Authenticity and Aura: The Annotation of Replicas


Kirlian Photography: Hand
Kirlian Photography: Hand

In his paper on aura and democratisation Stuart Jeffrey addresses a number of concerns relating to digital visualisations and reproducing the authenticity of cultural objects (Jeffrey 144). While acknowledging that the application of aura to digital reproductions is possible in certain contexts, particularly in community engagement programmes, Jeffrey nonetheless argues that the ‘weirdness’ of the digital limits its potential (Jeffrey 151). While I agree with Jeffrey that the digital is not comparable to its analogue counterpart this post will seek to show that through creative curation, particularly with the aid of good annotation, digital replicas can adopt an aura of their own. This aura can not only stand on its own but can augment the aura of the existing original.

The Aura

Walter Benjamin defines the aura as an object’s ‘presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’ (Benjamin, II). This definition expands to include what is termed the authenticity of an object, that is ‘the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced’ (Benjamin). Jeffrey’s adaption of ‘the aura’ is more closely associated with the people who handled an object. For Jeffrey, our connection with an object ‘ is simply the latest link in the chain and somehow connects us to every other person on the same chain’ (Jeffrey 147). While I agree that Jeffrey’s chain theory is one aspect of aura it is by no means the sole definition. Jeffrey uses the example of an uncovered crown to demonstrate aura and authenticity through its association with rulers. While monarchs usually have a reserved place in history as key figures, largely due to the importance we ourselves place on their symbolic presence rather than actual achievement, is a crown that was made but not worn by a monarch any less important or historically relevant than one that was?

Curation and Annotation

In an academic discussion relating to digital history Patrick Gallagher, a leader in the field of exhibit design, wrote about the immersion concept in museums. This concept refers to Gallagher’s attempts to create ‘real environments that tell stories, display artifacts, create emotion, and most particularly offer learning experiences.’ (The Promise of Digital History). If we consider that the feelings evoked in public exhibits are the result of thought out layout, structure and annotation, and that it is these features which enable objects to be contextualised, and therefore imbued with aura, then is it not possible to achieve the same through an online exhibit.

I would argue that the Smithsonian museum have done just this with their online tour of The Kéet S’aaxw (Killer Whale Hat) (Hollinger, SimthsonianX 3D). The application guides the user through a sixteen step tour detailing the origin of the hat, the creation of the 3D model and replica and a comparison of the original and replica. The tour is carried out in an annotation window next to the 3D digital model and each annotated step is accompanied by pictures. These pictures follow the same topics as their textual counterpart. Through this display the ‘visitor’ can compare both original and replica and understand the origins and context of each. In this way both artefacts have their own, unique, story and aura, which are both dependent on different contexts. Additionally, through the side by side comparison it is evident that the replica and original are not identical. The annotated notes explain that deterioration and colour fading has altered the original hat. While this, Jeffrey and Benjamin would argue, gives the original object its own, protected, aura, it also gives the replica a trait of its own as the visitor can see what the ‘authentic’ object looked like exactly when it was first created. To increase the authenticity of their replica the museum also record the interaction of the tribal community associated with the original in the creation and unveiling of the replica. Through this interface the visitor obtains an immersive experience, akin to that of a museum or heritage site, and this experience encourages and augments the aura of the digital.


Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Web. 21 October 2016.

Cohen, Daniel  et al. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95.2 (2008): 452-491. Web. 22 October 2016.

Hollinger, Eric, Smithsonian X3D. Smithsonian Institution. Web. 20 October 2016.

Jeffrey, Stuart, “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation” Open Archaeology  1:1 (2015): 144-152. Web. 18 October 2016.


2 thoughts on “Authenticity and Aura: The Annotation of Replicas

  1. In my initial work in digital heritage and 3D visualisation most of my considerations were never about the aura or authenticity of the object but were with a conservation plan in mind. It wasn’t until the VHNI conference in Maynooth that the whole debate was brought to light. I remember mentioning one talk in particular to you a few weeks back and it (and the project) may still be of interest to your own research.

    ‘Jacopo Tabolli – A Virtual Museum and a Real Community: From Images to Identities in Mazzano Romano, Italy’.

    The function of the Museo Civico Archeologico-Virtuale di Narce (or MAVNA) was to create a display of the objects excavated in the late 19th century at the site of Narce. These excavations revealed 2000 tombs associated with prehistoric (800-200 BC) Faliscan settlements. Of the material excavated only a fifth was retained in Italy with the rest being legally appropriated throughout international institutes and private collection. Unlikely to see the return of these objects now forming parts of displays in other museums, it was hoped that a virtual museum could also be established to augment the tangible artefacts that were left. The museum set about communicating the funerary customs of the Faliscan people by reproducing archaeological materials, architectural elements, and providing access to digital archival documents which included excavation notebooks and illustrations.

    While discussing the idea of aura and authenticity, a number of archaeologists present at the conference had raised the point that they felt no digital model could illicit a meaningful response from the observer in the same manner as an original. Jacobo however pointed out that despite the absence of the real / authentic artefacts that had been acquired from Narce, the digital objects still retained meaning for the people of the area. As the originals were unlikely to be returned, these digital models (along with the relevant archives), provided them with a personal link to their own past that they felt was invaluable. It was interesting to hear this perspective in relation to digital artifacts and community engagement, but certainly I am still of the opinion that it is very subjective and easily manipulated in ex situ environments. I’m hoping to explore the impact of the digital in framing certain narratives in my own work so I quite liked your perspective on it.

    Here are some other links and papers that may also be of interest to you (the issue around replicas has similar narratives to the digital arguments I have seen raised by people in the field):

    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.

  2. The concepts of originality and authenticity are of particularly interest to me as my background is in textual criticism. Traditionally defined, the object of textual criticism is to establish from the divergent documentary copies a form of a text regarded as most nearly conforming to the original, the result of which is a scholarly edition. Recent developments in textual criticism across disciplines have tended to marginalise the role of the author and the notion of authorial originality. More recently and more radically, theoretical discussion in the discipline has challenged its practitioners to acknowledge and re-examine many of the underlying assumptions which form the basis of the scholarly edition, arguing that the attempts to produce a singular definitive text are based on a misunderstanding of medieval literature and therefore anachronistic as an editorial approach. Most notably Paul Zumthor and Hans Robert Jauss have stressed the ‘otherness’ – or the alterity – of medieval texts and I think that this is comparable to Stuart’s ‘weirdness’ of the digital (Zumthor; Hans Robert; Jeffrey).

    In considering how these arguments might apply to the theories of digital heritage, I find myself in agreement with the author of the above post. Gerard Thomas Tanselle defines text as ‘the arrangements of elements in artifacts’ (Tanselle). Thus, we may speak of the texts of nonverbal or intangible works. If we apply this definition to the creation of digital replicas we can move beyond the traditional goal of establishing a text (here the original artefact) and attempt to establish a context through their curation and annotation.

    Going forward, I feel that the concepts of originality and authenticity will come under increasing scrutiny in a digital heritage context and they have in the field of textual criticism. The tide is already turning. For example, in relation the conservation work of Factum Arte, the copyist Adam Lowe states that: ‘The work produced is the result of in-depth study informed by the assumption that originality is not a fixed state but rather a process, which changes and deepens with time’ (Conservation). These are issues that I hope to explore in my own blog in the future.


    Conservation. N.p., 2016. Web.

    Hans Robert, Jauss. “The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature.” New Literary History 10 (1979): 181–229. Print.

    Jeffrey, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation.” Open Archaeology 1 (2013): 144–152. Print.

    Tanselle, Gerard Thomas. “The Varieties of Scholarly Editing.” Scholarly Editing: A Guide to Research. Ed. David Greetham. New York: Modern Language Association, 1995. 1–32. Print.

    Zumthor, Paul. Essai de Poétique Medieval. Paris: Édit. de Seuil, 1972. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *