Authenticity in Museums and Heritage Sites: All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Two people reading a sign outside of a house museum

Library and Archives Canada, two people reading sign outside of replica ‘pioneer’ home in Alberta, 1956.

Kaiti Hannah

Working in a museum, one of the most common questions asked by the public is “is it authentic?” As I’ve started to examine the use of the word “authentic” and the idea of authenticity in museums I’ve begun to realize that the word may have no place in a history museum at all. Many institutions get so wrapped up in the idea of creating “authentic” experiences for visitors that they may (intentionally or inadvertently) misrepresent the accuracy of their displays. Perhaps, authenticity should not be the goal of museums, but rather should be a point of discussion surrounding how we study the past.

This post will focus on history museums. The phrase “authentic” has a more defined meaning in an art context, where “authentic” usually means a piece of art that has proven provenance back to the original artist or a work that is otherwise undeniably from a particular artist. For example, an “authentic Rembrandt” denotes that a work has been positively traced back to the well-known artist.

What do visitors mean when they ask about authenticity? The Oxford English Dictionary defines authentic as “Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine. Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original. Based on facts; accurate or reliable.” So there are a few ways to explore authenticity, including what I believe most visitors mean when they ask about authenticity, which is, “is this item original to the time period being portrayed here? Or is it a replica?”

What does authentic mean in a history museum setting? The first part of the definition goes back to what I believe most visitors want to know when they ask if something is authentic: is it a copy or not? But the second point of the definition, “done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original” is open to interpretation. What about a replica that is made in the traditional style? A barrel, for example, made in 2012 based on a 19th century barrel, built using period-appropriate tools, materials, and methods. Would that barrel be authentic? By this definition, yes, but many visitors would disagree.  

Context is another piece that is often missing from authenticity conversations. Is a spinning wheel from 1850 located in a replica cabin in a replica village, all supposedly representing 1850, authentic? Any replica building representing 1850, no matter how accurate we try to make it to the time period, will inevitably have an odd light switch or modern plumbing or necessary fire safety equipment. And what if the building was constructed using an electric drill? What if the dishes featured in the house are anachronistically from 1870? Is the spinning wheel in this context still authentic? Or is it only authentic if its context is authentic and if it is being used authentically (in this case, to spin wool)? Can an object meant to be used be authentic in a context where it is never working?

This leads to one of the biggest questions museum professionals need to face: is authenticity in museums important or relevant? And if it is, is it ever truly achievable?

I don’t think true authenticity is possible at most museums or heritage sites. Heritage sites are sanitized versions of their older selves, with nothing being exactly as it was. Where are the smells of the outhouses, fireplaces, and livestock? Where are the sounds of times past? How do living history interpreters incorporate different dialects or accents, for example? Can we replicate the tastes of centuries past using only modern ingredients? Some of these facets may be incorporated at some heritage sites, but certainly not all of them.

Perfect authenticity is not possible, but it also may not be worthwhile. Sure, maybe an eagle-eyed visitor may catch that the pattern on the china is from 1913 when the site is supposed to be set in the 1880s, but that visitor will also be removed from any potential authenticity by a fire exit sign or electric lighting, no matter how subtly done.

This is not to say that museums and heritage sites should throw historical accuracy to the wind. There is no harm done in trying to be as accurate as possible in portrayals of the past. Rather, I argue that authenticity should not be the be-all or end-all of museums. People can still learn from replicas. Visitors may even learn more if they can touch the replicas and see them being made, instead of having to only engage with originals through glass.

This is also not to say that museums should go wild with replicas. As was recently pointed out in the Washington Post, there is a problem with museums, even world-class institutions such as the Smithsonian, misrepresenting replicas as originals. This misrepresentation can change visitors’ perceptions and understandings of what they’re seeing.

Ultimately we do visitors a disservice when we pretend that our portrayals of the past are exactly accurate. Rather, we should emphasize that exhibitions  are a representation of the past as we currently understand it and that adaptations have had to be made for various reasons. Clear explanations of adaptations can create an excellent opportunity to teach visitors, especially school groups, about how museum professionals study the past.  Discussions of authenticity can be an educational tool rather than a means of highlighting the excellence of an institution. Important discussions can be facilitated with visitors about authenticity, how they define authenticity, and why individuals feel it is (or isn’t!) important.

Kaiti Hannah is a Curatorial Assistant at the Western Development Museum’s Corporate Office in Saskatoon. She holds an MA in Public History from Western University.

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2 thoughts on “Authenticity in Museums and Heritage Sites: All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

  1. Jacob Tyler Hamlin

    I was very hopeful that someone else was bringing up “authenticity” and questioning its place in “living history” (many “history” museums do not participate in living history).

    Unfortunately the most pressing aspects of authenticity were as absent in this article as they are on most historic sites.

    Paragraph after paragraph I was hopeful that the reality of the racism, sexism, authoritarianism, of the past would be called into question re. Authenticity.

    Alas, people are still more worried about the China pattern than the rapes, the murders, the lynchings, the beatings, and least of all slavery and it’s lasting impact on the nation.

    Until living history grows beyond an infatuation with material culture, it will remain as stodgy as the house museums we no longer visit.

    If the question of authenticity boils down to buttons and petticoats for you, then you should deeply question your motives for being in involved in history of any sort.

  2. Paul C. Thistle

    Thanks for helping us think about the authenticity concept for museums. As I read this piece, I began to wonder about written histories presented in books, journals, & on-line.

    Is “authenticity” an issue for such published works of history? Are you holding museum presentations to a different standard than that applied to published works? Are published works presented as “our portrayals of the past are exactly accurate” OR are they routinely published with disclaimers such as “we should emphasize that exhibitions [read published histories] are a representation of the past as we currently understand it and that adaptations have had to be made for various reasons”?

    May I recommend that museums also must attend to the last part of the second part of the OED definition “Based on facts; accurate or reliable” should not be neglected regarding museum authenticity.

    What apart from the OED definition could should museums employ from historiography to address their “authenticity” problem?

    I am not a fully-trained historian, but my question arising from this piece is: should published historians also pay attention to educating their readers about historiography to justify the authenticity of their written works?

    Thanks for thinking about this.

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