Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
Context is an important step in assessing significance. It builds on research in the step-by-step method to place the item or collection in a wider historical, geographic, artistic or environmental context. This means exploring how the item or collection relates to broader themes or patterns. Like provenance, context will have different shades of meaning or interpretation depending on the type of item or collection. This section explores the important role of context in different domains and with different types of material.
'Airzone' wireless radio belonging to Prime Minister Chifley and his wife is displayed in situ, thereby retaining its full context and meaning
Reproduced courtesy of the Chifley Home, Bathurst Regional Council
Understanding context is vital to assessing significance. In significance practice, context places an item or collection within wider historical patterns or themes, or within an environment or physical locality. Context can include relationships with other items or with the place where an item was used, made or created. Contextual studies can also reveal how an item was used or how it functioned.
Context builds on information explored in earlier steps in the significance method, including provenance, history, community associations, and for natural history, environment. For items without such information, looking at the wider context of that class of items helps build a picture of their general development, use, function and historical context. This feeds into the statement of significance, and helps to give a fuller understanding of an item's meaning and importance.
Exploring the context of an item or collection taps into information, knowledge and ideas that are not always part of formal collection documentation practice, although experts inside collecting organisations understand contextual knowledge well. The significance assessment process recommends documenting this knowledge.
Recording provenance and context can be related processes. How an item is documented when it is collected can be vital to understanding its context. An item's significance and its future research potential may depend on a well-documented context. Collecting organisations are placing more emphasis on the contextual documentation of items in a variety of media, such as photography, photogrammetry, written reports and oral history recordings.
As with the concept of provenance, context has different shades of meaning and interpretation depending on item or collection type, or on collecting domain or professional discipline.
For example, context for natural history specimens may include detailed recording of the environment in which the specimens were collected. The absence of a provenance or a recorded context may render items and collections insignificant. Confiscated bird egg collections, for example, are occasionally offered to science museums by Customs or the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, but if no contextual or provenance information is available, notably when and where the eggs were collected and by whom, they will not be accepted into the collections of state museums or universities.
Following are illustrated examples of 'context in action' across some collection types.