Significance. It’s a term we use frequently in museums. But what does it actually mean, and how can we apply it to our collections? Having just undertaken site visits to two collections for significance assessments, and with the Community Heritage Grants open to fund significance assessments, now seems like a good time to dip a toe in the sea of significance.
Understanding significance provides us with a framework to explain why an item or collection is important or valued. Through research and an application of a standard set of criteria, we are able to define the characteristics that make an object or collection significant without reference to personal interests. We can apply the principles of significance to managing our collections on an almost daily basis.
Significance 2.0 is the guiding document for understanding how to use significance. It explains the four primary criteria (historic; artistic or aesthetic; scientific or research; social or spiritual) and four comparative criteria (provenance; rarity or representativeness; condition or completeness; interpretive capacity).
I have recently conducted two site visits for significance assessments, at Greycliffe and Kilburnie Homesteads in the Banana Shire. These assessments have an added dimension as both buildings are on the state heritage register. The built heritage has therefore already been identified as significant, so how the collection relates to the building and allows it to be interpreted needs to be considered.
By applying the significance criteria to the collections at Greycliffe and Kilburnie Homesteads I am able to identify in what ways they are significant. Both have historic significance for their ability to demonstrate a pattern of life (particularly pastoralism, but the collection at Greycliffe also encompasses other industries important to the region, such as dairying and cotton growing). Perhaps unusually, both also have items of artistic or aesthetic significance. This is especially the case for Kilburnie, once the home of noted artist Ruby Campbell. Not only is the collection rich in her works, but also those of other artists she collected. And finally, both collections have considerable research significance, with a wealth of archives and photographs providing a fertile ground for potential researchers. As for the comparative criteria, the majority of both collections have good provenance, are in good condition, and have very high interpretive value, allowing their custodians to tell compelling stories about the history of their region.
While I undertake further research into these collections to provide their custodians with a comprehensive significance assessment, consider how you might be able to apply the criteria to your collection. If you have questions about significance, ask your local MDO – they will be happy to guide you!