Some thoughts on significance writing for museums

Sculpted Elephant, carved from graphite, purchased from F Krantz, 1884, Powerhouse Museum, 6189 

Attaching significance to museum objects can be a little like “pinning the tail on the donkey”. Just when you think you’ve got your significance right, off comes the blindfold, and you find your significance statement has failed to account for other curatorial perspectives, or its too long, too short, perhaps its failed to account for other similar objects in the collection or perhaps the language of your story is simply wrong for the times.

These points have been made clear to me over the last three years working on the Total Asset Management (TAM) project which has been cataloguing, conserving and photographing poorly documented collections in the Museum. The collections targeted by TAM tend to be large one such as the Sydney Observatory scientific instruments or the plastics collections and it has been my good fortune to write significance statements for an amazing array of things from anarchist broadsheets to toys and telescopes.

On a practical level this means that whether plastic objects are a 20th century Kodak cameras or a 19th century comb we are researching and writing about many different kinds of objects in the same project. This may make the task seem more difficult but there are many surprisingly benefits to be had from working over broader collection areas, especially ones with little or no significance documentation.

Most objects in museum collections acquire their significance when they are brought into the museum and these are almost always written by a curator with a specialisation in a particular collection area. Over time, as staff change, collections are moved around, new databases are set up and new subject heading are applied objects, especially poorly documented ones, start to drift. Labels are lost, collections split up, descriptions changed and perhaps most importantly knowledge passes away into the mists of time, or the rubbish bin in an old unmarked folder.

All this can make the location of objects for day-to-day queries, exhibitions and auditing very difficult. With staff in Registration, Conservation and Curatorial TAM has been able to address some of these issues by working across broader collection areas and re-establishing links between objects and their significance. This was certainly the case for a number of the observatory’s scientific instruments where links between parts, such as spectroscopes or eyepieces, that had been used with an important telescope had never been described in the database records.

Working on the collections I have also been intrigued by how the significance of some objects seems to exist in the realms of the mythic. In fact some of the most enduring notions of significance seem to relate more to what is embedded in people’s minds than the significance statement in a database. A great example of this is the Museum’s graphite elephant which reputedly passed through the fire that destroyed the first Powerhouse Museum collection on the 22 September 1882.

This somewhat apocryphal story claims that as the fire consumed the Garden Palace the elephant plummeted 5 metres into the basement after which iron, wood and glass from the rest of the building fell on top of it. The miraculous nature of this event has lent the elephant an air of significance way beyond that of its being an example of graphite, or carving in Ceylon, and it has been the subject of talks and articles relating to its survival as early as 1939. Age has a way of cementing fiction as fact and over time the elephant has become an integral part of the identity of the museum. It can claim to not only be its earliest object, but at a more metaphorical level it, like the museum, it has risen, phoenix like, to survive disaster.

Unfortunately the truth is almost certainly less inspiring, the management committee reports make it clear nothing but the ‘heaviest iron specimens’ survived the fire and its current object number makes it clear it was purchased as a part of a collection of mineral specimens from Dr. Krantz in Germany, in 1884. Yet the myth has persisted over many years and even if discredited it’s hard to imagine the elephant now returning to take its place next to the other 1500 or so items the museum acquired from Krantz.

This example of the elephant somehow forging its own significance is not so strange however, for in many ways it is simply an amplification the way significance is applied to all museum objects. Objects are just that, objects. They may be seen to be older, rarer, and more expensive than each other but these qualities are not always set in stone. As an older fossil is unearthed, copies of a collectable photograph found, or a common place object becomes rare because others are discarded, it is clear significance is as reliant on the time and place of its interpretation as it is by any innate qualities it possess. Significance may be a good yard-stick by which to measure the worth of an object for a valuation, exhibition, conservation or disaster management, but in doing so we would do well to remember just

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Geoff Barker, 2011

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