Significance – a cautionary tale: Tania Cleary

Dr Tania Cleary presented a paper at the Community Heritage Grant awards at the National Library of Australia last week on Significance. She has been the Significance Assessor for the National Library of Australia since 2006. Dr Cleary has worked with indigenous, colonial and contemporary collections held in both public and private institutions in Australia and Asia. She was a valuer for the Commonwealth government’s Cultural Gifts and Cultural Bequests programs between 1996 and 2007 and was recently appointed Queensland Liaison Officer for the UNESCO Memory of the World Program.

Listen to the audio file or read the transcript here. This material can also be found in Sector Resources on the CAN website.

Let me start by saying that this is a session with a mission – my focus this morning will be on the Significance Assessment process and the Significance Assessment report primarily because I think it is valuable for you to understand how the Community Heritage Grant (CHG) Assessment Panel will consider this report in the future.

For many of you it may be easier to understand the emphasis that I will place on the subject today if you have already read my paper Assessing the Significance of Cultural Heritage which is printed in your workshop handbook.

This paper focuses on how to choose the assessor, necessary preparatory activities and outcomes that demonstrate how the Significance Assessment process can influence collections management, exhibition and conservation decisions, so I will not speak to these issues today. However what I will address is the Significance Assessment Report and the steps you can take to ensure it is a valuable and strategic document.

Let me begin with an anecdote that will serve to illustrate two important points. Recently an organisation achieved a high national significance ranking, it was successful in obtaining a grant to conduct a significance assessment. In the following year the organisation applied for a CHG to undertake conservation treatment on a specific component of its collection. On the surface this seems a logical outcome however the Significance Assessment Report let the organisation down. It did not interrogate that part of the collection that was the subject of the grant, the assessor did not determine its significance and in fact did not mention the objects at all. As a result the CHG Assessment Panel struggled to find evidence to support the need for conservation treatment.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated case; too often the Statement of Significance is couched in generalisations. However it is not about generalisations nor is it about sweeping claims. It is about detail, accuracy and objectivity. The Significance Assessment Report in this case claimed the whole collection was highly significant however it failed to provide reasonable grounds for this determination: comparative collections were not cited and issues of rarity, integrity and representativeness, comparative criteria that provide important contextual information, were not addressed.

Significance is not transferable and it would be wrong to assume that one or a few significant objects from a collection can influence the overall Significance Statement for that collection. In some Significance Assessment Reports the collection’s significance has been unnecessarily enhanced producing an artificially complex or erroneous Statement of Significance.

So what is Significance? For many of us it may be easier to understand Significance as the difference between guesswork and certainty. An assessment methodology that was once marginal and applied to historic sites and properties has now become mainstream. Today Significance is highly promoted because it provides a creditable and well-established framework to determine why an item or collection is important to the nation. The documents Significance: a guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage items and collections and Significance 2.0 – a guide to assessing the significance of collections (Heritage Collections Council 2001 and 2009 respectively) contain the roadmap for museums, galleries and all collecting institutions wishing to establish the significance of their collections. As the methodology for assessing Significance has developed the gap between assumption and certainty has narrowed.

Significance develops as its controlling elements four primary and four comparative criteria.
*The primary assessment criteria include: historic significance, aesthetic or artistic significance, scientific or research significance, social or spiritual significance.
*The comparative assessment criteria include: provenance, rarity or representativeness, condition or completeness and interpretive capacity. Whichever assessment criteria we start with it is likely to lead to others.

However not all criteria need to be met, not all criteria may be applicable but at least one of them must apply. It is your responsibility, as managers of the project to ensure that the significance assessor that you engage is familiar with the assessment criteria and more importantly collections, i.e. objects, because the significance assessment is more than a report about the history of the collection and your organisation. It is an exercise in curatorial and collection management judgement.

The majority of representatives present this morning have been successful in obtaining a grant for a Significance Assessment. What I wish to highlight for you is how your report should be structured and how it will be scrutinised should you aim to apply for additional CHGs including Preservation Needs Assessment and specific conservation and preservation activities.

In my written paper I have provided a report template that I recommend your assessor adopt. The Significance Assessment Report should include 11 sections:

1. Executive summary
A brief summary of Statement of Significance.
Short, medium and long-term collection management, conservation and interpretation/exhibition= impacts.
2. General information Description of organisation, location and collection management structure.
3. Methodology Discussion of significance assessment criteria and method by which objects are to be
assessed e.g. primary and comparative criteria. Summary of collection that is being assessed (or percentage of whole).
4. Collection Historical background and description of collection including focus, scope and historical
themes represented in the collection.
5. Condition of the collection Summary of collection condition.
6. Comparative examples Comparison with other public collections.
Comparative examples will identify how the collection intersects with other collections.
7. Role of collection in the community
Location and access, significance to the community. What kind of attachment or level of interest does the living community have to the collection?
8. Assessment against primary and comparative criteria
Objective application of primary criteria:
historic, aesthetic, scientific, research or technical and social and spiritual significance.
The degree of significance is evaluated against comparative criteria: provenance, representativeness, rarity, condition, completeness or intactness and integrity and interpretive potential. In combination they determine the meaning and value of an object or collection.
9. List of significant items
A catalogue listing of objects identified within the collection having significance: including registration/accession number, object name and primary and comparative criteria that have
been satisfied/established.
10. Statement(s) of Significance
Relating to individual objects and/or collection as a whole.
11. Conclusion and summary of Statement of Significance.
Summary of recommendations.

To often what is found wanting in the Significance Assessment Report is an accurate and detailed listing of what has been examined, what proportion of the collection this represents and what the selection was based on. The etailed catalogue listing will inform preventative conservation action and specific conservation treatment. It is important to understand that if material has not been identified as Significant then it is unlikely that it would be considered a strong candidate for subsequent grant assistance.

Another anecdote to illustrate the point. Picture a collection of historical and antiquarian books. Volumes line storeroom shelves but there are also stacks of dusty books on tables, in cardboard boxes and in drawers. In amongst the book collection are photographs, prints and letters. This collection might be historically significant because of its association with a deceased figure. It might therefore be rare in that it is not represented in other collections but how do we know unless it is investigated and its component parts identified?

Too often applications have been made to the CHG to “conserve photographs” in collections such as this. Conservation might include physical treatment or digital scanning to increase access and preserve the original.

Although there is nothing wrong with either option the CHG Assessment Panel will be examining the Significance Assessment Report to see if the photographs were examined in any detail and highlighted in any way. The significance of photographs in collections such as this will remain unclear if research does not throw light on who or what was photographed, from whose perspective, what the present condition of the material is and, in terms of reformatting, if copyright clearance has been obtained.

Cultural sensitivity in particular is called for if photographs contain images of Indigenous people. Your significance assessor must explain in the Significance Assessment Report why or how your institution’s documentary heritage, art, material culture, oral history, machinery, transport or textile collection, is of national significance and to do this in the timeframe allocated requires input from you.

To assist the process you will need to prepare for the assessor’s arrival and anticipate their needs: have organisational records in order: object files, catalogue registers, database listings, visitor books, exhibition labels/catalogues and media releases. Determine beforehand if the whole or a component of the collection will be assessed. If it is a survey of the whole collection then think strategically and select a range of objects or items from each category so that the assessor can gain an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the whole collection. On the other hand if a component of the collection is isolated for detailed investigation then the rationale for this decision must be included in the section of the report concerned with methodology. Organise adequate working space and have people on hand to assist with the physical movement of objects if required. When the draft report is made available to you, you will need to determine if it addresses your needs. If there are recommendations made to improve storage or exhibition conditions, or to undertake specific conservation treatments make sure that the objects or parts of the collection this refers to have been included in the assessment task.

The Significance Assessment Report carries a burden of responsibility regardless of whether national, state or local significance has been determined. As carers of the distributed national collection, i.e. the sum of all heritage collections of significance to the nation, the impact of your management decisions will be felt beyond your community, region and state.

The logic of your management actions will follow from the report’s recommendations. Consequently the report is a key foundation document that should be available for conservators to read if they are engaged to assess the collection for preservation needs or conservation treatment. A nationally
significant object might require a different methodological approach to an object that is without provenance, or has no outstanding aesthetic, historic or social value.

Balancing the scales, the Significance Assessment process can provide an opportunity for collection development through enhanced public recognition and understanding. Some members of the community may have a strong emotional attachment to the collection and this can act as an aid or catalyst
for greater community/council/government participation in the collection’s preservation. Unity of interest can often lead to a strong investment in the collection especially if the collection is unique (the only one), rare (one of a few) or representative (similar to other existing comparable collections).

Your assessor will need to substantiate these claims by demonstrating that comparative research has been conducted. I have read many Significance Assessment Reports claiming that a collection is unique or rare. As I contemplate the impact of such a statement I often think that perhaps it would not have been so confidently made had more comparative research been undertaken.

In closing this session I wish to restate that my objectives this morning were to focus on the Significance Assessment process and the Significance Assessment Report. If I can urge you undertake two tasks before the Significance Assessment commences they would be:
• Firstly, familiarise yourself with Significance 2.0, go online and read the case studies offered.
• Secondly, ask your assessor to follow the Significance Assessment Report template.

In combination these steps should ensure that your Significance Assessment Report becomes a valuable management document in both the short and long term.

Tania Cleary

One Response to “Significance – a cautionary tale: Tania Cleary”

  1. Veronica Bullock Says:

    This guidance in significance assessment for Community Heritage Grants (CHG) applicants is useful and timely. Congratulations to Tania and the CAN team for bringing Tania’s presentation to the web. It is clear that a significant amount of work is required to build a successful CHG application – this is not a grant that can be applied for in the last week!

    As project manager of Significance 2.0 I would like to make a couple of points about the guidance that Tania has offered:

    (1) The 2001 edition was indeed produced by the Heritage Collections Council, but this body was disbanded in 2001. The 2009 edition was produced by the Collections Council of Australia Ltd, which, unfortunately, has also been defunded (closing end April 2010). This corrected publisher information should make it easier for people to find the publication (particularly in book form), and will aid correct bibliographical citation. The online version of the publication will still be accessible to all for free, and is likely to be further developed in the future. The new managing body for Significance 2.0 is the Collections Unit of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in Canberra.

    (2) In paragraph 9 which begins ‘However not all criteria need to be met, not all criteria may be applicable but at least one of them must apply.’, I would clarify that it is necessary for an item or collection to be significant under at least one of the ‘primary’ criteria. An item or collection cannot be significant if only the comparative criteria apply.

    For a hand-held guide to the Significance 2.0 method go to Resources page of the website and print off the double-sided (DLX) ’summary card’.

    Congratulations once again to Tania for all of the other really useful information in her article, particularly the part about significant items not necessarily conferring significant status to the collection in which it is housed.

    Good luck to you all in the 2010 round of the Community Heritage Grants Program – the only nationwide program that overtly includes non paper-based movable cultural heritage in its purview.

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