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.
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.