Authenticity: a difficult concept

Authenticity is a strange term. And, for heritage theorists, a problematic one.

The problem lies in the duality of its meaning. Is authenticity a physical property, one which describes an item which has been minimally changed, so that it gives the most possible information about its past life? Or is it in our perception of a thing – when it embodies the values and history that an item or place was intended to represent? Or even, does ‘authenticity’ describe our reaction to experiencing a heritage asset, when our genuine emotions become the aspect which define our memories and future attitudes?

This apparently abstract debate is an issue because ‘authenticity’ is used as a criteria to decided whether a heritage asset is worthy of inclusion on the World Heritage List – and for a number of equivalent less global conservation programmes. Authenticity in the conservation sense was traditionally defined through unaltered materiality. The ancient monument which has been standing for thousands of years? World Heritage. The scaled-down replica down at the local crazy golf course which was made out of plastic twenty years ago? Inauthentic. Not World Heritage. Sounds simple.

But – and as the International Council on Monuments and Sites pointed out in their Nara Declaration in 1994 – not every culture believes that material should be left untouched in situ in order to be ‘authentic’. As an example, many Japanese historic sites are constructed out of wood, which requires regular replacement due to its short survival life (in terms of the lifespans of monuments, at least). But these sites are maintained and replaced because they are valued, and that continuing historical care is what gives them, in the minds of curators, their ‘authenticity’.

Confused? Here are some examples.

  1. Viking helmets never, in fact, had those two curved horns on the side, as far as we know. But the popular image has now overlain the historical fact to the extent that anyone buying a Viking costume would feel shortchanged if they were presented with a plain, hornless helmet. It might even be dismissed as not ‘real’ or ‘proper’ Viking-wear. In this case, the perception of authenticity has become more important than the historical fact. The fake is seen as more authentic than the historically accurate. Is it the archaeology that matters, or is it the popular belief? Or are they both, perhaps, relevant in different ways?
  2. The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with an infilling material that gleams gold (Kintsugi,or Kintsukuroi, which means “golden repair”) is an ancient art that makes the repaired items perhaps more beautiful than the originals. The decoration is not an original part of the design, nor is it done using ‘authentic’ materials from the time. Yet by openly celebrating the life-span of the object, and not attempting to hide the conservation work done on it, the conservators who use this artistic technique are adding to the story of the piece, instead of trying to freeze it in a single point. Perhaps this adds to the authenticity of the piece, in terms of age and of care, rather than detracting from it.

    kintuskuroi
    C19 Japanese stoneware repaired with the kintsugi method. Image from historyofasianart2.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/wai-ho-kintsugi-tea-bowl
  3. And finally, we come to the last example of when ‘authenticity’ can mean different things to different people. Restoring a place ‘to its former glory’ is a common phrase, and an apparently very positive one – a place which has been neglected or unsympathetically modernised can again be as its designer or owner intended; can create for us a time capsule which gives us an authentic experience of those happy days of glory. But who decides when that glory took place? Are the changes which gradually develop in a place over time in fact a more authentic representation of history and of a place as it was lived in, used, and adapted than a modern conception of how it might have been at whatever period of history is currently most fashionable to recreate?

This is a complex and ongoing conservation debate; I’ll return and explore it further next week as I continue to attempt to define ‘authenticity’ for heritage.


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