Authenticity III: The replicant question

In case you somehow hadn’t already heard, the technological age has reached the point where objects can now be precisely reproduced through 3D printing. Once the dimensions are known and the printer charged with appropriate material, it can create exact copies of an item of jewellery, a gun, even human organs.

For heritage, which deals with complex stories and values bound up in places and objects, this raises many interesting questions. And again, it comes down to the idea of authenticity.

I’ve already discussed in this mini-series how authenticity can be used to describe the original, unaltered material of a heritage asset, an accurate representation of a past time, or the experience of an encounter with an apparently genuine or meaningful form of heritage. In the case of 3D printing, a heritage asset can be so perfectly reproduced that the copy has the same form as the individual – visually and even, in some cases, with the material from which it is constructed replicated exactly, down to details not visible to the naked eye. How authentic, then, are these copies? They are accurate representations of the original, and may offer people the chance to interact with objects – the twin selves of objects – that are otherwise too distant or fragile to be seen or touched.

Poster from the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. Image from

These replicas are visually and even materially identical to the originals. The only aspect they lack is their status as first-hand witnesses to historical eras beyond the human lifespan, survivors of events that will never be more than stories to us in the present. But if a replica can also show all the construction, creativity, destruction and scars that bear such witness, is it then a heritage object in and of itself? Is it the material or the lived – yet silent – history that makes an asset authentically heritage? The questions mirror the dilemma referenced in the title; for readers who have seen Blade Runner*, a fundamental question of the film’s philosophical underlay is whether ‘replicants’ – robots created to look and even act like humans – are fundamentally anything other than human themselves. Once a copy of a thing has been created, the creator of the copy cannot fully control the ways that it interacts with its surroundings and the meanings that are thereby attributed to it.

This is not an abstract question: it is already very much a current consideration within heritage management. After the destruction of the ancient Palmyra Arch in Syria by Islamic militants in October 2015, digital archaeologists combined photographs of the arch to create a 3D model, and then a faithful reconstruction of the original.

Replica Palmyra Arch
A 3D printed replica of the Arch of Triumph – smaller than the original – took centre stage in Trafalgar Square, London. Image from

But what does this reconstructability mean for monuments and artefacts? If archaeology and history can be so easily manufactured again, does that nullify the need for curation and protection? Are original artefacts still precious if it is so simple to just copy them?

Of course, many of these sites and artefacts may well contain hidden information about the past that may be revealed by future scientific advances. But the fundamental question of whether a heritage asset’s significance resides within its visible form or its silent history remains. The form can be reproduced with increasing accuracy, but the history cannot.

And yet there is one last point to consider – the replica does not have the same history as the original, but it has its own stories and values bound up with it. If it had no such value, indeed, it would never have been produced. The replica Palmyra Arch created by the Institute for Digital Archaeology was unveiled in Trafalgar Square, central London, before travelling to New York and Dubai, harnessing narratives around cultural resilience and religious freedoms through its physical symbolism as a structure which the Islamic State could not permanently destroy.  While it may not have the same history as the original, it has created its own mythology; less a replica perhaps than a reincarnation, a new soul in an old body.


*Or read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, yes, I know, there are one or two of you who have done that and are preparing to show up my lack of literary knowledge.

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