Authenticity1 and cultural heritage are two multilayered, challenging concepts central in a field of discourse that the involved actors engage with in very different ways. Whether in relation to the work of cultural historical and ethnological museums, the valorization and recognition of monuments, performances in the form of customs and rituals, or the chimera (both problematic and successful in equal measure) of “tradition” or “the traditional society,” the question of how cultural heritage is constructed and functions is a recurrent theme in the history and practice of the related disciplines of folklore studies, cultural anthropology, and European ethnology and has also been highly productive in public discourse. Following the adoption of the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972) and the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), scholars and even the general public have devoted more attention to questions related to cultural heritage. The field of Critical Heritage Studies2 emerged as a result of the increasingly intensive appraisal of origins and implementation of the associated programs as well as their direct and indirect effects on the sites and practices accorded heritage status. This interdisciplinary field addresses the communities and discourses linked to these sites and practices by posing questions about the actors and power structures involved and about value creation and conflicts; it examines the construction of identities and processes of inclusion and exclusion as well as modes of location, appropriation, and instrumentalization.
Amid a range of heterogeneous stances on “cultural heritage,” there are two discernible fundamental approaches associated with different actor groups. One view is essentialist, rooted in the assumption that cultural heritage is intrinsic and needs only to be accorded recognition. The other is constructivist, perceiving cultural heritage as the product of discourses, attributions, and processes of inclusion and exclusion. In this latter view, the awarding of heritage status and the preceding phase of reflection and discussion is constitutive for heritage—cultural heritage, in this perspective, is what has been intentionally designated as such. Recognition itself creates heritage, which unfolds its own dynamism from the moment of recognition onwards.
These two perspectives in turn underlie two very different approaches to understanding and interacting with cultural heritage that frequently collide, resulting in mutual incomprehension and a need for “translation.” On one side of the divide, actors champion “their” tangible or intangible cultural heritage as valuable, important, and unique, stressing that its very existence makes it worthy of protection. Critical voices on the other side of the debate, which most commonly come from academic circles, instead tend to highlight the evolution and manufactured nature of cultural heritage, pointing out how contingent it is and how it has been shaped by underlying power structures and value creation processes and subjected to political influences and instrumentalization.3
The question of authenticity is highly significant for both camps. The former assumes that it is in possession of authentic matter and authentic performances; in other words, this position perceives objects and actions, everyday (“common sense”) certainties, and familiar social realities as inherent, taking them largely for granted. The opposing camp questions authenticity and deconstructs what is perceived as authentic, viewing this as primarily a product of discourses and processes of communication and authentication.
This essay appraises the potential of actor-network theory—i.e. the comprehensive analysis of networks involving people, things, discourses, and translations—for paving a route to the middle ground between these camps and opening up a fresh perspective on cultural heritage. It considers various forms of cultural heritage including the role of museums and intangible aspects of heritage and focuses in particular on the role played by things themselves.
Cultural heritage as reflective practice
There is no unambiguous definition of Kulturerbe [cultural heritage]; even the simple comparison of this term with its counterparts in other languages (French patrimoine, English heritage)4 suggests just how complex and open this field of discourse is. A lack of conceptual clarity is particularly evident in the broad area of needing to find ways of distinguishing general forms of passing on, continuing, acquiring, and updating cultural techniques and objects (in ways for which the categories of socialization and appropriation seem suitable) from those forms of cultural expression and objects that are perceived in a specific way and have been especially designated as cultural heritage. A process of reflection is decisive for the latter, and while this often (although not necessarily) coincides with feelings of uncertainty and fears or experiences of loss, it may also mark a transition from daily performance to reflective reinterpretation, a transformation into representational forms,5 and processes of museum-ization or heritage-ization. These processes of reflection and the associated production of knowledge have been described many times.6
They are supplemented by cultural heritage transmission practices that frame cultural heritage as needing to be explained and register altered perceptions regarding phenomena as cultural heritage as evidence of a developing new consciousness. In fact, the importance of fostering a new awareness of heritage is often expressly spelled out in metatexts, especially in those dealing with programmatic objectives. It is visible, for example, in hopes voiced that popular narratives that have been “saved” from oblivion in the nick of time might again become meaningful to people in their daily lives,7 in the countless objects in museums that have survived an intermediate stage of falling into disuse and being discarded, in the securing of ruins that are to be made accessible because they are seen to represent developments in cultural history, in the “revival” or “purification” of cultural performances, and even in completely new inventions based on components cobbled together from other practices.8 These reflective productions of what is then designated as cultural heritage are connected with the contingent selection of what is included and excluded. A defined and definable image of a specific cultural heritage is created through this process—an ideal starting point for the application dossier that (politically motivated) cultural heritage programs generally require.
This process of reflection, however, fosters different perceptions of cultural heritage in different actors—as remarked on above—that are also deserving of attention: reflection strengthens some actors’ sense that their own cultural heritage and practices are special, but the flip side of this coin is that knowledge production (i.e., scholarly reflection) tends to emphasize the contingent and manufactured nature of cultural heritage.
Authenticity and authentication
The concept of authenticity—the tacit assumption or stated presumption of “genuineness,” “originality,” and “provability”—is a core formula conveying legitimacy on museums and on tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The problematic and dazzlingly multifaceted character of the discourse on authenticity, which spans a range of concepts from proof of material continuity to the authoritative determination of “correct” interpretations, has been discussed many times,9 as have the difficulties associated with the perception of authenticity. Judging whether something is authentic requires a definition of authenticity, but such a definition is ultimately the result of communication processes—what is authentic depends on what being authentic has been negotiated to be. At the same time, the concept of authenticity always requires an opposite pole, inauthenticity, and thereby also encompasses the neighboring discourses on forgery, copying, and reinvention.10
Three examples will serve here to outline the problematic nature of authenticity. The first of them is the cathedral in Regensburg, which is included in the town’s UNESCO World Heritage site. Work on the Gothic incarnation of the cathedral began in the thirteenth century and, in principle, has never been completed. The spires—a central element of the cathedral’s present appearance—were only added in the nineteenth century. During this same period, some baroque elements were removed to restore the cathedral’s “pure Gothic style.” To this day, the Dombauhütte [cathedral workshop] is continually replacing the building’s substance. The restoration work now uses a significantly more durable limestone in place of the greenish sandstone used at the beginning (Illustration 1). While the site of the building can be described as authentic, the building substance itself is only partially authentic, to the extent that authenticity refers to the original medieval material. The form of the building follows earlier models, and the craftsmen in the cathedral workshop use historical techniques to some extent. The cathedral is, finally, also authentic as a building that changes its shape again and again, one that spans multiple epochs and is always being reworked in some way. It is clear that “authenticity” can refer to very different aspects.
Knowledge pertaining to authenticity is typically expert knowledge that changes and is reinterpreted during its transmission. This expert knowledge and the performances and objects evaluated, however, need to maintain compatibility with other forms of knowledge. Imagine if the performers at one of the now highly popular “medieval fairs” spoke Old High German or Middle High German—whichever corresponded to the period being depicted. They might come very close to an authentic performance, but most visitors would be utterly incapable of decoding it. What happens instead is that visitors regard the specially invented artificial language used on such occasions as authentic, a language which makes liberal use of “-ey” (Gaukeley [amusements], Sauferey [drinking] etc.) and is peppered with quaint words and phrases largely motivated by Early New High German.11 The expectations of the general public are not infrequently centered around depictions in pop culture including films and books. Silke Meyer has shown this for the film “Braveheart”12: the hero—a “genuine Scot”—wears a kilt, even though the film is set in a period (the thirteenth century) when kilts did not yet exist in this form. The kilt in the film serves as a symbol to authenticate the protagonist as a Scottish freedom fighter. Authenticity here can be understood as an interpretive framework of the kind defined by Erving Goffman, one that that facilitates the categorization and interpretation of observations. But these examples also show how disparate scholarly and public discourses often are and how “popular authenticity” can take on a life of its own, developing its own frameworks for evaluation depending on social contexts.
My third example, the Japanese Nō theater masks in the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, are displayed in an isolated context with lighting that has an auratizing effect. While these masks are technically originals, decisive elements are lacking here because of their extreme decontextualization and the elaborate stagecraft deployed in their aesthetic presentation: the costumes that go with them, for one thing, but even more significantly the dimension of performance, of the masks’ appearance on stage. Because so much cultural complexity is omitted here, the presentation of the masks is inauthentic in spite of their status as original objects.
In all of its dazzling facets, authenticity appears to be a phenomenon which can only ever be attested for partial aspects, and its perception also appears to depend upon the observer. Despite the problematic nature of the concept, however, authenticity (or the pursuit of authenticity) represents a point of orientation for metacultural action, for example finding the “correct” way to display an object in a museum or to conserve one, but also—for groups that are “bearers” or “carriers” of cultural heritage—striving to find the “correct” way of executing a cultural performance. While authenticity may defy any analysis that seeks to move beyond partial aspects, what we can describe quite well are the processes and practices of authentication, the strategies, in other words, deployed in attempts to mark objects or performances as authentic.13
Museums as destroyers and producers of authenticity
Museums seem to be on quite solid ground with the narrative of authenticity; the aura of authentic objects is, after all, the bread and butter of their very existence. However, objects become entangled in a dynamic process of decontextualization and recontextualization during their museumization. Objects entering the inventory of a museum are removed from the contexts in which they formerly functioned—as utilitarian objects or as status symbols, as ceremonial or religious items, or as objects that had already reached an interim stage of becoming outmoded and being discarded.14 At the same time, these objects undergo an intensive process of knowledge production: they are cleaned, inventoried, conserved, researched, and finally—should they belong to the exclusive two to five percent of the inventory destined to be exhibited—placed on display in permanent and special exhibitions, in which curators order the arrangement of these objects to illustrate the narrative they have chosen (or created). As all this goes on, spatial and argumentative connections form that did not exist before the objects entered the museum and curators designed the exhibition (Illustration 2). The ordering of objects in a museum does not reproduce a “natural” or “original” situation: objects are contextualized in new ways that reflect the narratives of the museum, the relevant exhibition, and the curators. Karl-Heinz Kohl coined the provocative slogan “context is a lie” (“Kontext ist Lüge”) to describe this phenomenon.15
The other side of this picture, however, is that arguments proceeding from objects are often epistemically effective, considerably more so than text-based modes of knowledge transmission. Just as historians do not reproduce historical events but rather interpret sources and develop historical narratives, exhibitions do not simply display objects and illustrate events, but select and arrange objects to create relationships between them and integrate them into broader narratives and arguments. Just as the recognition of cultural heritage involves an aspect of invention, museums are constantly creating new knowledge in this process. It is only a slight exaggeration to claim that museumization destroys authenticity by nullifying functional relationships and fragmenting the cultural integration of objects. This is, of course, not to suggest that the history of these artifacts is brought to an end. In fact, the reverse is the case: a new chapter opens in the “biographies” of the things that are now artifacts held in museums and stored or exhibited in various ways. Taking up the bon mot of objects as slow events, one might say that new episodes are beginning. Museumization also includes a process described by Gottfried Korff, with reference to Walter Benjamin, as “auratization.”16 Being incorporated into a museum designates an object as special, but also makes it a proxy for others, giving it a representative character and thus an additional role complementing its individual immediacy and uniqueness.
The mechanisms of deauthentication are flanked by processes of authentication, the most notable of which are forms of verification, knowledge production, and knowledge formation. In contrast to the oft-voiced invocation that exhibits should be permitted to “speak for themselves,” in general the individual objects on display do not actually say very much on their own. The role of proving their authenticity, or more often of attesting it, typically falls to the accompanying texts and narratives (Illustration 3). Considering the intensity of the struggles over knowledge formation at times, it can perhaps be concluded that what is described as genuine and made the focus of research counts as authentic. Authenticity is produced by the scholars and curators who concern themselves with it and mark it as such in exhibitions. But perceptions of authenticity are also induced by other factors: the museum building, for example (objects that have entered the museum are more likely to be seen as “genuine”), the exhibit labels, and the display cabinets that not only provide protection but also signify the presence of protected objects that merit a closer look.
Agency and the disciplining of things
While authenticity appears to be a multilayered process of negotiation and attribution as well as an interpretive framework, the objects viewed within this framework are not arbitrary; objects distinguished by particular material qualities, the places where they were found, or modes of acquisition are evaluated differently from others, and in this a kind of agency of things can be seen to be at work.17 Whether one should go so far as to inquire into whether objects have “power” or are capable of “doing” is debatable, since “doing”—as opposed to just behaving in a certain way—is always linked to intentionality. Stories attributing agency to objects are, however, rife in popular narratives and myths, in everyday perceptions, and in religious contexts. The (European) concepts of fetishes, of relics—sacramental or magical objects—that were used in manifold ways in the past are still quite popular, for example, with esoteric shoppers today. That the world views of many indigenous societies take the agency of material things for granted can only be mentioned in passing here.
It could, of course, be argued, from a constructivist point of view, that it is discourse which produces attributions of supernatural potency or spiritual essences to things. From the perspective, however, of the actors themselves—of pilgrims bringing healing holy water home from Lourdes, for example, or of computer users cursing or pleading with machines as though these were autonomous entities with their own intentions—material things do appear capable of acting independently, and often enough subversively; at least in cases like these, the boundaries between things simply having behavioral characteristics and having the power to act seem rather fluid.
The power relations that can be observed between people and things are, indeed, not always unilateral or unambiguous. A passenger in a car that rolls over in traffic accident is not part of a discourse or an attribution, but embedded in the behavior, the materiality of the technical machine. Museums, too, are stages upon which conflicts between people and things play out. These conflicts are normally not visible for visitors—but conservators are all the more keenly aware of them. Colors change in shade, varnish darkens, fibers disintegrate and dissolve, thatched roofs rot—museums are usually intent on suppressing the actions of things and represent spaces characterized by efforts to discipline things—both materially and discursively.
How things produce authenticity
When authenticity is considered to be the result of negotiations carried out and attributions made by people, things appear as largely passive, as no more, at most, than nuclei around which discourses can crystallize. But approaching authenticity from a vantage point that does not rule out the idea of things having agency throws up a new question: how do things themselves produce authenticity and contribute to discourses and processes of attribution?
Things “act” by existing and being perceived, interpreted, and integrated into functional contexts, by having an appearance and characteristics that prompt people to act differently or to commence an action in the first place (affordance). People produce and modify objects, and objects in turn influence and shape people: they support identity, acting as extensions of the human body and as media which facilitate social exchanges.18 Actor-network theory19 (ANT) is analytically useful, as it facilitates the examination of human and non-human actors and their reciprocally entangled relationships. Because the scope of this article does not allow for a more in-depth exploration of ANT’s theoretical ramifications, two examples of such networks serve to illustrate this approach here:
The first example is the phenomenon of the “movie star” that emerged in the wake of the nineteenth-century invention of cinematographic film. Precursors are identifiable in stage acting; the initial introduction of film as a medium merely changed acting techniques and ended the simultaneity of acting and watching, but it also provided new forms of representation—changes of perspective, close-ups, special effects, and the like. The emergence and evolution of the “movie stars” subsequent to film’s introduction can be understood as a social process, but also as one determined by technical aspects—cameras, lighting, cutting, projection—in other words, by things. Technical innovations—like the advent of sound film—have always been accompanied by changes in acting techniques and audience reception.
Museums as institutions form another example of such a network. The history of museums illustrates how objects have been marked, valorized, and revalued and how exhibits have been arranged, presented, and received by visitors in ways that are linked with various discourses and social processes. These discourses cannot be investigated in isolation, however, as they are always bound up with things—with the artifacts collected, the exhibits placed on display, the cabinets protecting them, and the buildings housing them. In a way, these things “create” professions and actors of their own: curators, conservators, guards, and visitors to the museum. Museum history is usually written as the history of collectors and institutions, of an interest in the exotic and its presentation—as, all in all, the outcome of discourses. ANT, however, foregrounds the complex entanglements of human and non-human actants. In the case of museums, this means the relationships between exhibits, display cabinets, labels, buildings, curators, visitors, politicians, conservators, security guards, and so on. What is ultimately of interest are the negotiations and translations that are constantly taking place between things and people forming performative networks that are constantly changing in ways that can include the active removal of objects from the network.20 How could networks like this now be interrogated to discover more about how things produce authenticity? A first example revolves around an object that cannot be decoded without ambivalence due to a lack of available sources. The second example takes up the question as to how material things unleash discourses.
Weltmuseum Wien (Vienna World Museum, formerly Wiener Völkerkundemuseum, the Vienna Museum of Ethnology) holds an object that is widely known as the “Penacho”21. It consists mostly of feathers and gold ornaments connected to a supporting frame. The object acquired the appellation “Moctezuma’s headdress” in the context of the discourse which crystallized around it, but this attribution to the Aztec ruler Montezuma II (c. 1465–1520) is unproven. It has left traces in inventories from the sixteenth century onwards, and the interpretations in exhibition catalogs have varied—so its history is attested by further objects. Both its exact provenance and its precise function before it was brought to Europe are unclear, but the feathers and the techniques used in its construction confirm its Mexican origins. The Penacho is a good example of an object which is non-decodable in the absence of sources and consequently amenable to being interpreted in new ways and embedded in changing discourses. The description of this object—back in the colonial era—as “Montezuma’s featherwork crown” clearly served, for example, to boost the museum’s renown. While the museum’s curators increasingly questioned this attribution in the twentieth century, postcolonial activists adopted it in their repatriation demands, elevating the Penacho to a national symbol bearing witness to the injustice of Spanish pillaging.22 How can such an object that lacks a clear provenance and function—one that in its ambiguity defies authentication in the sense of having an attested history23—successfully generate authenticity in a way that transcends the ebb and flow of discourses? In this case, the pure existence and materiality of the object, the contingency of its appearance, its components, and the techniques used in its making draw visitors into dialogue with it and constitute its singularity. The productions of knowledge proceeding from such properties are—along with the capacity of exhibits to engage the senses and emotions of visitors—core components of the presentation of objects in museums.
Things can bear witness to historical cultural practices—independently of any claims to them advanced by contemporary societies or nations seeking to bolster the narrative of their origins by integrating these practices into their own historiographies. Given the fact that historical borders of settlements and territories often diverge from modern state borders, relicts in the landscape can acquire great political brisance by allowing for claims that a particular group occupied a given stretch of land “first” and can stake legal claims to it. This can be observed, to give two examples, for the native peoples of North America and for Armenian claims to territories within modern Turkey, where churches, ruins, and stone crosses (khachkars) have been systematically destroyed to undermine such claims. The simple existence of objects can become problematic, things themselves can become unsettling and disturbing actants, and their destruction can be pursued in order to effect shifts in person-thing-networks.
Similarly, the remnants of villages near the Czech-Bavarian border have an impact which can be attributed to their sheer existence. Deserted following the deportation of the German-speaking population after the Second World War and the creation of exclusion zones behind the Iron Curtain, they conserved cultural memory. After the lifting of the Iron Curtain, these sites and their material evidence bore witness to earlier settlements in the area in a fashion that has led to an intensive renegotiation of history24 that must now be inscribed into the history of Czech Republic, the region, and Europe’s collective memory.
The ability of things to accumulate various modifications, appropriations and attributions of meaning within themselves—and in this sense to form a kind of palimpsest—also creates their polyvalent and ambiguous nature. The Selimiye Mosque in North Nicosia in Northern Cyprus is a prime example (Illustration 4). Both its history as a Gothic cathedral and its history as a mosque are inscribed into its materiality in a way that makes it impossible to unambiguously classify the structure in regard to national, ethnic, or religious cultural heritage. Instead, it embodies an entangled cultural history that could be allowed to take on a bridging function as shared cultural heritage, or rather as cultural heritage forming part of a shared history, although such an outcome currently appears remote considering the present political situation in Cyprus and recent nationalist attempts at appropriation.
In all these examples, the roles played by things are far from passive. Embedded into person-thing networks, they have the power to unleash, amplify, or curb discourse, and things can also authenticate further things, sites, and historical events. Pursuing questions of authenticity would be pointless without these material and cultural effects, and authenticity can neither be attested nor transmitted in their absence. At the same time, however, attempts to appropriate things and attribute significance to them in a manner that seeks to eliminate ambiguity rather than to shine a light on the multi-layered and open-ended meanings of objects is problematic because it precludes a comprehensive approach which could highlight shared cultural heritage.
Cultural heritage as a network
The difficult question as to whether agency is attributable to things is a point upon which ANT is vulnerable to criticism.25 The concept of the agency and, indeed, the waywardness of things is, nevertheless, a fertile one, both because of the insights it affords into how the meanings of things can extend beyond their current status in a discourse26 and because of the way in which it allows us to investigate how things and people influence each other reciprocally. In the context of the relationship between cultural heritage and authenticity, paying more attention to networks and to negotiations between people and things offers a promising way forward. When the authenticity of things and practices is subjected to analysis within the framework of Critical Heritage Studies, the diagnoses reached are often somewhat skeptical and unsettling. The processes surrounding the transmutation of objects into cultural heritage are forms of metacultural action and inevitably produce something which is new. Their character is more creative and productive than it is declarative; recognition of heritage often sparks profound changes, and the question tends to rear its head quickly as to how exactly the heritage celebrated is “authentic.”
Essentialist approaches to cultural heritage that take its existence to be a given and perceive its character as fundamentally non-discursive remain problematic; neither of these assumptions can be confirmed, but both feature regularly in public and political discourse. At the same time, these very attributions—these yearnings for what is “original,” “genuine,” and “unique”—are themselves part of the phenomenon of cultural heritage and merit attention in that context. The essentialist view of cultural heritage cannot only be seen as that portion of heritage which should be deconstructed, or whose adherents should be persuaded of the error of their ways, but as an aspect of cultural heritage which is constitutive for and inherent to the phenomenon.
From a perspective which examines networks between people, things, discourses, and translations, authenticity can be understood as the result of negotiations between people and things and as a consensus reached between various actors and institutions. This does not free us from needing to critically examine processes, power relations, and value creation, but it allows for a broader definition of cultural heritage as a complex and fluid network of people, things, discourses, translations, and institutions that constitutes itself depending on the situation through the interactions of the various actors involved. This can usefully supplement the deconstructivist perspective on cultural heritage which researchers (with their strong focus on processes of “heritage-ization” and valorization) typically apply with a perspective that allows for more thorough consideration of material aspects.
Thinking of cultural heritage as a network also has interesting consequences for the categories used to describe it. The distinction made between tangible and intangible cultural heritage has long been in the sights of critics who see it as problematic and have pointed out that both forms of heritage are far more intertwined than has been reflected in the implementation of cultural heritage programs to date. While the older UNESCO world cultural heritage program was primarily related to the material substance of heritage, the criteria repeatedly referenced aspects addressing intangible heritage.27 The more recently defined criteria for intangible cultural heritage expressly encompass the objects intangible heritage draws on—the tools used in crafts, for example, or the accoutrements used in customary practices—although the main emphasis is on knowledge, social practices, and performances, these are unimaginable without their material “coalition partners.” Numerous museums, especially open-air museums, have also been moving beyond their traditional mission—the preservation of material evidence of the past—in recent years and are now concerning themselves to a greater degree than before with the museumization of intangible cultural heritage like historical craftsmanship or cultivation methods.
The background to how this distinction between tangible and intangible cultural heritage was discursively produced in the first place during the long conceptual history of cultural heritage—from the first cabinets of curiosities and movements to protect historical monuments all the way up to the UNESCO conventions and EU programs—would merit an investigation all of its own, not least because this background also supplies the context in which the discipline of ethnology developed. The rigid corset of conventions, procedures, and institutions which now exists in the heritage sphere—a Foucauldian dispositif if ever there was one—will hardly permit more holistic approaches to tangible and intangible aspects of cultural heritage in the near future. But from an analytical perspective, the investigation of networks between people, things, discourses, and translations can be profitably integrated into the continuing development of the idea of cultural heritage, into “doing heritage” and into heritage management—all the more so if it is also oriented towards current approaches to fostering participation and knowledge transmission.