Last week I was discussing how the term authenticity can mean different things when applied to heritage: the authenticity of unaltered material fabric; the authenticity of accurate historical representation; or the authenticity of perception or experience.*
These three factors all come into play when considering authenticity in historic houses. These are archaeological sites in their own right, where original building materials and techniques – unaltered and therefore authentic – can give conservationists an insight into historic building practices.
But as well as this, historic houses which open their doors to visitors aim to educate the public about ways of life in past eras, and must therefore aim for historical authenticity, which conveys a coherent image of history through the house itself, its contents, and its interpretative strategy.
And finally, the visitors themselves are coming in search of a particular experience; an authenticity of place, setting, and historical association which cannot be experienced in the same way through objects in a museum context. In other words, a historic house must give visitors the experience of being in a ‘real’ historic setting to maintain their appeal.
These may seem to be largely non-conflicting aims. The conservation of material seems logically to support the maintenance of an aura of authentic historicity.
But the thing about historic houses – the fascinating thing – is that they are material records of lives lived. They are not snapshots in time, but palimpsests of the choices, tastes and experiences of many years, sometimes even of many generations. The decorations, furniture, artworks and even the material of the building itself are not therefore necessarily ‘authentic’ from a conservation point of view, in the sense that they are not original or even accurate re-creations of the original, but instead they tell the honest story of house’s history as it developed over time.
This creates some difficult decisions for curators and interpreters. For an authentic historical experience, should visitors be presented with a house with no clear affiliation to any particular historical period, but instead which illustrates the decisions of centuries of occupiers? Or should the house – in the traditional phrase – be ‘restored to its former glory’, with all modern alterations stripped away in favour of an authentic appearance of historicity? Which is preferable – and which kind of authenticity should be prioritised?
There are two things to consider here. Firstly, that replicating a previous scheme of decoration or furnishing can never, really, recreate the original materials, colours or furnishings, even if there is a record of a space’s original appearance (which is rare). Secondly, a decision about when a house had ‘glory’ may seem obvious, but is born of current trends. Ideals in architecture and interior design come and go just like any other fashion; the appearance which is swept away in the name of conservation may be a much-mourned loss only a few decades later.
Take, for example, Hardwick Hall. It is now trumpeted as the legacy of Elizabeth Shrewsbury or Bess of Hardwick, one of the wealthiest women of Elizabethan England and a popular historical figure; and indeed, much of the architecture is of her choosing. To read the National Trust’s description, you would believe that nothing in the house has changed since the 1590s. Visitors may well believe that they are having an authentic time-travelling experience. In fact, the house was inhabited for more than a century and a half after Bess’s death, and it was only the enthusiasm of her descendent, William Cavendish (1748–1811), 5th Duke of Devonshire, which saved the house’s Tudor atmosphere. The Duke, a romantic amateur historian, attempted to recreate Bess’s time period by restoring or redecorating some aspects of the house and importing furniture and artworks from other Cavendish properties which fit the house’s period of construction. Yet his concern was more for mood than for strict accuracy, so the ‘authenticity’ is neither in the material nor entirely in the style. Does this change the perception of authenticity on the part of the visitors?
In contrast, consider another National Trust property with a far more unusual approach to an authentic story: Calke Abbey.
Rather than restoring Calke to its former glory, we’ve undertaken necessary repairs to halt the decay of the house and its collections. As you wander through the mansion, you’ll discover abandoned rooms, peeling wallpaper and a vast collection of strange and unique objects – presented exactly as we found them. – nationaltrust.org.uk/calke-abbey/features/explore-the-un-stately-home
Calke Abbey is presented to visitors in the same state of isolation, packed with eccentric collections acquired by successive generations of owners, that the Trust found it in. Here, the historical authenticity – showing the house just as it was when inhabited – takes precedence over an architectural authenticity which shows the house as the architect may have intended.
Speaking as someone who has worked in historic houses, there are many fascinating details. The historic artworks and the knowledge that you walk in the footsteps of extraordinary historical figures is one wonderful aspect; another are the hidden aspects, the quirks which show that a house is not only a museum, but a space that has been cared for and maintained by people for years. I am delighted by the discovery that a fire alarm has been installed but then carefully painted the exact shade of the antique wallpaper by a dedicated caretaker (see if you can spot them during your visits); or by the knowledge that an extra-large dining table is actually polished by cleaners skating around with dusters on their feet; or by knowing that a painting was hung down a dark corridor because it was a gift from a sitter who was not, in fact, very popular with the house’s owner. The stories of people who shaped and curated a house are, for me, as much a part of the ‘authentic’ experience of a historic site as the visual details.
*For more on experiential authenticity, I recommend Ning Wang’s 1999 paper here.