Authenticity in Museums

“Polarities of the ‘authentic’ vs. the ‘inauthentic’ are easily discernible in recreational modes. The criteria of authenticity are not necessarily objective but rather have to do with the rules by which the self allows or disallows its own experience.”

― Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book

The criteria of authenticity are not necessarily objective, in eight simple words Walker Percy resumes the concept behind the museum as a framing device. The museum itself is an inauthentic device trying to frame “real” or “authentic” objects and ideas. How do we reconcile this dichotomy? In this essay I will endeavour to offer my views in the subject, starting with an attempt at a definition of authenticity. Afterwards I will address the dangers of chasing this subjective concept if limits are not set. The third and most important part of this essay will look at two contrasting museums, the Piermaster’s House and the Beatles Story, both located in Liverpool’s Albert Dock. The former attempts to be a traditional house museum creating an atmosphere of a real lived in house, while at the same time never having been a house during the period it concerns itself with; the later, an exhibition space and tourist attraction that is fixated on authentic Beatles artefacts to the point of elevating them to relics and fetishes. Both deal with the concept of authenticity in entirely different ways and employ the inauthentic in different ways, one as a fact that must be hidden, and the other as a support meant to enhance the authentic. The last part of this essay will address the inauthentic and some possible ethical uses.

Before we can begin to discuss how a museum can be considered a “framed experience rooted in authenticity,” we must address the issue of what authenticity is. L.C. Roberts tells us that:

It has been argued that authenticity is a relatively recent concept, a 20th century reaction to the industrial revolution’s capacity to mass produce simulated objects. (1997 cited in Evans, Mull and Poling, 2002, p.50).

While authenticity is a recent concept, it is accepted within the museum community and backed by studies that we respond differently to what we perceive as authentic or original objects. The clue as to what is authentic lies in the word perceive.

Physiologically there is no difference on how humans experience an original and a replica (Dudley, 2010), nevertheless in a study with small children, it has been noted that infants as young as 2 1/2 years old in industrialised societies can understand the relationship between replicas and original objects (Younger and Johnson, 2004). As children age they even voice their appreciation of authenticity, in a case study in the Hunt Museum by Hall and Bannon, when interviewed, children not only appreciated the authenticity applied to the museum spaces, but responded to the fact it “looked like a real lab”(Hall and Bannon, 2005, p.208). Particularly revealing is the quote found on page 209 of a child identified as John:

I liked the way they tried to make it as real as possible. The interactive stuff was cool. My favourite bit was the phone where [you were] told messages about the stuff. Then you would listen to yourself on a radio. It was very enjoyable (Hall and Bannon, 2005).

While I could not find any clear references in any literature, its obvious there is a social construct taking place within western society emphasises originality and authenticity. Adorno tells us the authentic is a judgement of value and a manichean one that pits un-objective concepts against each other and leads to constant hairsplitting (Adorno, 1973), that is to say: is a broken Greek Statue that has been restored less authentic than a broken one? Is an unbroken one more authentic to the later? Nevertheless the concept has already been reified and accepted into the unconscious collective, and as such must be explained in some manner. Since philosophical and scientific explanations cannot help us, we must then resort to the emotional. Nuala Hancok gives us a very vivid description of her experiences working in the Victoria Woolf’s house museum. She describes a connection to Wolf through the object, as if it retains something of its owner, the damage in the object telling the life story of the writer, even biological deposits bringing us closer to this figure physically (Dudley, 2009). Therefore the authentic, in my personal opinion, is not only an object or experience that retains some physical connection to its context, such as: materials from the region, it is manufactured or performed by the endemic culture, the owner is renowned in one way or another (Harrison, 2010), but also evokes a strong emotional response from whoever is interacting with it, either by its spiritual significance or imbued memories (Dudley, 2010).

Before moving on, it is important to discuss the never ending downward spiral of “The really authentic”. In simpler terms it refers to this manichean idea that an object is either authentic or not, Theodor Adorno refers to it as a tautological concept that loses itself in a granular search for authenticity (Adorno, 1973, p.123). It can be put in simpler terms with the following example. We have two identical Greek Hellenistic statues, one in pristine conditions, with no apparent restoration, and minor damage. In the other hand we have a statue that has obviously been repaired, a finger is clearly made of a different material, the places where it was broken can be seen, it clearly appears to have been repaired probably in the 19th Century. The question is: which one is more authentic? We could argue that the untouched one is, as it hasn’t been touched by man after its creation, however, is this really the only measure for authenticity? Both statues came from the same historical period, their aesthetic merits are identical, yet one has been repaired, its history probably much richer in museological terms, but at the same time devaluated by what some would call interventions. The trap appears here then: would the statue be more authentic had the replacement finger not been attached? If the statue were not put together again, would the pieces be more original than the repaired whole? Going back to the pristine statue, does its minor damage make it less authentic than a hypothetical flawless third statue? Yet in practical terms both are Hellenistic statues, of the same period, we can learn almost as much from both, arguably more from the second since the very interventions it suffered can teach us about restoration techniques and what people in other times valued more. This never ending search has consequences such as disregarding heritage because it is not considered authentic enough, or even fake. Can we dismiss a cultures contemporary practices as unauthentic because they are a mix of values and practices across the ages? Do we call a Mexican mercado authentic only if it sells local historical produce and call it unauthentic if it sells Coca Cola right next to  fried grasshoppers (a traditional native snack)? To the people using this mercado, the one that sells Coca Cola is just as real as one that doesn’t, they are both part of their lives, heritage. Cultures move forward, practices change, to believe otherwise is foolish, and leads towards stagnation. To label something as authentic under these terms is to anchor it in the past in an effort to keep it from changing and evolving.

mercado

Museums have been described as a “framed experience rooted in authenticity,” nowhere is this more true than in the house museum. House museums are described as a site maintained “as it was” to give the public an insight into the life of a person or person perceived to have been historically important (Harrison, 2010, p.31). However this fails to take into account places such as Abbot’s Hall in the Suffolk town of Stowmarket where the House’s history is the main attraction, and not one particular owner or family, nor does it account for places such as the Piermasters house at the Albert Dock in Liverpool, a place that has been through research and using the NML’s collection, turned into a recreation of a house during the wartime period. Neither are focused on a person or persons perceived to be historically important, however both are houses and both are indubitably museums. So an expanded definition could be: a site maintained “as it was” to give the public an insight into the life of a person or person perceived to have been historically important or that by events related to itself becomes historically important.

Museums can be considered framed experiences because they take a snapshot of a moment in time and freeze it forever, they are not houses anymore, because a house is a dynamic place, people come and go, objects move, break, are replaced. Human influence imbues it with smells, sounds and marks. The experience in a house  museum has been curated, and even worse yet reified.

piermaster

When we go to the Piermasters house we walk into a kitchen space (Fig. 2), in front of us is a barrier and beyond it we see a dinner table with books and article clippings conveniently open to news of the war, a kettle in a blue tea cozy seats in the middle next to a single ceramic bowl, to the left is a meat grinder, and a lone spoon. The whole set up is interesting in many ways, an entire wall is left empty to accommodate museum visitor, and the barrier itself physically frames a still life, one where elements are placed not for their relationships between themselves but for what they represent. Newspapers open on war news, Air Raid Precautions leaflets and books on the war are used as chrono-contextual cues to remind the visitor of what was happening at the time. A tea kettle in the middle with a cozy as a symbol of the United Kingdom and also as a lived in element: tea is ready and is on the table. A spoon and a meat grinder sit in there to inform us that food is prepared and eaten there. At the same time however, this is incongruous with a “real” house. There is a teapot but no teacups, the spoon is not a teaspoon, the literature spread out in a very spread up easy to see way so the visitor can read what they are and grasp their importance, the meat grinder is placed far from the sink where it would normally be placed so its visible, all four walls of a house compressed into three. Susan Vogel remarks:

Almost nothing displayed in museums was made to be seen in them. Museums provide an experience of most of the worlds’s art and artefacts that does not bear even the remotest resemblance to what their makers intended (Edson, 1997, p.220).

Piermaster 2The Piermaster’s house is perfect example of Susan Vogel’s concept. The site itself, as the main information pane states (Fig. 3), was probably not a house during world war II, and while the objects are part of the NML’s collection, they originate from many places. What we have is what David Philips calls Laminations: layers of meanings fabricated to give the impression of reality (Phillips, 1997, p 204). Our first layer is the house, the main framing device, then comes the use of period objects that solidifies us within time, then the actual room  arrangement where we get the feeling of an actual house, afterwards we have the museological decisions such as labelling systems, barriers and pathfinding. All of these things together create an artificial setting that appears to be natural or real. Upon this, the visitor is supposed to create new knowledge, through the combination of what is learned from the minimal labelling, the objects, their arrangement, visual clues such as the RAP flyers and any other  knowledge previously had of the period.

Piermaster3

At the other side of the spectrum we have experiences such as the Beatles Story, where things are recreated outside of their original sites utilising the actual objects. The Cavern Club is recreated with faux brick, yet the stage (Fig. 6) is the stage used in the creation of a music video made there. Certain parts of the decor date back to the period the Cavern was open. Original musical instruments can be found around the entire exhibition, as well as original letters, even a beam from John Lennon’s tree house. In this case authenticity trumps everything, the lamination focuses on the object not the space, the pedigree is impeccable (Jordanova, 2000): this belonged to John, that was signed by Paul, those are Ringo’s suits, and so on.

The object becomes relic, imbued with its owner’s material biography, an extension of the Beatles, vivid, knowable, its memories spoken through every crack, word, and scratch; In a way a voyeuristic experience (Dudley, 2010, p.119). Authenticity as a fetish, a childhood’s treehouse beam, turned into a museum piece due to its contact  with a person of historical significance (Harrison, 2010, p.33).

beatles 1

After analysing the great amount of value that is placed upon authentic objects and experiences, where does that leave the replica, the copy, the unauthentic? There are many uses for such objects, in and of itself there is nothing ethically wrong with the use of replicas(Braccidiferro, 1988), specially if their use is disclosed, and at times the  fact they are not advertised as replicas can be of use.

Beatles 2

The Cavern Club was closed and filled in 1973 (Cavern Club, 2013), however a replica of the club as it stood back then is now shown at the Beatles Story. This place is an obvious replica, the bricks are made of polyurethane , the Jukebox is a mere façade, cut outs and labels cover the place, and as a centre piece the original set used by the Beatles for one of the videos they recorded there. Here replicas are used as immersion devices, meant to connect the visitor to a place long gone and give them an impression of how it was. In a way, the layering is similar to the one at the  Piermaster’s house, objects are used to give chrono-contextual cues.

beatles 3

vedicaSimilar examples in the same museum are the many copies of birth certificates, contracts, photographs and other delicate materials that could not be shown in the exhibition space without endangering them. And so replicas give access to the public to objects that in other situations they would have no way to see. The copy in this way expands the reach and educational value of the original object. Another good example is the Vedica tombstone, the original too difficult to move, it was laser scanned and a polyurethane copy patinated to look like sandstone was made(Tombstone of Vedica, 2005). This tombstone is now in the Museum of Liverpool’s History Detectives gallery, where  visitors cannot only see it, but touch it. While the feel of the material is not quite right, it is the closest most of the museum’s visitors will ever get to the real object.

Another situation where such replicas have shown great potential is in museum studies courses, in this case specially when their true nature is hidden. It is hard for students to understand the importance of object handling if all they are given to work with is replicas, even if these objects are as close to the real object, in the back of the student’s mind there is the knowledge that there will be no consequences to failure. However if the student is given a replica made to break down if it is not handled properly and told it is an original, the student’s attitude changes completely. The University of East Anglia employs this teaching method, and it has been observed that students will be extremely careful in its handling and will even hesitate to touch the objects for fear of breaking them. By doing this the university teaches students how to properly handle objects without actually endangering its collection. The student gets something as well from the experience: an understanding on object handling, and a good story to tell at lunch break.

As we have explored, the concept of the authentic is closely tied to the inauthentic, one does not exist without the other. Scientifically speaking theres no biological difference in how we experience original and fake objects. Nevertheless anecdotic reports by test subjects indicate there is something that differentiates them (Dudley, 2010). This difference stems probably from a reifying function in the word itself, to call something authentic is to give it power, we saw this in the Beatles Story, where even a piece of wood that held John Lennon’s treehouse in place becomes a museum object worthy of a 200 word information panel and a quote. We also saw the danger in chasing authenticity relentlessly, devaluating and dismissing things out of hand because they are not real enough. Regardless, authenticity is used in our world constantly to generate knowledge, the Piermaster’s house takes us into the 1940s to experience life in a house during World War II, in the Beatles Story, authenticity is used as a way to bring us closer to these great personages, to bask in these objects that have become imbued with the essence of their owners, deriving from them a form of spiritual significance (Hancok, 2010). At the same time we explored how the inauthentic can in itself be a tool in rooting authenticity, either helping to set a mood, as in the recreated Cavern Club, or as a support for a real experience as in the Piermaster’s house, or even as teaching tools, bringing us closer to objects that would be otherwise impossible to get close to.

In conclusion we have seen both the excesses and virtues of the chase of authenticity and its relevance to museological practice. We can safely say that a moderated search for authenticity does nothing but enhance the subject matter it concerns itself with, if only because society values real original objects to such a degree. Placing people in close contact with these objects gives visitors a sense of connection with history, making them more receptive and willing to generate knowledge out of these “spiritual” experiences. At the same time we can admit replicas have their place in the world of museums as long as their use is ethical, extending and supporting the real, in ways the use of the authentic alone cannot. In the end it is the job of the curator to decide how to use these tools as means to enhance his or her exhibitions, and not chase authenticity for its own sake.

Bibliography

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Beatlesstory.com (n.d.) The Beatles Story, Liverpool. [online] Available at: http://www.beatlesstory.com/ (21 Nov. 2013)

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