Inside the Collection

What is significant?

Two large metal turning wheels from the Bolton and Watt
Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

From the imposing Boulton and Watt steam engine to a delicate snuff box, all objects in the Museum’s collection are allocated a significance category. All objects in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection are cared for in ways that are designed to ensure they are preserved in optimum conditions for future generations. However, while the care in storage and processing of objects demonstrates an equitable approach to the collection, each object or collection is assigned a significance category of A (being the most important), B, or C. Added to these is an S for state significance.

Currently there are just over 3000 combined A category objects and collections and nearly 2000 B objects and collections (both of which also include S objects), leaving the majority of the collection as C. This is of course more a reflection of the lofty criteria applied to determine A, B, or S objects rather than a reflection on the relative quality of the C objects in the collection.

A common misconception is that these categories allow the Museum to prioritise saving the collection in the event of a disaster such as a fire. To be sure, the categories would help in preparing for an impending flood or other predictable cataclysmic event but on a day-today basis the determination of significance is designed to help Museum staff better manage the allocation of resources to the vast collection.
Importantly in these days of web access, the application of a category allows the Museum to prioritise the backlog of documentation including indexing, statements of significance, photography and condition reports – a continuous retrospective task that is inevitable in a 130-year-old collection.

However, while some objects of obvious international significance such as the Boulton and Watt steam engine or Sir Charles Babbage’s ‘Difference Engine’ are clear candidates for an A category, some objects are harder to determine. The default category is C. Here are some examples of the different categories:

A collection
Assigned to an object that is part of a collection that is of national or international cultural significance.

Sample of wool from the 1800s
Sample of wool circa 1800s. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The wool collection comprises thousands of wool samples collected between 1804 and 2003. The statement of significance for the samples notes ‘The different fleeces reflect the breeding programs and environmental conditions under which the fleeces were grown and, as such, they provide a valuable history of the areas of Australia in which sheep were grazed.’ Once considered moribund, the wool has been given new significance by the advent of DNA testing.

A object
Objects of national or international cultural significance. Objects in this category will be irreplaceable and deemed by their intrinsic value, historic association, spiritual significance or rarity to be Australian or international treasures.

Snuff box with inscribed "Walter Stevenson to his honoured father, N.S. Wales 1808’.
Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

At opposite ends of the spectrum in this category we have the Catalina flying boat, which in 1951 was the first aircraft to traverse the South Pacific between Australia and Chile, and a tiny snuffbox made from shell and gold . This is one of the earliest dated examples of decorative metalwork fully-crafted in Australia and is also the first known use of the kangaroo motif in Australian decorative arts.

B collection
Assigned to an individual object that is part of a collection which is of great importance to Australia and/or to the state of NSW.

Henry collection of fine Japanese combs of lacquer and gilding techniques
Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The stunningly beautiful and varied Henry collection of Japanese combs is an important collection to Australia because it is exceptional as a comprehensive representation of Japanese lacquer and gilding techniques. However, because there are other examples in the world it is a B collection and not an A.

B object
Objects of great cultural significance. Objects in this category are likely to be irreplaceable and deemed by their intrinsic value, historic association, spiritual significance or rarity to be of great importance to Australia and/or to the state of NSW.

 1925 Grey Rolls Royce
Photography by Kate Pollard. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The Rolls Royce Twenty is a rare survivor of this type of car. Ordered new in 1925 and fitted with a local body, it had only one owner and still has its original paperwork. Given to the Museum in 1959, the Rolls remains in original condition and this combined with its detailed provenance, gives the car its special significance.

State collection / State object
For any object that is of particular significance to the whole of NSW and/or to the people of NSW.

Locomotion 1 in the main foyer at the Powerhouse Museum
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Loco No 1 is, as the first locomotive to pull a passenger train in NSW in 1855, an ideal example of an object with enormous state significance. In addition it is also a rare survivor of an early British locomotive type, so consolidating its already easily-won A! Sticking to railways there is also the eternally popular Central Station indicator board, currently on display in the Transport gallery, which stood on the assembly platform of Sydney Terminal Station for 76 years. Legend tells us it was the witness to many a Sydney rendezvous.

C object

Enigma cipher machine, wooden box with a series of lettered keys
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

One of the many treasures in this category is the Enigma cipher machine, used by the Germans in World War II. Though the machine has great historical significance, it is not unique and is therefore a C object.

Thanks to Alison Brennan and Mandy Crook for their comments on the first draft of this article

3 responses to “What is significant?

  • Thanks for this information. You’ve answered some questions about the assessment of significance I did not know I had.

    Thanks too for highlighting a few colleciton items of great interest.

    Those Enigma machines have been fetching very high prices at auction lately, and with examples not nearly as good as the one in the PHM.

  • Thanks Bob. Given the enigma machine’s complexity and the Bletchley Park code-breaking connection it is not surprising that they are popular with collectors. There is not doubt it is a hugely significant item but within the Museum the that fact that there are so many in existence in the world reduces our example’s category status.

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