It seems that the starting point for many discussions about digital heritage is the lack of authenticity, ‘soul’ or ‘aura’ – as defined by Walter Benjamin – of the digitized objects. Jeffrey suggests that the reason behind such perception is the ‘weirdness of the digital world in comparison to everyday experience’ (2015: 144). He argues that the produced representations are sanitised, alienating and lack substance, location and degradation which strengthens the sense of otherworldliness of digital objects (2015:145). For that reason, it can be difficult for audiences to properly engage with it. Hence, although the digital should help in better understanding of the past, in a way makes it even more difficult due to lack of continuity of ‘aura’ carried by the object.
It is not surprising that, if given the choice, one would rather interact with the original object and experience it with all the senses – not only to see it, but also to feel its texture, its scent and imagine all the other hands touching it over the centuries. Of course, most of the time it is impossible to fully engage with the object due to its fragality etc. Yet, even the ability to look at it through the glass allows the individual to become part of it and in a way to contribute to its history. According to Benjamin, this historical testimony wouldn’t be possible without the object being authentic (Jeffrey, 2015: 147). Yet, other scholars, such as Bruner, question the idea of authenticity at its core pointing out that it is easily constructed within e.g. institutional environment (1994).
Jeffrey points out that the thrill of proximity to the people who had been close to the object in the past is more appealing than being with the object itself (2015: 147). One would argue, that it’s not always the case and that there are instances in which the digital object can provide richer experience and deeper understanding. In the spring of 2016, the Het Noordbrabants Museum held one of the most talked about exhibitions of the past few years bringing in majority of existing works by Hieronymus Bosch back into artist’s hometown. The interest in the event exceeded the expectations – over 420 000 people visited the museum craving the proximity of such precious artwork. Although the experience of being in the same room as the objects was exciting and unique, even if it was due to the sheer numbers of visitors it was impossible to fully interact with the objects. This is where, one would argue, the digital triumphs over the ‘authentic’ – digital allows the individual nearly intimate interaction with the object. It offers access to detail impossible to perceive through layers of glass and crowd of other bodies. Yes, it may lack the spiritual thrill of physical closeness, but it offers understanding – like in case of Bosch’s work, some details were impossible to see during the visit in the museum.
Digitital preservation and remaking cultural artefacts can ensure that the sites and artifacts exist in the future and allows bringing the objects in question to people who wouldn’t be able to experience them otherwise (Sincalir 2016). Do we have right to fight the historical decay in such way? Should we continue to enable intimate analysis of heritage through digital technology? One argues that if it’s done in right way, digitalization should be permanently embedded in any cultural heritage experience to offer the most immersive experience as possible.
Bruner, Edward M. “Lincoln as Authentic Reproduction: A critique of Postmodernism”. American Anthropologist, New Series, 96. 2 (Jun 1994): 397-415. Web.
Het Noordbrabants Museum “Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of genius in numbers”, Het Noordbrabants Museum online clip. Youtube 8 May 2016. Web. 26 October.
Jeffrey, Stuart. “Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation”. Open Archaeology. 1.1 (2015): 144-152. Web.
Sinclair, Mark. “Should museums be recreating the past?”. Creative Review, 20 July 2016. Web.