Relevance vs. Significance

Nina Simon’s blog post appealed to me because of her exploration of the terms ‘relevance’ and ‘significance’. She highlights the difference between relevance and significance and says that “relevance only leads to deep meaning if it leads to something significant.” I found the blog post so thought-provoking as surfing is so deeply embedded in the cultural identity of Santa Cruz. This is why the Princes of Surf exhibition is so relevant to the community of Santa Cruz and especially to surf lovers. The simplicity of the exhibition, which is comprised of just the two original redwood surfboards, has something to do with this relevance as it is very effective. The boards are the main attraction and they are able to speak for themselves. The simplicity of the exhibition evokes the feeling surfers must feel when on their boards: that it is just them and the ocean. The boards embody the essence of surfing in their materiality, while also alluding to the immaterial memories of surfing and the idea of passing down the teachings of surfing to new generations. The event Nina Simon describes has an almost ritualistic feel to it. Surfing is certainly an important part of the heritage of Santa Cruz.

Location-based Heritage

Within the book chapter entitled “Heritage and the Consumption of Places”, G. J. Ashworth* explores the debate about the extent to which heritage is place-bound or not. In terms of the Princes of Surf exhibition described by Nina Simon in her blog post, it is clear that the location is hugely significant to the surfing heritage the exhibition presents. The concept that a lot of heritage is indeed place bound is explored by Ashworth, whereby he stresses how for this sort of heritage the location or setting is critical for identity building at this location. The “on this very spot” concept he describes applies to the Princes of Surf exhibition in Santa Cruz and it could be considered the main reason for the success of the exhibition and why it has been so popular. It is largely true that people like to visit locations where heritage is said to have originated from. They like to stand in the spot where historical moments took place. In Santa Cruz, the two original surfboards provide authenticity to the idea that surfing was founded “on this very spot” 130 years ago by the Hawaiian princes. That the surfboards are original provides an element of truth to the heritage presented. This authenticity is significant for identity building within the community of Santa Cruz as it legitimises the deeper meaning attached to the surfboards and location-based heritage.

However, that the boards are significant to Santa Cruz does not necessarily mean that they will be significant for other places. They will remain relevant, especially to other surfing communities in the U.S., but they might not be attached to such deep meaning, and it is this deeper meaning that is crucial to the definition of the significance of an object according to Nina Simon. The significance attached to the boards is always contextual and with significance objects gain value and power. If the exhibition of the original surfboards was to become permanent then Santa Cruz could potentially become a pilgrimage destination for surf lovers from all over the Americas. This would act as location-based heritage tourism.

The Bronze Age Boat, Dover, UK

At the end of her blog post, Nina Simon asks her readers the following question: “Have you seen an object or work of art become relevant and powerful for a short time or in a particular context? How do you define the difference between relevance and significance?”

In answer to her question, a few years ago in 2013 there was a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to raise funds to build a water-tight replica of the famous Bronze Age Boat that is housed within the Dover Museum in the South East of England. This campaign gathered momentum as experimental archaeology would be used to build the replica and it was finished in 2014. The boat’s first voyage took place between Folkestone and Dover (around 8 nautical miles). The Bronze Age Boat in Dover is the world’s oldest known sea-faring boat dating to 1550 BC and is an incredibly important historical artefact for Dover and Kent. It was found in a well-preserved condition when a new road was in the process of being built. As the boat was found in Dover, Ashworth’s concept of “on this very spot” is applicable as the exhibition on the original boat in the Dover Museum could be classed as location-based heritage. Similarly, the Bronze Age Boat and the replica of it are relevant to Dover because the Port of Dover is Europe’s busiest ferry port and the town’s identity was (and is) ultimately built on the sea-faring trade industry. The Bronze Age was characterised by early features of urban civilisation for example the use of bronze and other metals as well as the development of the first writing, farms, fields, and roads. It acted as a prehistoric civilised society. The boat shows a technological prowess previously unsuspected for the people of the Middle Bronze Age in the South-East and is therefore a highly significant archaeological find for Dover and the county of Kent as a whole. The Bronze Age was also characterised by the advanced art of ship-building and maritime trade like the exchange of economic and cultural goods and services. This is significant for Dover as the finding of the Bronze Age Boat hints that there may have been an early Bronze Age settlement in Kent and to be affiliated with such people and their crafts adds to the local heritage of Dover and the town’s maritime trading identity.

To the readers of this blog, I put Nina Simon’s question to you as well: “Have you seen an object or work of art become relevant and powerful for a short time or in a particular context? How do you define the difference between relevance and significance?”

 

* Ashworth, G. J. “Heritage and the Consumption of Places”. In Bezeten van Vroeger: Erfgoed, Identiteit en Musealisering. Rob van der Laarse (ed). Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, (2005), pp193-206 (193).

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