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.


Control and Copyright: Who owns the past?

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, 1880-81, Bronze. Georges Rudier Foundry, 10/12. Posthumous cast authorized by Musée Rodin, 1972. Cantor Arts Center Stanford University.

Patents, royalties and copyright are all accepted terms within a business context, but what happens when we apply business terminology and principles to culture? Should cultural artefacts be treated as any other tradeable commodity or are objects imbued with cultural capital exempt from these impositions of authority? In an attempt to answer these questions this blog post will explore the role of copyright legislation in the context of 3D scanning.

Gaining Access : Economy and Integrity

As is exhibited in Charles Cronin’s work on copyright and cultural artefacts a large degree of copyright contentions are motivated by finance and concern for integrity (Cronin 2). While Cronin, and other expanded domain advocates like him (Matz 5, Butler 57), disagree with the validity and necessity of these practices, cultural institutions and other academics argue that their actions are not only valid but justified (Allan 964). Upon reflection it is difficult to align oneself with the latter view. While the issues of revenue will always be an integral one for cultural institutions the contention that expansion of the public domain will result in an increased use of licenses and contracts seems to ignore the fact that such arrangements already exist (Cronin 12). Similarly, the notion that copyright is responsible for higher quality reproductions ignores the desire for preservation among the cultural community, it is hard to see this desire fade as a result of increased access. Equally, Cronin’s counter-argument that poor reproductions do not diminish prestige is difficult to refute when evaluating the continued prestige of Shakespeare and Mozart despite many poor reproductions of their work (Cronin 20). Unfortunately, regardless of Cronin’s logical arguments it is ultimately clear that copyright laws advocate for the owner and not the user. As a consequence, gaining access to cultural objects to even attempt a 3D scan can be half the battle.

Who owns the digital?

While gaining access to cultural artefacts for the purpose of digitisation can be challenging it is not impossible, therefore, it is necessary to evaluate the ownership of digital reproductions. In his study on the topic Michael Weinberg uses the precedent of copyright photography to establish how the legislation should and could theoretically be applied to 3D scans (Weinberg 3). According to the Copyright Association of Ireland (Frequently Asked Questions) the principal element required for artistic copyright is originality. Similarly, the focus of  Weinberg’s argument is that copyright protection is contingent upon the concept of “originality” in conjunction with the scanner’s intent. However, objectionists, such as Allan, have argued that it is not solely originality which defines the copyright issue, but that creativity has infiltrated the definition of eligibility (Allan 968).

The result of this originality clause is theoretically defined as follows: a 3D scan that was created with the intent of preservation or is simply a slavish digital model to real life object is not protected by copyright (Weinberg 9). The justification of this is that an accurate representation of a real object is simply  a transference from one medium to another, it does not require or represent originality and is therefore not protected. An important part of this definition is the acknowledgement of where originality must occur. That is, originality in method does not qualify for protection as the scanner is simply employing best practice to achieve the goal of replication. Therefore, originality is only a qualifying factor as it applies to product. This is essentially the point Weinberg is making when he speaks of intent (Weinberg 7). The exception to this copyright ruling occurs in regards to what Weinberg defines as ‘expressive scans’ (Weinberg 8). These scans are created with the intention  of distorting the original object for artistic purposes.


We like to think that our past and our culture is open to all. That artefacts detailing our past, our story, belong to us as a collective and can be represented as such. However, the reality is much more complicated. Where access is permissible and provided this is very much the case. 3D scans allow a universal audience to view, download and even print replicas. For many this may be the closest they can get to the original, and while this may not be everything it is hopefully enough. Conversely, where access is denied, ownership is a struggle as owners, guardians, institutions, academics and the public seek to serve very separate interests.


Allan, Robin J., “After Bridgeman’: Copyright Museums, and Public Domain Works of Art.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 155:4 (2007): 961-89. JSTOR. Web. 7 October 2016.

Butler, Kathleen Connolly, “Keeping the World Safe from Naked-Chicks-in-Art Refrigerator Magnets: The Plot to Control Art Images in the Public Domain through Copyrights in Photographic and Digital Reproductions.” Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal (Comm/Ent) 21:1 (1998): 55-128. HeinOnline. Web. 7 October 2016.

Cronin, Charles, “Possession Is 99% of the Law: 3D Printing, Public Domain Cultural Artifacts and Copyright” Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology 17:2 (2016): 709-736. Web. 7 October 2016.

Matz, Robert, “Bridgeman Art Library, Ltd. v. Corel Corp.” Berkeley Technology Law Journal 15:1 (2000): 3-23. Web. 7 October 2016.

Weinberg, Michael, “3D Scanning: A world without copyright” Shapeways (2016): 1-16. Web. 7 October 2016.

“Frequently Asked Question.” Copyright Association of Ireland. Web. 7 October 2016.