Fieldnotes: Authenticity in the age of Covid-19

Reflections on coronavirus, digital engagement, and museum practice informed by postdoctoral fieldwork in Mexico and the UK. Originally published on the GlobalGRACE project website.

I. Authenticating

For museums, authenticity is everything. Gallery owners live in fear of discovering that a work in their collection is a forgery, a reproduction, a fake! In the Western tradition, at least, the value of a masterpiece is the aura of its creation at the hands of a master; the value of an artefact is the aura of its existence in a particular context.¹

In our age of digital reproduction, you can print replicas of prized museum objects in your own living room, or buy them in the gift shop. You can tour the greatest art sites (in the Western imagination) with Google. In the Imperial order of things, however, The British Museum (and its ilk) retain possession of the (often stolen) originals. Their authentic homes must make do with replicas.

II. Labelling

The local economy of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas is driven by tourism. Visitors are attracted by, and sustain, markets in arts and crafts that encompasses boutique galleries as well as roadside stalls. Indigenous and local artwork – shaped by millennia-old traditions, colonial impositions, and modern struggles for autonomy alike – are staples of a creative scene in which Indigenous workers and artists continue to be exploited by middle-men and business owners.

As our GlobalGRACE colleagues (WP5) have shown in their work, an embroidered blouse made by an Indigenous seamstress in her village, over the course of hundreds of hours, will sell in San Cristobal for a pittance compared to a Boutique-branded mechanically-produced facsimile. The same is true of sculptures, carvings, and tapestries. The label and printed price tag; the location of the sale, the identity of the person brokering it – these are sources of monetary value in San Cristobal. Authenticity counts for little.

III. Locating

In San Cristobal’s Kakaw Museo del Cacao, few objects on display are ‘authentic’. Replicas are clearly labelled, from approximations of everyday items filling out dioramas to detailed recreations of invaluable artefacts secured behind glass. A display of recreated Mayan codices is flanked by explanatory texts that reveal the current locations of the originals: Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries; Madrid’s Museo de America; the Dresden Library. The latter two are named for their current (dis)locations – Códice Madrid; Códice de Dresde – rather than their origins.

Inside the museum, wrapped up in lessons on the culture, history and religious importance of cocoa, are the inescapable facts of Imperial power: to take, to (re)name, to create knowledge about, to possess.

IV. Digitising

In the Spring of 2020, museums the world over have shut their doors due to the global coronavirus pandemic. As lockdown stretches out towards a horizon of new normality, museum world conversations (and funding) has focused to taking collections, exhibitions and museums in general more comprehensively online; to making art, artefacts, and proprietary knowledge available everywhere (that bandwidth allows) in digital form.

Institutions that steadfastly refuse to return the real thing are now banking on appetites not for authenticity, but for virtual virtuosity; the ability to suspend (images of) objects in the air, spin them around, zoom in to details; to file through (logo-embossed) collections at speed from desktops, or from the palms of our hands. The displacement of aura from artefact to artifice (without ownership being altered at all). Pandemic disrupting practice, not power.

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