Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
Many collecting organisations struggle with the problems of storing, conserving, displaying and interpreting large and unwieldy collections that impose an unsustainable burden on their financial and physical resources. They may consider deaccessioning items that lack provenance, are no longer relevant to their collecting policy, or exist in numbers beyond the organisation's needs.
The significance assessment methodology provides a framework for making an argument for deaccessioning items. It can help an organisation to make its case to governing bodies, or to donors who may be asked to take back items held by the organisation. Deaccessioned items can also be offered to other organisations, whose own significance assessment process may lead them to accept them into their collection.
Deaccessioning and acquisition of National Trust collection items
Some of the over 6 000 items deaccessioned by the National Trust of Australia (Western Australia)
Photo: Sarah Murphy. Courtesy of the National Trust of Australia (WA)
What do you do with over 6 000 mostly unprovenanced items in storage, with no potential use in sight? The National Trust of Australia (Western Australia) tackled this problem by a structured process of deaccessioning, in which the significance assessment process played a major role.
First, the National Trust established exactly what was to be considered for deaccessioning. It prepared an inventory record (including photograph) for each item in storage, establishing its status in relation to legal title, evaluating and assessing its significance against its provenance, and then identifying its status as being for retention, transfer, sale or destruction.
Second came formal approval of the Council of the National Trust to deaccession and dispose of identified items. Under the Trust's Act the final approval of the Governor of Western Australia was also required.
Third came the actual disposal. Provenanced items were offered to fifty-seven relevant museums and collecting organisations. There were 352 items transferred in this stage including to the Western Australian Museum, State Library, Army Museum, Shire of Murray, Embroiderers Guild, Parliament House and Harvey Historical Society. Next, unprovenanced items were made available to other public, non-profit museums and collecting organisations throughout Australia by a closed auction conducted online. Forty-two organisations registered for the auction and bidded in auction credits. From this, 197 items were transferred at no direct cost to organisations including Whiteman Park, City of Wanneroo, Subiaco Museum, Port Arthur Historic Site, National Trust of Australia (SA) and University of Ballarat Art Collection.
Finally, a public auction of almost 6 000 items achieved 100 per cent clearance and close to $300 000.
The Western Australian Museum acquired several items through the National Trust's deaccessioning process. The Museum accepted forty-five items using significance assessment methodology. One of these items was a nineteenth-century horse-drawn hearse from Southern Cross, WA. The hearse was found to have no significant associations with National Trust of Australia (WA) properties, but was significant to the Western Australian Museum.
Significance assessment led to win-win situations for the National Trust of Australia (WA) and the Western Australian Museum. Items assessed as of no significance for one organisation, and deaccessioned, were assessed as significant for the other, and acquired.
Significance in action
Significance assessment applications and case studies
- Conservation treatment
- Collection risk assessment
- Collection care
- Copying and digitisation
- Collection analysis and policy development
- In situ collections
- Shared collections
- Exhibitions and interpretation
- Online exhibitions
- Online access and education
- Assessing cultural heritage website quality
- Nominating to a register
- Applying for a grant
- Advocacy and resourcing
- Fundraising and promotion
- Thematic studies and regional surveys
- Collections mapping
- Significance training