Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
Part 7 — National and international significance
Introducing national significance
Some items and collections are more important for Australia and Australians than others, and at times the level of this importance, or significance, needs to be determined.
In making a significance assessment, a ranking scale or a 'tick-the-boxes' matrix is not the answer. Instead, a reasoned argument, based on research, analysis and comparison through the significance assessment process and criteria, is crucial to establishing national or international significance.
An agreement or decision about whether an item or collection is of national or international significance is required when:
- deciding whether or not to allow the export of an item or collection from Australia
- including an item or collection on a register of significant cultural heritage
- allocating a grant for significant material at the national level
Legislation (the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, and the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Regulations 1987 (PMCH) protect Australia's heritage of movable cultural objects and supports the protection by foreign countries of their heritage of movable cultural objects. The PMCH Regulations set out the National Cultural Heritage Control List of objects covered by the legislation. Under the PMCH Act, an object that meets the criterion of being an Australian protected object under the National Cutural Heritage Control List requires a permit if the object is to be exported. Part of that process usually involves an assessment of significance by an 'Expert Examiner'.
Registers of significant items and collections promote awareness and appreciation of the material and its importance for understanding Australian history, environment, culture and creativity.
Grants to help preserve significant items and collections are based on assessments of their national significance.
An example of this type of grant is the Community Heritage Grants program (conducted by the National Library of Australia and supported by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, the National Archives of Australia, the National Museum of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive).
These mechanisms, programs and processes exist to ensure that highly significant items and collections are preserved for the benefit of all Australians today and for the future.
Australia, the sum of its parts
Australia is a federation of states and territories, a big country made up of diverse communities, environments, and cultures. Each state and territory has a distinctive history, geography and pattern of development which form an important part of what makes Australia a nation. Australia's movable heritage collections reflect the diversity of its culture, environments and political systems. Similarly, no one Aboriginal language group is more important than another, each contributes to the rich heritage of Indigenous cultures in Australia. Therefore, items and collections may be of national significance if they are important to Australia, or to a particular part of Australia.
Map of the main Indigenous language groups highlighting the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait language groups in Australia. This patterning of people and places is reflected in the movable heritage and collections of Indigenous Australia. Each group and its movable heritage is an important part of Australia's national heritage and its significant collections.
Please note: This map is just one representation of many other map sources that are available for Aboriginal Australia. Using published resources available between 1988-1994, this map attempts to represent all the language or tribal or nation groups of the Indigenous people of Australia. It indicates only the general location of larger groupings of people which may include smaller groups such as clans, dialects or individual languages in a group. This map is not suitable for use in native title and other land claims. David R Horton, creator, © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIASTIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996.
Maps of Aboriginal language maps have been made almost from the beginnings of European settlement, by various people, including the anthropologist Norman B Tindale in 1940, revised in 1974.
In Australia, assessment processes for the built or natural environment frequently consider and rank places according to national, state or local significance. This process is tied to legislative and planning regimes for land management and is associated with local, state and national heritage registers. Place-based heritage assessments are informed by decades of research through thematic studies and comparative assessments of various types of places, landscapes and environments. Some heritage practitioners now question the validity and consequences of the implied hierarchy of local, state and national significance.
The concept of national significance in regard to movable items and collections has received relatively little attention, and there are few coherent, accessible registers for aspects of movable heritage.
Only a small amount of comparative work has been done on subjects and themes across Australian collections, which can make it more difficult to substantiate assessments of national significance, because doing so requires careful comparison with similar items or collections.
Map of Australia showing state and territory boundaries. These historic and political boundaries contribute to the character of collections in each state and territory. Regional affiliations also shape the character of collections but are not so well recognised or mapped.
Design: Orbit Design Group
Some items and collections are associated with themes, events and people significant in Australia's history e.g. items associated with federation or the early European settlement of Australia, and as such are more easily identified as being of national or state significance. But the patterning of Australia's regional development and its cultural diversity is also significant in a national context and many items of working life are all integral to the nation's story. So, items or collections may be of national significance if they are important to a certain region, or to its history, culture and people. Many nationally significant items are held in regional and community collections, and in family and private collections all over Australia. The local or regional context in which these items exist may be an integral part of their significance, so values and meanings are frequently intertwined. In current practice there is no conceptually valid hierarchy of national, state or local significance for items and collections, and this is particularly the case for items and collections that are not of historic significance—for example, it makes no sense to try and ascribe state or local significance to certain scientific collections that have no particular association with state or local activities.
In future, as knowledge of Australia's Distributed National Collection develops, a more rigorous system of levels of significance may evolve. This might more sensibly be based on a system of gradings, rather than place-based levels of significance. Nevertheless, despite gaps in some areas of comparative knowledge of collections, there are occasions when it is important to establish national significance, and the following criteria are framed to assist this process.
National significance—criteria for national significance
Assessing national significance is a process that can be added, when needed, to the significance assessment process described previously. An item or collection's outstanding qualities and influence are important determinants of national significance, and are explored by research, analysis, comparative assessment and reference to the assessment criteria (below). This in turn shapes the statement of significance.
Like the standard assessment criteria, values may be interrelated. Items or collections of national significance will generally be significant under more than one criterion. In addition to meeting at least one of the 'threshold' questions for the primary criteria, the item or collection may also, for example, be in outstanding original condition, or have a particularly well-documented provenance.
Before considering the criteria for national significance it is essential to follow the step-by-step method, assembling research notes under each step in the assessment process. This ensures that consideration of the criteria is based on sound research and knowledge, rather than assertion, or 'talking up' the item or collection. Conclusions in the statement of significance should be supported by reference to notes and research developed through the assessment process.
Context helps to place the item or collection in a bigger national picture. A well-founded assessment of national significance entails high level research and a deep knowledge of the subject, and is supported by references, comparative examples and consultation with appropriate people.
Comparative assessment is a particularly important element in establishing national significance. It demonstrates how an item or collection compares with similar material.
The criteria below reflect earlier discussions in this book, especially in Part 5. Some of the earlier text is repeated here in order to present a guide to the criteria for assessing national significance on one page.
- Is the item or collection associated with an important historical event? Did it contribute to changing the course of national history or have an impact on the development of Australia or a part of Australia?
- Is the item an outstanding example associated with an important event, person, place, period, activity, industry or theme?
- Is the work an outstanding example representing the course or pattern of Australia's natural or cultural history?
- Is the item or collection associated with a pivotal discovery or innovation in the history of science, technology or design in Australia?
Artistic or aesthetic significance
- How important is the artist, writer, designer or creator?
- Is it an excellent example of a style, design, artistic movement or iconography?
- Does the work have an important or pivotal place in an artist's oeuvre?
- Does the work depict an important place, person, period, activity, story, idea or event?
- Does the work show outstanding artistic, design, innovation or technical accomplishment?
- Does the item have outstanding aesthetic value?
This criterion is most relevant to works of art, craft, design and decorative arts, but may also apply to items of technology, or mineral specimens or folk art. Items do not have to be art works to have artistic or aesthetic value. Some pictures may have little artistic significance but have historic value instead.
Scientific or research significance
- Does the item or collection support research on an important, rare or endangered aspect of the natural environment?
- Does the item or collection have outstanding potential to yield information or knowledge that will contribute to an understanding of Australia's natural or cultural history?
- How or why is the item or collection of outstanding scientific interest or research potential?
This criterion only applies to items or collections of current scientific value, or with research potential such as archives, natural history or archaeological collections. Items such as historic scientific instruments are generally of historic significance.
Social or spiritual significance
- How is the item or collection of outstanding social or spiritual value for a group or community?
- Does the work embody beliefs, ideas, customs, traditions, associations, practices, places or stories that are highly important for a particular group?
- How is the important social or spiritual significance of the item or collection established or demonstrated?
Social or spiritual significance is always specific to a particular, identified group of people. Social or spiritual significance only applies to items and collections where there is a demonstrated contemporary attachment between the item or collection and a group or community. Items or collections of social history interest are of historic significance. Religious items that are no longer used are more likely to be of historic or artistic significance. If the item or collection has spiritual or social significance, this needs to be demonstrated through consultation with the community or group.
Items or collections must be significant under one of the primary criteria, before considering the comparative criteria. The comparative criteria interact with the primary criteria to help clarify and elucidate whether the item or collection is important enough to meet the 'threshold' of national significance. The comparative criteria may increase or decrease significance, depending on how they interact with the primary criteria.
- Does the item have a particularly well documented provenance?
- How does this add to the meaning and importance of the item or collection?
Note: Provenance is part of the research in the assessment process as well as a comparative criterion.
Rarity or representativeness
- How rare is the item or collection? Is it the only one that exists in the country or the world?
- Is the item an outstanding or iconic example, representative of its class or type?
In some cases, items may be both rare and representative, such as examples of nineteenth-century working dress. An item that is merely representative is unlikely to be of national significance. It has to be significant under one of the primary criteria.
Condition or completeness
- Is the item in original or intact condition?
- Does the item or collection display outstanding integrity and completeness for its type?
- Does the condition of the item make an important contribution to understanding its use, history, creation or development?
Does the item have a highly important place in the collection or in its place of context?
Development of registers
Registers are lists of places, items or collections that are considered to be significant in particular ways or, at specific levels. They are created for several reasons:
- to recognise and promote understanding of the value of places and collections to a wide audience
- to protect significant places or items, sometimes through associated legislation, or through community awareness
- to prioritise funding for conservation and interpretation
- to build knowledge of the subject, theme or category as the basis for sound decisions and planning
- to document the outcome of surveys, thematic studies or collections mapping
Examples of registers include national, state and territory heritage registers, registers kept by community organisations such as the National Trust, and international registers such as the UNESCO Memory of the World Registers for documentary heritage. Australian registers of movable items include the National Quilt Register, the Australian Register of Historic Vessels, and the NSW Migration Heritage Centre's Belongings Register of migration heritage items.
Nominations to place-based registers often come through heritage and thematic studies. Some states and territories have the capacity to register movable items on heritage registers under their heritage legislation. An important benefit of registers, and the thematic studies that may underpin nominations, is that they provide comparative information for assessing the significance of items and collections. Comparative knowledge is essential in assessing the level of significance and evaluating whether an item or collection is of national significance. Registers such as Memory of the World are based on strict criteria and demonstrate the 'threshold' or level of significance through the nomination process and statement of significance for each registration. While place-based heritage has the benefit of almost forty years of work developing registers and knowledge of different types of items, this has not been the case for movable items and collections. This knowledge will take time to develop.
Items and collections of international significance
The same 'threshold' questions asked about criteria when assessing national significance can be used when making an assessment of international significance. In this case, the word 'international' should be substituted for 'national' in the criteria for national significance. The 'impact' or 'influence' of the item of collection, or what it represents, must extend beyond the borders of a nation state (and preferably beyond a single global region e.g. Asia-Pacific) for items or collections to be regarded as internationally significant. When making a claim for international significance, it is good practice to consult experts outside Australia (or your own country), and if possible, in the nominated region.
UNESCO Memory of the World inscriptions
Australia currently has four inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register of documentary heritage of world significance: the Endeavour journal of James Cook and the Mabo Case papers, inscribed in 2001; and The Story of the Kelly Gang 1906 and the convict records of Australia, inscribed in 2007. The Memory of the World program is the only one to date to compile registers of movable cultural heritage of world significance, but only includes documentary items.