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(in)significance :a one-day symposium, Friday 15 May 2015

This symposium, held at the University of Canberra,  looked at ideas of significance in a heritage context.  These are a summary of my notes for the day.

One of the images which was given, early on, was from the Indigenous Australia enduring civilisation exhibition at the British Library.  Spear points from Kimberly region are proving very popular and this blog post helps highlight the significance

To quote from this blog post

One of the joys of seeing so much interest in the points lies in the fact that stone tools are not usually regarded as show-stopping objects. Around a third of the British Museum’s 6,000 objects from Australia are stone implements, so it is great that visitors are recognising and celebrating such an important technology. It is especially so since the Kimberley points are displayed with a simple label, describing dates and materials. The points appear to be doing a good job of transmitting their value for themselves.

Session 1

 Bronwyn Hanna discussed the oral history of the making of the Burra Charter.  It is about places of significance, but there are ideas which could also apply to local studies collections “the things that you keep”.

Jane Hamilton highlighted the need to collect multiple representative of community, reflecting divergent beliefs. She highlighted that social significance is still a tough area for collecting.  Social value is really important – how can community based values be better understood in the heritage area?  With social value/community heritage it is a question of  whose cultural values?  Cultural heritage practitioners must have a better understanding of what different parts of the community value.

Robyn Sloggett was exploring what is evidence for significance, who chooses it, and who verifies it.  Her examples included complex discussion about the Wadeye Church in the Northern Territory

Alison Wain looked at communities which practiced large machinery conservation.  There is a split between the participative and the detached.  The participative is more about using the large machinery, the detached about preserving it.  They are different ways to engage with large machinery. The participative means more people know how to fix it, and maintain it, but the original may be modified.  The detached is about preserving accurate knowledge of heritage detail.

Linda Young use the patient suitcases from the Willard Institution as a way to explore ideas of significance. 

The panel session with the speakers looked at how can we move towards a national approach to thinking about significance? How do we understand what people do with heritage for their own benefit and connect to heritage? They also looked at how people in Christchurch post earthquake did some preserving of heritage around community wellbeing rather than fabric of the site.

They discussed the fear of what may be lost  They discussed the contrast between the recentdestruction of much of Nimrud and Yackandandah where a specific skill was lost after the death of a 102 year old woman.  Both are significant.  Food was discussed as a good place to look for heritage.

Session 2

Ursula Frederick research car culture and much of what she was showing and talking about related to local studies of the area, even if that was not her intention.  It highlighted the importance of collecting material of niche interest.

Adam Dickerson took a philosophical approach to significance.

Kristal Buckley looked at cultural and botanical landscapes.  This can raise issues of conflict between cultural and natural heritage, but also the benefits of dealing with them together.  Looking at “entangled structure and “biocultural diversity”.

Laurajane Smith explored the tautology of “intangible values” as well as the tension about “tangible values” perceptible by touch, but often for things, which to conserve and preserve can’t be touched.

Steve Brown, using the example of Old Currango in the Snowy Mountains which was first classified as a ruin, but then was restored.  He discussed ideas of “representative” or too substantially changed.  He also explore the idea of “fabric over feelings” saying that ‘empathy can give us knowledge and is therefore a form of data’.

Denis Byrne highlighted the importance of linking buildings of religion and how they are used within heritage practice. 

The panel session with these speakers highlighted the need to change practice, and of using significance in decision making, but accepting that significance means different things to different people.  There was the idea of communicating significance and the language which is used to describe it.  A bit of discussion about “spirit of place” and the “vibe of the thing” and also the multisensory experience of values.  The language used to describe significance has to make sense to a practitioner. There was a weather map analogy used as well, with the different fronts of weather indicating changing significance. A key point raised was that significance will always become political, and there will not often be complete agreement.  The politics should not be underestimated.  There was also a question of how do we look at subcultures?

Session 3

Tim Sherratt looked at significance at scale as the scale of digitised newspapers on Trove confers its own significance. He also gave examples of scale significance (one newspaper article looked at over 200,000 times on one day, because it was highlighted on social media), and personal significance (another article which gave someone the only photograph of their father as a child).  There is significance of wide scale access and a mix of detail and big patterns.  Two ways of exploring newspapers – Querypic and Viral texts (and you can now search in DPLA and Europeana simultaneously).

There was also the idea of Trove as lifestyle – looking at how Trove traces shows sample trackbacks to Trove

Ravelry is still one of the largest referrals back to Trove as people correct and share knitting and crochet patterns.  Eyes on the past was also shown as a way to demonstrate a different way of exploring significance as clicking on the images of eyes, bring the whole face into view.

Geoff Hinchcliffe – explored the idea of DIY significance, and how people could explore different digital collections, and hopefully explore them together too.  Concept of “Trove and tell” about finding things on Trove and sharing the outcomes.  He showed the Cooper Hewitt colour search – (click on this link, and then navigate by clicking on the colour blocks). Rijksmuseum also has colour search (under the image, click on the colour blocks), Flickr has just introduced a colour search (do a search, then click on the colour blocks to refine).  The Victoria and Albert Museum has visual search by different clusters within the collection, for an example see here and to choose other visualisations

The Queenslander visualisation also has colour search option, colour used to navigate and represent.

Angelina Russo highlighted the Queensland Museum Creative Lab as a creator of significance. University College, London has an Institute of Making, the New Museum in New York has a museum led incubator (and this includes Disco dog)

Tim Winter looked at the international political situation, and highlighted some unusual cooperation, including a Qatar-Sudan archaeology project and the Bamiyam Cultural Centre which includes funding from South Korea.

Tracey Ireland showed the link of the Museum of Innocence from book to museum.

This panel sessions focused on curation/selection, the idea of uncomfortableness, asked how can heritage contribute to other areas, and explored the idea of expert as facilitator.

Session 4

 Ross Gibson saw law as an infrastructure to enable rather than prohibit. Example of University of Sydney collaboration with the residents of Redfern, Space, place, country.

Sharon Sullivan suggested people read Returning to nothing : the meaning of lost places by Peter Read.

Summary from this session

Keep in mind whose significance as different things/places will be significant to different parts of the community.  Never underestimate the ‘what’s in it for me’. Heritage to be viewed in wholistic terms, not off to the side.  Things can change fast, like the recent change to the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act.