What are collections?

Here’s an idea of what might be kept as ‘objects’, ‘items’, or ‘evidence’ in a collection:

  • records - on loose paper, parchment, papyrus, or bound together in books; as photographs; as moving image, data or sound files in formats ranging from film to vinyl records and CD’s, and from magnetic tape (e.g. cassette) to computer hard drives; as geological mud cores, biological and astronomical specimens, and even scientific (digital) datasets; as ‘ephemera’ such as theatre tickets
  • works of art on walls, in frames, in floors, on furniture, on china, in books (as literature), on video, as sculpture – in materials as diverse as ice, chocolate, metal, plastic, goo, or scintillating combinations of these!
  • domestic and personal expressions of creativity and endeavour in certain locations, at certain times, or in certain circumstances
  • military, maritime, technological, sporting and engineering equipment, – large examples of these objects are sometimes called ‘big stuff’ [1]

Whether human-made or natural, examples of things that have survived the ravages of time occur in collections everywhere. The above examples provide evidence of our thought processes, our interests and our activities, which once captured in material form (become tangible), are often acquired by collecting organisations to tell at least one (intangible) story.

While important natural collections seem to grow automatically as we find new evidence of how our planet and solar system evolved, cultural collections can sometimes seem to become ‘captured in time’.

There is a demand and a place for static collections (which may arise from the terms of a bequest). However, most collecting organisations aim to update their collections as they locate examples that have better background documentation (provenance), are in better condition, or which fill a gap in the existing collection (according to their particular Collection Development Policy). What is viewed as historical now was once considered to be contemporary and therefore perhaps of lower value. It is now understood to be important to collect contemporary items in order to keep collections relevant to current and future generations. 

It is the aim of significance assessment to draw out all of the meanings behind assembled collections and individual collection items. This can be a challenge when items have been separated from their original contexts. When there is good preservation and good record keeping, it is indeed fortunate for the significance assessor when collection items are found together and ‘in situ’ at their original location e.g. within a built heritage site (sometimes this is called an ‘ensemble’ collection), or in a natural or cultural landscape.

Roslyn (left) and Veronica view a significant photographic work

Associate Roslyn Russell and Veronica discussing the significance of Mr Harry Krantz's photographic work about the importance of Queanbeyan workers to the building of Australia's national capital - Canberra. Courtesy Queanbeyan Museum, New South Wales, Australia.

Sometimes collecting organisations like archives, museums, historical societies, repositories, libraries and keeping places are called ‘memory’ institutions. This is because they help people to access and understand past ideas and connections with their communities in the present – whether those communities are personal, cultural or intellectual in nature.

Often overlooked is the value collections hold for emerging research agendas. As we grapple with new challenges we should always remember that ‘old’ evidence can make very useful contributions to solving new problems - if the right questions are asked of it.

[1] For a great talk on the challenges of determining the significance of ‘big stuff’ listen to Roslyn Russell presenting ‘A question of significance’ at the National Museum of Australia’s 2010 Collections Symposium. Available here: http://www.nma.gov.au/audio/detail/a-question-of-significance