Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
B. Collection significance assessment
For many collecting organisations it is impractical to assess single items except in particular circumstances, such as nominating an item to a register. An alternative to the single item assessment method is to assess the whole collection, or parts of the collection. This method is an effective way of feeding collection needs into strategic planning for collecting organisations. It is also used for collection policy reviews, as a way of taking stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the collection, and for in situ collections in heritage places. These steps can be adapted to suit the characteristics of the collection in focus. As for single item assessments, not every step will be relevant for every assessment.
Collection: step-by-step significance assessment
Collate records and information about the history and development of the collection
This may include information from establishment documents, official published histories or local council records.
Research the history of the collection
Many established collecting organisations already have a published history but it may not be well related to the development of the collection. Consider the role of former directors, curators or scientists in developing the collection. Many collections will reflect aspects of the changing history of collecting in society. Identify developments in the organisation's history that have impacted on the collection, such as important gifts or acquisitions, new buildings or extensions.
Review the scope and themes of the collection
Identify the most significant themes and items in the collection. Consider how the collection reflects or serves the mission and purpose of the organisation. In local or regional history collections, ask how well the collection relates to key themes in the history of the locality or region.
Consult knowledgeable people
Talk to people associated with the collection such as previous office bearers, important donors, experts, volunteers or staff and community interest groups. Consider to whom the collection is important, as well as the community's relationship with the organisation and sense of attachment to the collection. Survey or hold an event to understand how the community values the collection. Are there important items or themes in the collection that the community feels strongly about? What role does the organisation have in the community? Have there been times when the community has rallied to support the organisation? This is important in considering the social value of the collection.
Explore the context of the collection
Understand the collection in the period of its development, its building, environment, use and historical context. Consider how the collection reflects the history and identity of the community and its city, town or region. How have broader historical patterns shaped the collection? Assess the relationship between the building and collection, particularly if it is in a heritage building. Are there items associated with the organisation or building's history that should be accessioned? Are there collections associated with the place, such as original furniture or equipment?
Analyse and describe the condition of the collection
Consider if there are significant items or parts of the collection that need particular attention. This can help to set future conservation priorities and actions for the strategic plan.
Compare the collection with similar collections
Look for collections of similar size, type or subject. How is the collection different or similar to comparable collections? This helps to identify particular strengths and characteristics of the collection.
Identify related places and collections
Is the collection related to a particular place, environment or site? Are there associated collections held by other organisations?
Assess significance against the criteria
Primary criteria: historic, artistic or aesthetic, scientific or research potential, and social or spiritual. Determine the degree of significance by assessment against the comparative criteria: provenance, rarity or representativeness, condition or completeness, and interpretive capacity. See Part 5 for more information about the criteria.
Write a statement of significance
Summarise the values and meanings of the collection by reviewing relevant criteria identified in Step 8. Also refer to notes made at each step in the process. Don't just say the collection is significant—explain how and why the collection is significant and what it means. Discuss this with others who know about the collection.
- Sign and date the assessment
Significance can change over time, so it's important to record the authorship and date of the assessment.
- List references
Cite the important sources for the research. Also indicate the sources not consulted, as this provides direction for future review and research.
- List and acknowledge contributors
Significance assessment is a collaborative process and this information recognises contributors who may be consulted if the assessment is reviewed in the future.
List recommendations and actions.
Identify policies, strategies, recommendations and priorities for action. These points can be incorporated in the organisation's annual work plan or strategic plan. Draft policies to aid management of the collection. Some policies may be included in the organisation's collection policy. Consider if particular items or themes need research and significance assessment. Recommendations might include improvements to storage or further research on particular aspects of the collection.
Identify strategies to redress weaknesses and omissions in the collection and plan ways to make collecting less passive.
Explore opportunities to collaborate with other organisations to build complementary collections. Consider issues arising from the assessment of the relationship between the building and collection, such as the fit between the two, or the need for interpretation.
The following example illustrates the steps in the collection assessment process. See also the whole collection significance assessment for the James Cook Museum in Significance (2001) pages 62-63 in Part 6 at: http://www.collectionsaustralia.net/sector_info_item/5 , which is of a collection not integral to the building in which it is housed.
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