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A question of significance

Roslyn Russell, National Museum of Australia, 14 May 2010

ERIC ARCHER: Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the afternoon session. This afternoon we will be talking about using significance to make collections management decisions, a subject very close to my heart. The Museum has done some quite interesting things which you will hear about over the next little while in relation to that subject.

The first speaker for this afternoon’s session is Roslyn Russell who I am sure needs no introduction. Roslyn is an historian, editor and museum curator, and her involvement with developing guidelines for assessing the significance of moveable cultural heritage goes right back to the 1990s when she was one of the co-authors of the first general guidelines to safeguarding documentary heritage. Ros is co-author with Kylie Winkworth of Significance (2001) and Significance 2.0 in 2009. She has been chair of the Assessment Sub-committee of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee since 2000, chaired the Register Sub-committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World international program for 2005-09 and is currently chair of the International Advisory Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World program. So Ros comes highly experienced, highly qualified and very expert in her subject. Thanks very much, Ros.

ROSLYN RUSSELL: Thank you, Eric, for the introduction. I am assuming today that most people in this room will have a working acquaintance with the significance assessment process. I will do a couple of quick reminders but I want to talk more about a couple of the criteria and the guidelines that come off them today in relation to conservation and some new thinking I have had recently about how these can be applied. There is the definition of significance for you:

Significance defines the meanings and values of a cultural heritage item or collection through research and analysis, and by assessment against a standard set of criteria.

All this will be very familiar to many people here in the room today. A key rationale for the development of a significance assessment methodology for museum objects was its potential to improve decision making in their conservation. Using an assessment of significance, expressed in a statement of significance that then guides all decision making about an object or collection, has become increasingly common across the museum sector in Australia over the past decade. The first edition of a guide to assessing significance was published by the Heritage Collections Council in 2001, as Eric said. Its development was guided by the Conservation and Preservation Working Group of the Heritage Collections Council, which included two conservators – Ian Cook from Artlab and Robyn Sloggett who is now at the Ian Potter Museum in Melbourne.

At the time the first Significance guide was being developed, awareness of the need to preserve all significant aspects of an object’s fabric, especially those that related to critical aspects of its life story, was not nearly as advanced as it is now. This awareness, on the other hand, had led decision making in the built heritage community for some time where the practice of managing a site according to its significance was enshrined in the Burra Charter [The Australia ICOMOS charter for places of cultural significance].

There was a strong desire amongst those developing the Significance guidelines to caution against a too-rapid resort to the paint brush or to the welding kit by those working in museums who were itching to ‘do things up’. In this respect, a lot of the target audience for this publication was small and volunteer-run museums, and a lot of people there love the idea of having something bright and spanking new on the museum floor and can’t wait to get to it and do something to it. I recall visiting a regional museum, ironically during a workshop to discuss the projected Significance guidelines, and being shown a large room full of old printing machines from various periods. Each had been given a coat of matt black paint with the details picked out in gold. It was like entering a warehouse in a time warp – all signs of the working lives and relative ages of these machines had been obliterated.

The first version of Significance carried examples of objects where signs of working life were integral to their significance: a travelling cook’s galley for the Fife family’s chaff-cutting team in the 1930s and 1940s in the Riverina that showed evidence of passing through narrow spaces and along rough rural roads; and a World War I soldier’s uniform, marked by its use in muddy trenches under battle conditions and collected as its wearer came out of the line. A coat of paint or a thorough cleaning would have obliterated the aspects of the objects that told their stories. The message of the Significance guidelines published in 2001 was that an object in original condition was likely to have more significance than one that had been restored, particularly if extensive alterations had been made to its fabric.

Last year we published Significance 2.0: a guide to assessing the significance of collections. This version reiterated the criteria and guidelines of the first version, but added an expanded applications section available online, as are both editions of Significance. It was also broadened to include other collecting domains outside museums like archives, libraries and so on. Significance 2.0 included a case study from this Museum in which a vehicle was conserved so as to retain significant aspects of its fabric that told the story of its working life. I will return to this shortly but, before I do, a quick reminder of the criteria by which significance is assessed [image shown]. We have four primary criteria: historic, artistic or aesthetic, scientific or research, social or spiritual. These are the primary criteria that determine why and how an item or collection is significant. Not all of them need to apply. An item or collection may be significant under only one criterion, and in social history museums often historical significance is the major criterion for assessing significance.

There are four comparative criteria: provenance, rarity or representativeness, condition or completeness, and interpretive capacity. These determine the degree of significance. Once you have assessed the primary significance, you then look at an object or collection to see how it stacks up against others of its kind – whether it’s rare, whether it’s representative, how complete it is, how much integrity the object has, and how it can be interpreted.

I want to focus on two of the criteria and discuss how they intersect when discussing significance in relation to a particular category of objects – those that function, which in practice generally means machines. The primary criterion I want to look at in this context is social or spiritual significance. This is the one we have most problems with. It is very hard in many contexts to get the idea of what this is about across to people. They see the word ‘social’ and they think social history – it is about society, the society of the times or whatever it might happen to be. We have to explain to people that this is actually historical significance generally speaking.

Social significance is different. It’s about a particular identified group of people who are attached to that particular object or collection. So demonstrating contemporary attachment – in the present, now – between the item in a collection and a group in the community is what determines social significance. It is quite a hard concept to get across. Those of you who have dealt with people trying to struggle with significance assessments often find they will bring this one up in the wrong situation. It’s a hard concept to get across. The best way to do it is by examples, as in everything.

The examples and case studies relating to this criterion in the Significance guides tend to emphasise its application to Indigenous objects. We understand the relationship between Indigenous communities and the objects that they hold dear. Secret and sacred objects of all faiths, icons, relics and that kind of thing – that is the kind of attachment that is quite easy to understand. But the justification is an identifiable link between the community and object.

Our colleagues in built heritage, where the idea of what they term ‘social value’ originated, have an easier task in demonstrating attachment to a place or a building. If it has social value, any attempts to interfere with it will provoke strong resistance – the shorthand for this is: threaten to push it down and see what happens, and the constituency that values it will arise and demonstrate an attachment to it. This is not the only test of course, but it is one way of finding out if a place has social value. How can we demonstrate social significance in the movable heritage sector and what other groups can we identify, apart from the ones I just mentioned, that demonstrate an attachment to objects? I’ll come back to this shortly.

Before that I want to discuss another one of the comparative criteria: condition and completeness. Many of you will recognise this object here [image shown]. Significance 2.0 has this to say in relation to the application of this criterion:

Significance assessment plays an increasing role in informing conservation treatments. Preserving the signs of wear that speak about an item’s history is paramount in many treatments; and care is taken to bring an item into functioning order without compromising significant aspects of its fabric.

The example given in this context is Sir Robert Menzies’ 1963 S3 Bentley, part of the National Historical Collection of this Museum. The concluding paragraph in relation to this item given in the Applications section of Significance 2.0 reads:

Museum conservators were careful not to alter or erase evidence of past use or age, and a collaboration with curators ensured that the treatment plan included the significance of the vehicle, as well as its physical condition. After three years of conservation, during which replacements carefully crafted according to the manufacturer’s specifications, and all clearly marked as replacements, the Bentley was displayed to visitors. The signs that the car had once been used by a notable Australian are still embedded in its fabric, and speak volumes about him thanks to the sensitive work of the Museum’s conservators.

Why have I chosen these two criteria to discuss today and what could be the relationship between them? Let’s look at an example of working machinery and see. This is Goulburn’s Historic Waterworks, a beautiful setting on the Wollondilly River just outside Goulburn [image shown] and the river is the source of the water that is being pumped from there. It was built in 1885, and the steam-operated pumping facility provided Goulburn’s first reticulated water supply. The pump house still houses the original Appleby Brothers beam engine pump and wood-fired Lancashire boilers. It began pumping water to Goulburn in January 1886. Here are a few pictures [images shown] giving a lovely context for the object: the actual building, the manufacturer’s plate, a bit of the engine, one of the gantries, pressure pumps and the boilers.

The 1883 Appleby beam engine has a large overhead rocking beam that transmits motion from the pistons to the cranks. It produced 120 horse power, and at 18 revs per minute the pumps delivered 660,000 litres of water per hour. There are two boilers in the western wing of the building that produce the steam that is piped through to power the engine. Only one boiler operates at a time. The beam engine became obsolete in 1918 when electric motors were installed. It was restored to operational status in 1958, and is now the only complete, workable beam engine-powered municipal water supply left in its original location. So it’s of tremendous historic significance.

The Goulburn Historic Waterworks is now a volunteer-run museum and has an open day every month when one of the boilers is fired up and the engine can be seen operating, and they call this ‘steaming’. Let’s go back to our condition and completeness criterion and the check list to look at the beam engine against this particular set of guidelines. Is it in good condition? Yes, it’s been very nicely kept in working order. It is intact. It is complete. Does it show repairs, alterations or evidence of the way it was used? It doesn’t show any visible alterations. In fact, the man who restored it was there the day we went to see it, and he said all he did was give it a tune up. He didn’t replace anything. And evidence of how it was used can be visibly viewed when you go there. Yes, it is still working and it is in original condition. So all well and good. This ticks all the boxes. We are happy about this, and I must say the day I went there I thought, ‘Thanks goodness, they haven’t done anything to it,’ with my significance assessment hat on. It’s clearly of historic significance.

Why do I want to talk about social significance in relation to the beam engine? On the day we visited this place something had gone wrong. There was a fault in the lines from the boilers to the pumps and try as they might, the technicians could not get the engine working in time for the steaming. They were unbelievably apologetic. They were still open and they kept exclaiming, ‘We’re so sorry. It‘s not steaming.’ We weren’t too concerned; we just wanted to see the thing. But clearly for most people who were coming to it and those who operated it, the steaming was the main game – that was the point. Their attachment to the object had a great deal to do with seeing it in operation. If they did not see it functioning, they would be disappointed and their experience would be diminished.

A couple of weeks after we had been to Goulburn I read an article in the Canberra Times about the Australian Railways Historical Society ACT branch that is restoring a 1950s steam locomotive, a 270-tonne Beyer-Garratt 6029, used commercially until 1972 when it was replaced by a diesel locomotive. The wording of the article in the Canberra Times evoked the passion and commitment of the team working on the locomotive to make it run again:

The Society aims to raise between $80000 to $100000 [think about that; that’s a lot of money for one branch to try to raise] to restore the locomotive to operating order. The project manager … gave details of the human resources dedicated to the work: ‘Today we have about 12 people, we can average between eight to 15 people a day and out total group is 70 people.’

He continued [and note the language again]: ‘When she’s done she will be the largest operating locomotive in the southern hemisphere, for us that’s something special and it’s almost an obsession. We’re determined to get it done.’

Look at the words ‘obsession’, ‘determination’ and ‘special’. This community really wants this thing to work. The volunteers who work on the Museum’s paddle steamer Enterprise show the same passion to have their object in operating order so it can steam, as the volunteers at Goulburn Historic Waterworks and the Railway Historical Society. Peter Stanley’s article in the latest issue of reCollections on the Goodwood Revival in Britain where ‘enthusiasts who own, maintain and race historic motor cars manufactured between the late 1920s and the 1950s’ gather, also speaks of the passion and the considerable resources and expertise they bring to restoring and driving their vehicles. We can all think of other examples of this kind of thing, I’m sure.

Why have these communities of enthusiasts never been cited in relation to social significance? We don’t mention them; we don’t talk about these passionate people who are working with objects to make them work – and the working part is really important. The engineering community is another one that has a huge attachment to objects. Their passion, commitment and even obsession have been noted already. They pour staggering amounts of money and time into the objects they revere. Their expertise is in many cases at the top of the range. They amply fulfil the requirement to demonstrate an attachment between an item or collection and a group and community that is the key indicator of social significance.

What are the implications for us, particularly those of us who are collections managers, when you are faced with people who really want to see things working? Are we going to do things that are going to be of ultimate good or ultimate ill to the fabric of the objects that are under our control? How important is it for some communities to make things work and to see them working? In many cases it’s crucial; it’s the whole point. They can’t see any value in having something sitting there and not doing what it was designed to do. It’s an empty shell. It is something inert. The working and the functioning is the main game.

What implications does this have for us? Well, a lot. I am aware that I might be opening a can of worms with this one, because I know there are many people who find this idea of doing something to make something happen fairly reprehensible. Conservators can play a role in setting guidelines. We can take some expert advice from our conservator colleagues in what should be done and in giving advice about appropriate restoration practices. Curators can take account of the social significance: put it into the mix as a part of the significance. Collections managers need to factor this into their planning, as it has all sorts of implications for them. Interpreters should be aware of the interpretive capacity of functioning objects.

Some people will regard this discussion as the beginning of a slippery slope, and I am very aware of that. Allow modification of an object to facilitate its functioning, and you risk compromising its significant fabric. This is a very real fear and shouldn’t be minimised. But the reality is that many enthusiast groups go ahead and do what they need to do to achieve their goals, in blithe disregard of any admonitory warnings from those who develop guidelines for significance. Let’s see if we can engage them in these discussions, and maybe even offer some assistance. Thank you very much.

Date published: 31 May 2010