Rebuilding, Reconstructing, Remaking: Recreating the Past in the Present

The question of whether or not we should attempt to recreate the past which has been destroyed is a thorny one. Of course, the question of re-creation revolves around artefacts that have been damaged or destroyed, and there are a number of issues associated with it. Is there an onus on museums and other such curators of history to recreate such artefacts? Is it ethical to do this? Is there a value in doing this? Does such reconstruction change the historical narrative?

These are all important, essential questions that  Mark Sinclair barely touches on in his article ‘Should museums be recreating the past?’ He is, as it transpires, more interested in examining where artefacts and monuments have or have not been reconstructed as opposed to asking meaningful questions of the act itself, never mind that these questions must be asked. Stuart Jeffrey, meanwhile, argues that the digital representation of a real-world artefact is one which has been “sanitised” and its “infinite reproducibility” has stripped it of the inherent aura of the original which connects the present beholder to the creation of the artefact (147). Thus, he does address some of the questions associated with the reproduction of the past by painting such reproductions as inherently different. However, he also argues that replications of artefacts can achieve their own level of authenticity dependent on their means of production (148). This contrast between an independent level of authenticity and the loss of a sense of connection to the original demonstrates the conflict at the heart of reproduction – the fact that a replica is at once the artefact and not the artefact.

Should museums be recreating the past? It is the question which Sinclair asks yet never answers (‘Should Museums be Recreating the Past?, Creative Review). While reproductions of lost artefacts are infinitely useful for connecting the public to the past, this connection is as much to the fact of the original artefact being lost as it is to the past which it is attempting to embody. Such reproductions make it possible for future generations to enjoy aspects of culture which they would not otherwise experience, and yet they serve to distort the historical narrative. A replica masquerades as the artefact, pretending that the original was never destroyed and while this acts as a political statement and a reminder of just how much has been lost, it is arguable whether it would be a greater statement to leave the space possibly inhabitable by the replica empty (Sinclair). Do replicas, thus, erase unpalatable aspects of history? Or, do they stand to shine a brighter light on the past? These questions are  embodied in the example of the statue of António de Oliveira Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, which stood in Santa Comba Dão. Blown up during the Carnation Revolution in 1974, the statue’s head was hidden in the city hall’s attic where it remained for over thirty years. In 2007, it was suggested to reconstruct the statue. Can such an act be seen as honouring a highly controversial figure of Portuguese history? Is it an effort to undo something of the damage caused during the Revolution? Or is it, as the city’s mayor put it, “confront[ing] our past” (Bilefsky, ‘Nostalgia for António de Oliveira Salazar divides the Portuguese’, The New York Times)? There are a multitude of questions around the reproduction of lost artefacts, and it is critical that they be addressed.

The monument to Salazar after two anonymous actions

The statue to Salazar, 1978, on the left post-beheading and on the right post-explosion. (Filipe Serro, ‘Berlin and Santa Comba Dão’, Amidst Interpretation)

Works Cited

Bilefsky, Dan. “Nostalgia for António de Oliveira Salazar Divides the Portuguese.” The New York Times 23 July 2007. NYTimes.com. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Jeffrey, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation.” Open Archaeology 1.1 (2015): n. pag. DeGruyter. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Serro, Filipe. “Berlin and Santa Comba Dão.” Amidst Interpretation. N.p., 26 Feb. 2012. amidstinterpretation.wordpress.com. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Sinclair, Mark. “Should Museums Be Recreating the Past?” Creative Review. N.p., 20 July 2016. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

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