Authenticity

Recently, I have been considering the topic of authenticity within my master’s course and it has really intrigued me. It all began with a lecture which basically asked the question what is ‘authenticity’. What we concluded was that this is such a complex question to which there is no right answer. Furthering this, I did some extra reading on the topic. People such as Bartel argue that authenticity is ‘based on the originality of the site, its structures, and its social context’.[1] Rickly-Boyd argues that authenticity comes ‘from and are embedded in ritual and tradition, which are not static’.[2] Furthermore, academics such as Wang argues for two aspects of authenticity: ‘Existential’ (body feeling) and ‘Interpersonal’ (family ties).[3] While there are positives in all three of these definitions, I feel that they are fundamentally flawed. Bartel and Rickly-Boyd are convincing in the how they describe authenticity and they are not wrong, however, I feel that they are too broad. These academics take authenticity in its entirety and while Wang begins to break down this concept, I feel that his categories are confusing and not very accessible for those outside of the academic world.

What I propose is that authenticity can be broken down into 3 categories and one sub-category. These categories not only acknowledge some of the principles of authenticity that we have encountered above, but also help to tackle what Bendix argues is problematic with authenticity which is that it ‘implies the existence of its opposite, the fake’.[4] I put forward that instead of seeing authenticity as one concept which everything has to try to fit into, but an umbrella term which is made up of historical/personal authenticity, reconstructed authenticity, fake authenticity and the sub-category of unknown authenticity. I shall use my recent visit to Hever Castle to give examples.

Historical/personal authenticity is what I would argue, what most people would think of when we think of when talking of authenticity. A particular object is from that time or an object belongs to or was made by a particular person.[5] At Hever, good examples of this type of authenticity are the castle itself and also Anne Boleyn’s prayer book. The book has Anne’s name inside, showing that it belonged to her and thus allowing us some insight into her religious ideals. It is this type of authenticity which supports Benjamin’s argument that these authentic objects ‘cannot be reproduced’ – you cannot make a new book of Anne’s because it would not be hers. Furthering this, it is this type of material that is often sought after by academics in order to further our knowledge of the world and its past.[6] I would also include in this section objects such as film or sports props. The key qualifying factor of this category is that the object or the setting/ place is connected directly to a time, person or event.

Many would naturally talk about this to begin any discussion with regards to authenticity. While it does have a uniqueness with regards to having object from a certain time or connected to a certain person it does neglect several factors which, in their own right, can be authentic. Again, this highlights the complexity of what authenticity is but also is where my categories come into play. Firstly, although we can never ‘recreate’ Anne’s book or a room from the period when Anne lived there because it would not be seen as historically authentic, this degrades and disregards the many reconstructions done with loving and pain staking research by academics. This not only rebukes the idea that authenticity and scholarly worth comes from historically authentic objects, but also highlights that these can have their own type of authenticity. At Hever, they have several rooms which are mocked up to how they ‘would have looked like’ when inhabited. A 1920s drawing room springs to mind. Now while we do not know exactly how that specific room was laid out during that period, research would have gone in to this reconstruction in order to make sure that elements such as the wallpaper, flooring, furniture even the sounds and smells of the room, are as close to the historically authentic thing as they could get. Other reconstructions such as Anglo-Saxon villages, reconstructions of objects such as the Sutton Hoo helmet etc. are not necessarily unauthentic because scholarly work has gone into making them as close to the original as is possible in the modern day. They may have some flaws, but their purpose for being is to be as accurate and authentic as possible to the original. They are authentic because they are the closest we can get to the real thing ourselves. Thus I argue that they have their own authenticity about them which should be considered more in depth by academics.

There is a category or sub category which is not a reconstruction but neither does it have historical/ personal authenticity. This is the sub-category I like to call unknown authenticity. By this, I mean the objects or places which ‘maybe’ connected to a person or ‘may have been’ there at a certain time. One can easily test objects to see what period they come from, but to certify that a person or event was connected with it is more difficult to do. Thus this means we cannot say that it is not fully historically/ personally authentic (despite the fact it may be from the correct period). However, they are not reconstructions that we have made because they may well have been made from the time frame they claim to be from. Thus they have no reconstructed authenticity. Throughout Hever Castle, a common phrase on a lot of objects was this conditional tense. They had what ‘may have been’ Anne Boleyn’s bed and in ‘what could have been’ her bedroom. Now, they probably have tested the bed to see whether it was made and would have been around at that time, but they cannot confirm for definite that this bed belonged to Anne. Thus although the bed has a certain amount of historical authenticity, there is something lacking that would make the bed have more of an aura. The fact that they claim this connection with Anne means that we can never fully verify its authenticity and thus why I feel that not only can it not be fully put into the historical/ personal authenticity category, but why unknown authenticity is a sub category of it. These objects gain some authenticity from their age and their connection with a person, but because this can never really be confirmed, some could say that they are not completely authentic. And yet, I believe people love these proposed connections because it makes them feel closer to a certain historic figure or event and thus engages them more within the museum or heritage site they are visiting.

Lastly, and something this I feel is often overlooked within works talking about authenticity is the issue of fakes. Now this may seem like an oxymoron to put fake and authentic together but I argue that it can be done. Authenticity suggests something that it true and accurate – the complete opposite of fakes. However, what happens when fakes gain an aura and reputation for themselves? At Hever, many of the portraits that hang on the walls are fakes in the sense that they have been copied. However, they are still revered and gazed at by eager tourists. To give a better example of how fakes can be authentic, we need to leave Hever and look at the Hitler diaries, held now at Germany’s Federal Archives.[7] These were faked diaries that were connected to a scandal in the 80s but have now been accepted into an archive. As the New York Times has said: ‘fake history was formally enshrined as real history’ with their accession.[8] Although they are fake, they are treated as ‘authentic’, something that we can still study and learn from and that have their own aura and fascination connected to them. Thus they are very much like ordinary historical object. If we were presented with a forgery of an object, but the forgery was created 400 years ago, would we dismiss it? I doubt we would because it can still educate us and the object still has a story to tell. Thus, I feel that we have to have this category to pay justice and to highlight the importance and usefulness that these objects have. They are still authentic in their own way and this authenticity has been recognised by a digital Museum of Hoaxes.[9]

A common theme amongst all of these categories is that these objects have an aura/ effect for the visitor or viewer and thus have a story to tell. Historic objects have obvious aura to them, but fakes do too because of their intriguing past. Furthermore, as Wang argues, so do reconstructions even if they are not fully accurate.[10] John Lennon’s house has been reconstructed as best as the National Trust can but it does not hold the original furniture and may not be exactly as it would have been when John lived there. But as they said in a documentary on the house, this does not stop people having a semi-religious experience within the house.[11] Thus the authenticity of something arguably comes from the stories, history and the experience that it exudes to a viewer. However, different objects will exude this in different ways (as we have seen, making authenticity difficult to pin point) and hence why the categories I propose are useful in helping to describe visitor experiences and could set a good foundation for further exploration of this topic.

Throughout this post, I hope that I have lifted the lid on the idea of authenticity and made you, the reader, start to think about this complex topic. I know that there will never be a correct answer, but I feel that by starting to categorize and split authenticity down, we can start to better define what authenticity is and thus better analyse and study it.[12]

Thank you for reading!

Bibliography

Bendix, Regina, In search of authenticity: the formation of folklore studies, (Madison; University of Wisconsin Press, 1997)

Cottrell, Chris and Kulish, Nicholas, ’30 Years Later, Forged Hitler Diaries Enter German Archives, The New York Times, (23rd April 2013), <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/world/europe/forged-hitler-diaries-now-part-of-germanys-archives.html&gt; [accessed 28/3/2017]

Museum of Hoaxes, <http://hoaxes.org/&gt; [accessed 28/3/2017]

Rickly-Boyd, Jillian M., ‘Authenticity & Aura: A Benjaminian Approach to Tourism’, Annals of Tourism Research 39:1, (2012), pp. 269 – 289

The National Trust, BBC, 2005

n.b. This blog post has been influenced by a lecture by Dr. Sheila Watson at the University of Leicester for the MA Museum Studies on 1st March 2017.

[1] Jillian M. Rickly-Boyd, ‘Authenticity & Aura: A Benjaminian Approach to Tourism’, Annals of Tourism Research 39:1, (2012), p. 272.

[2] Ibid. p 271.

[3] Ibid. p 273.

[4] Regina Bendix, In search of authenticity: the formation of folklore studies, (Madison; University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), p . 9.

[5] Influenced by Ibid. p. 8.

[6] Ibid. p. 4.

[7] Chris Cottrell and Nicholas Kulish, ’30 Years Later, Forged Hitler Diaries Enter German Archives, The New York Times, (23rd April 2013), <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/world/europe/forged-hitler-diaries-now-part-of-germanys-archives.html&gt; [accessed 28/3/2017].

[8] Ibid.

[9] Museum of Hoaxes, <http://hoaxes.org/&gt; [accessed 28/3/2017].

[10] Rickly-Boyd, ‘Authenticity & Aura’, p. 273.

[11] The National Trust, BBC, 2005.

[12] Bendix concludes along a similar line with regards to the ambiguous nature of authenticity. Bendix, ‘In search of authenticity’, p. 21.

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