laws for Peru, which for the first time will recognise indigenous heritage interests.
- 2011: Visiting fellow at the Department of Archaeology, University of York, UK.
- 2009: John Mulvaney Book Award, for Surface Collection: Archaeological Travels in Southeast Asia.
- 2004: Conservation Guest Scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, researching and writing on the interplay of popular religion and heritage in China and Southeast Asia.
Byrne, D. 2022. The Heritage Corridor: A Transnational Approach to the Heritage of Chinese Migration (opens in a new window). London: Routledge.
Byrne, D. 2020. ‘Dream houses in China: migrant-built houses in Zhongshan County (1890s-1940) as a “distributed” form of heritage’ (opens in a new window), Fabrications 30(2): 176-201.
Byrne, D. 2020. ‘Reclamation legacies’, in C. Sterling and R. Harrison (eds), Deterritorializingthe Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene (opens in a new window), pp. 244-265. New York: Open Humanities Press.
Byrne, D. 2019. ‘Divinely significant: towards a post-secular approach to the materiality of popular religion in Asia’ (opens in a new window), International Journal of Heritage Studies, online publication March 2019.
Byrne, D. 2017. ‘Remembering the Elizabeth Bay reclamation and the Holocene sunset in Sydney Harbour’ (opens in a new window), Environmental Humanities 9(1): 40-59.
Byrne, D. 2016. ‘The problem with looting: an alternative view of antiquities trafficking in Southeast Asia’ (opens in a new window). Journal of Field Archaeology 41(3): 344-354.
Byrne, D. 2014. Counterheritage: Critical Perspectives on Heritage Conservation in Asia (opens in a new window). New York and London: Routledge.
Byrne, D. 2007. Surface Collection: Archaeological Travels in the Southeast Asia (opens in a new window). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
Byrne, D. and Maria Nugent. 2004. Mapping Attachment: A Spatial Approach to Aboriginal Post-contact Heritage (opens in a new window). Sydney: Dept Environment and Conservation NSW.
Access All Publications
- Western Sydney University Staff Profile
- Academia.edu.au Profile (opens in a new window)
- Google Scholar Profile (opens in a new window)
Dr Denis Byrne talks to ICS about his latest book, Counterheritage: critical perspectives on heritage conservation in Asia. Read the interview.