A farmer says he has had the same ax his whole life--he only changed the handle three times and head two times. Does he have the same ax?
This question launches Howard Mansfield's fascinating book about historic restoration, The Same Ax, Twice. Mansfield explores the sanctity and lineage of historic sites, from Japanese Shinto shrines (completely rebuilt 61 times in 1300 years), to igloos (rebuilt annually, oldest documented human dwelling), to the USS Constitution (80-90% rebuilt since it first sailed).
He argues that these relics are stronger because of their reconstruction. As he puts it:
So, does that farmer have the same ax? Yes. His ax is an igloo, and a Shinto shrine. He possesses the same ax even more than a neighboring farmer who may have never repaired his own ax. To remake a thing correctly is to discover its essence.
How does this question play out in museums? At the 2013 American Alliance of Museums annual conference, a group of exhibition designers explored authenticity in a session called Is it Real? Who Cares? They explored a huge range of museum objects and grey areas of "realness." They arbitrated replicas, reproductions, models, and props... and the context that enhances or detracts from the perception of authenticity.
While many of their examples came from history and natural science, one of my favorite examples is from art. There are three portraits of George Washington shown at the top of this post: the famous painting by Gilbert Stuart, a copy of it also painted by Gilbert Stuart, and a copy of it painted by his daughter Jane.
Many artists work with assistants and reproducing processes. Are the reproductions less real than the original? If done by the same hand? If done by another hand? If done by a machine?
Turns out, science has something to say on the topic.
Cognitive scientists at Yale and University of Chicago researched how people perceive "identity continuity" of an artwork when reproduced. They conducted a simple experiment:
- People read a story about a painting called "Dawn" created by an artist. There were different versions of the story. In some, the artist produced the original painting. In others, he instructed one of his assistants to paint it.
- In all versions of the story, the painting was irrevocably damaged by mold. Gallerists hired another artist to reproduce it.
When asked whether the new work was still "Dawn," about 30% of people said yes--if the artist had made the original with his own hand. If an assistant has painted it, the percentage climbed to 40%+. It was as high as 50% if the original work was commissioned for a commercial (hotel) setting.
The researchers posit that the "personal touch" of the artist plays a key role in people's perception of an artwork's authenticity and value. By this notion, in the George Washington portrait example, Gilbert Stuart could make many copies of his own work at equal value, but his daughter's involvement dilutes its realness. That is, of course, unless you also factor in the "personal touch" of George Washington being in the room live during the portrait's creation--in which case Gilbert Stuart's own copies have diminished value as well.
Whose soul is stamped on a work of art? On a tool? On a scientific specimen? What does it mean if we conflate realness with human essence?
If you care about authenticity, this research is pretty troubling. Sure, it shows that people value the original artist's hand in his/her work. But more than that, it shows that value is positively correlated with a perception of human touch. That perception can be faked--to both positive and negative ends. Artists embue anonymous objects with fictional narratives to increase their value. Companies buy up long-lived brands to add a human story to their wares. Spiritualists contact the dead.
In museums, we care about both perceived authenticity and real authenticity. We want the power of the story--and the facts to back it up. This can come off as contradictory. We want visitors to come experience "the real thing" or "the real site," appealing to the spiritual notion that the personhood in the original artifact connotes a special value. At the same time, we don't always tell folks that what they are looking at is a replica, a simulation, or a similar object to the thing they think they are seeing.
Some of the museum exhibitions that feel the most real are composite reconstructions of reality--true stories told well, with fake bits supporting the narrative. Some museum experiences can be more powerful because of the freedom that replicas afford. And when it comes to art, a forced focus on "the real thing" can mean less access to cultural artifacts. Were those plaster cast collections of the 1800s really hurting people?
In the Is It Real? conference session, participants ranked a series of case studies of ambiguous museum artifacts from "real" to "fake," from "works" to "doesn't work."
We live in a world where the commercialization of "fake" and "works" leads to some deceiving ends. The combination of "real" and "doesn't work" isn't a viable alternative. How do we get to "real" and "works" in the strongest way possible?
In other words: how do we remake the ax, tell the story of its reproduction, and honor its value every step of the way?