Assessing the significance of the Unley Museum collections

By Bronwyn Phillips

During this last semester, my Practicum placement has involved working at the Unley Museum which is housed in the historic old Fire Station in Edmund Street Unley. The task I am researching and will eventually complete is to design a ‘statement of significance’, with the assistance and direction of Dr Elizabeth Hartnell.

Part of the current exhibition “Land of Cakes”

A ‘statement of significance’ can be for one object or a whole collection. It can be just a few sentences or half a page long. The Unley Museum needs two statements of significance, one for the collection as a whole and the other one is specifically for the extensive photographic collection. In order to develop two ‘statements of significance’ for the Unley Museum, a number of tasks need to be completed.

The ‘significance’ of an object or a collection is very important since if a Museum does not know why and what they are collecting it could lose direction. A collection’s ‘significance’ involves a process of scanning the whole collection and assessing its history, doing some analysis and conducting an overview of the collection. This is particularly important when the collection policy needs to be revised or re-written.

Old shopkeepers till

The process can be very useful for a number of reasons:

  • understand the significance of the collection as a whole
  • revise collection policy
  • identify significant objects for disaster preparedness
  • prioritise objects for conservation
  • review strengths and weaknesses for the collection
  • develop collecting strategies to redress imbalances and omissions in the collecting record

This enables the museum to accept or reject donations and to accession or de-accession objects.

Previous activity display at Unley Museum

There are eight key steps to conduct when working towards a ‘statement of significance’.

  • Collate the collection’s records and the museum’s archives.
  • Research the history of the collection and the museum.
  • Consult the community and record its ideas and comments about the collection.
  • Asses the relationship between the museum building and the collection.
  • Analyse the condition of the collection.
  • Compare the collection with others of similar scope or purpose.
  • Asses the collection’s significance by referring to the main assessment criteria and comparative criteria.
  • Write a statement of significance that summarises the history, themes, importance and meaning of the collection.

Hands on fun for children of all ages (This jigsaw of a cow shows children where the various meat cuts come from).

There are four main assessment criteria used in assessing significance: historic, aesthetic, and scientific/research and social/spiritual. Comparative criteria are provenance, rarity, representativeness, condition and interpretive potential. One of my first tasks was to do some extensive reading of various museum publications to get my head around just what ‘significance’ means.  This blog is heavily influenced by these readings.

Background reading and references:

Significance: A Guide to Assessing the Significance of Cultural Heritage Objects & Collections by the Collections Council, 2001.

Significance 2.0: a guide to assessing the Significance of Collections by the Heritage Collections Council, 2009.

Using Significance Assessment to make Acquisition Decisions by Linda Black, 2002.

Photographs from the Unley Museum site can be viewed here.

One response to “Assessing the significance of the Unley Museum collections

  1. Great stuff Bronwyn, looks like you have a career as a curator of collections!