Last week, as I watched the massive crocodile’s tail bend around a corner and disappear into Surviving Australia, I only had one thought: “I’m so lucky to be seeing this!” But then, I am a museophile, and the idea of watching a heritage object being gently wrangled into a new space by professionals is actually really exciting to me.

The story of this crocodile got me right away, mostly because of the sign placed in front of it while it was in an ‘under renovation’ state, which read: “Built around the 1870s this case is a significant part of our State’s heritage, being the last example of what were once common museum displays.”

This idea of significance has stayed with me, especially as I was lucky enough to have taken the course “Philosophy and Ethics of Museum Collections” with the wonderful Dr. Miriam Clavir (UBC Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, BC, Canada) as part of my museological education at the University of Washington. In that class, I read parts of the document Significance 2.0: A guide to assessing the significance of collections, published by the Collections Council of Australia. Now that I am actually in Australia and have been able to get my hands on a copy of it, I have been reading about statements of significance and pondering how this relates to the crocodile. 

Surviving Australia Gallery
documentation of gallery Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

What I find most compelling is the idea from Significance 2.0 that “Australians will need knowledge, ideas, creativity, and innovation to deal with the challenges of the twenty-first century. This can be discovered and nurtured through engagement with Australia’s collections. But how can we ensure that the nation’s distributed collections are able to fulfil their potential?”

After observing visitors’ reactions to the crocodile, both in situ and as it was being worked on, it struck me that audience research could perhaps be used to assess how audiences assign significance to museum objects. The information from these assessments could therefore be used to create programming and exhibits that highlight what our audiences find significant, meaningful, and relevant in their lives. 

For now, the crocodile resides in its new home, looking smug and satisfied as the new ruler of Surviving Australia. The challenge for the future is to continue to find ways to engage our audiences so the croc can fulfill its potential as a significant object.