How do museums and galleries decide whether something is worth caring for? In 2009, The Collections Council of Australia published ‘Significance 2.0’ – a document with an answer. For an object to be collectable, they argued that it has to possess at least one kind of primary significance: historical; aesthetic or artistic; research; or social and spiritual. 

Alongside these criteria, they identified further factors that can supercharge significance, including provenance, rarity or representativeness, condition or completeness and interpretive capacity. ‘Significance 2.0’ is an effort to make sense of ever-expanding collections, find their drive and focus, and justify the effort custodianship calls for. 


Inge King, 'Angel'


While we’re not all at the helm of national collections, ‘Significance 2.0’ speaks to the collecting impulse at large. It gives form to what draws us to certain works, helping articulate what we like and uncover common threads in our taste. In building a case to convince your spouse, impressing a dinner party guest or choosing between two works, the clarity of bureaucracy can be surprisingly inspiring.


Historic significance

Historical value is self-explanatory. It refers to objects that are historically significant – either they reveal something about the past, are by someone historically important or hold a memory. History is deciphered through objects, traces of otherwise expired feelings, moments and people, making our custodianship of them vital. 


Eric Thake, 'Mr Picasso! Gentlemen, you won't find him here'


Aesthetic or artistic significance

Works of art can be significant for their aesthetic achievement. Perhaps they’re especially beautiful, well crafted or visually distinct. They could be a particularly good example of a subject, style or medium.


Charles Blackman, 'Hand and Leaf'


Research significance

Museums see objects that can open or enhance research as significant. Be it for art historians or geologists, national collections are critical repositories of evidence. 

Research value may be less relevant for private collections, but collectors-cross-researchers exist. Some people collect to open lines of enquiry. It’s also worth noting that if collecting’s antithesis is disposal, keeping objects under custodianship, even if private, means keeping them alive should the experts ever call.


Anne Marie Hall, 'Portrait of Anne Hall, Andrew and Irena Sibley, and Mirka Mora'


Social or spiritual significance

Social or spiritual significance is again less relevant for private collectors. It refers to objects that are held in trust because they activate a living social or spiritual activity. 

An example are the spectacular Imperial Processional Dragons held by Bendigo’s Golden Dragon Museum. Each Bendigo Easter Festival, these artefacts are brought out to parade the streets, contributing to the spiritual life of a living community. 

To a more micro degree, the social activities we build at home can also pivot around works of art – a work to commemorate a birthday, an annual rehang. We decide not to part with certain works because they connect us to a time or person, a reminder to stay in contact, have them round again.


GW Bot, 'Glyphs and Shadow'


National collections have a big charge before them – they are the country’s memory bank, publicly funded, steeped in symbolism and aids in preparing us for future challenges. The significance schema knows this well, offering a framework to propel them forward. 

Perhaps our personal collections don’t carry the same stakes, but they still matter. In trying to quantify what feels intuitive, ‘Significance 2.0’ attempts something difficult. Things feel special, worth keeping, because they do. When inspected further however, more often than not these objects contain a locus of significance – their history, beauty, potential or sacredness.