Despite the process of digitisation and replication providing non-invasive alternative to artefact assessment and by proxy democratizing the datasets, the digitisation process has not been uniformly adopted as an alternative to traditionalist models of curation and representation. This reluctance seems to be caught up with the issue of authenticity and the lack of ‘aura’ surrounding the digital.
The replication process, that is to say, creating a copy of an object/feature that is indistinguishable from the original, is by no means a new practice in the field of heritage. Before digital applications facilitated the proliferation of replicas of archaeological monuments and artefacts, we relied instead on plaster casts to create ‘reproductions, facsimiles, or occasionally models,’ for museums and art galleries. This ‘substantial enterprise’ as Foster and Curtis describe it (2016, 123) was established for ‘observation, education, handling, documentation, presentation and art training’. By the 19th century however, changing attitudes to authenticity largely meant that the use and display of replicas fell out of favour leading to facsimiles occupying a type of ‘curatorial purgatory’ (ibid. 126). An assessment of international conservation charters by Bell (1997) further augmented this disdain for the replica process within curatorial spaces by asserting the process was carried out with the intention of deceiving the observer. This loaded assertion is intrinsically linked with the idea of aura and authenticity where artefacts are concerned, and the narrative they create in museums.
Plaster cast of ‘Lacoon and His sons’ taken from the Roman copy in the Vatican. Currently on display in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
The function of the exhibition is to communicate a sense of place and to illicit a response from the viewer, leading from the premise that the individual wants to be engaged by the ‘real’ object to fully connect with it. Many specialists in the field therefore feel that the intangible object lacks agency and an overall aura; that a digital object or a replica of any description cannot communicate a given narrative or establish a connection. However, this idea of aura to me is an entirely subjective process and open to considerable debate. Hazan (2001) emphasizes for example how “sometimes precious, sometimes mundane objects are modified in the exhibition context where they go through a process of museumification, extracted from different locations and placed on a spotlighted pedestal, or isolated in a glass cage”. Any ex situ object (whether art historical or archaeological) within a museum space is therefore re-conceptualised and re-contextualised to conform to a given (and not always honest) narrative.
The subjective nature of ‘auratic quality’ as Jeffrey describes it (2015, 144/145 etc.) can be best explained using The Stone Corridor in University College Cork. This is a corridor that contains a number of ex situ Ogham Stones from counties Cork and Waterford collected from 1861-1945. When I conceive of an ogham stone, I see it demarcating the boundaries of interlocking field systems. When I encounter this collection, I do not experience the auratic quality or authenticity linked to the object as their narrative has been deconstructed and reorganized in a clinical space. Ogham stones are monuments that were built into an ever expanding historical landscape. To remove them from that landscape is to undermine the agency of the object. This is a subjective experience and doesn’t preclude the public’s enjoyment or connection with the object independently of my own.
The Stone Corridor, Ken Williams 2010
Fundamentally, all museums represent a curatorial purgatory, filled with objects that have lost their narrative and their true ‘aura’. That is why I believe it is important to move beyond that concept when considering the potential that digital tools have in heritage institutions and curated spaces. In the 1930’s Benjamin saw this separation of object and aura as a liberating phenomenon that ‘emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual’. The democratization that digitisation affords to me far outweighs the conceptualization of aura, which keeps museum, archival and archaeological practices authoritarian and stagnant.
Foster, S.M. & Curtis, N.W.G. (2016) The Thing About Replicas – Why Historic Replicas Matter. European Journal of Archaeology 19 (1) 122-148.
Hazan, S. (2001) The Virtual Aura – Is there Space for Enchantment in a Technological World? Museums and the Web Conference 2001.
http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2001/papers/hazan/hazan.html#ixzz4OIV0Dalm <Accessed 20.10.16>
Jeffrey, S. (2015) Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation. Open Archaeology (1) 144-152.
Kibuspuu, L. (NA) Peopling the Heritage: To what extent is democratization of built heritage management possible and desirable? http://www.ainova.sk/files/file/BHCD%20Peopling%20the%20Heritage.pdf <Accessed 21-10-16>
The Stone Corridor Photographic Credit : Ken Williams 2010