Authenticity is of the utmost importance throughout most creative industries; original work is held in the highest regard, as indicated by standards and laws set to prevent copyright infringement, plagiarism and forgery. The forgery of classical art in particular is a very interesting concept, as it takes an immense amount of skill to accomplish a believable replication.
“Art and Craft,” a documentary film featured at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of Mark Landis – a man who has become one of “the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history.” He has created and donated numerous forgeries to museums across the country over the past 30 years. Landis seems to have found a way to cheat the system; he isn’t selling the pieces, his actions are purely philanthropic, which protects him from the law.
The accuracy and attention to detail apparent in Landis’ forgeries beg the question – is a piece of art admired because of its appearance and content or because a particular artist’s hand happened to grace the canvas? If the art appears identical, but is not in fact the piece created by the original artist – is it no longer a work of art? I have only seen the trailer for the film (it has not been released nationwide), so I cannot give away the ending, but Landis’ story intrigued me and made me consider the variety and place of “forgery” in the museum industry.
In the art world’s opinion, the artist matters just as much as the medium and composition on the canvas, but in many areas of the museum exhibit industry the lines can be a little blurry. During the exhibit design process, we are often tasked with helping our clients decide if a priceless artifact be put at risk and placed on display, or should an identical replica take its place in the exhibit? After all, if the replica was made properly it should be nearly impossible to tell the difference, right?
When it comes down to it, the most important factor is how the client is intending to interpret the piece. Frequently the story surrounding the artifact carries more weight if it is authentic. Occasionally, a replica can stand in its place with effectiveness if it is enhanced by the additional interpretive support.
Whether the artifact or the replica is selected as the best choice for the exhibit, it is very important to be clear with visitors about which item they are viewing. Openness regarding the use of replicas or artifacts builds a sense of trust with the visitor and gives an overall sense of authenticity to the exhibit.
Is the object itself interesting: does it have a unique function, is it impressively heavy, is it worth observing from more than one angle?
Is the most important aspect of the object that a particular person possessed it or came in contact with it?
Is it a one of a kind document or signed by someone important?
Does displaying a replica lose impact on visitors or does it allow them to have a more intimate interaction with the item?
Benefits of displaying:
Awe of story – Presenting the artifact alongside supporting interpretation gives visitors incentive to read the graphic content and leaves a memorable impact of the story paired with the item.
Sense of closeness to history – There is a certain feeling that can be produced for the visitor by allowing them to be in close proximity to the historical artifact. This unexplainable “spine-tingling” factor has a similarity impact to telling ghost stories in a graveyard, letting the visitors get swept up in the truth of the story. If an important historical figure held/touched the artifact, then seeing it up close helps visitors relate to that person, bringing them to life in the visitor’s mind.
Authenticity – If a museum is lucky enough to be in possession of an authentic artifact than it increases their credibility and creates a worthwhile draw for visitors who are particularly keen on the exhibit’s content.
Identical Item with Low Risk – A good replica should be hard to differentiate from the original, even by the trained eye. Some artifacts are so fragile or rare that putting them on display is too high a risk in case of damage or exposure to light. A replica makes a perfect stand in, giving the visitor a physical item to link with the content provided without risking the loss of the original.
Touchable/Durable – Installing a priceless artifact can be a tedious job. A replica can be installed easily, handled without concern, and placement on sturdy mounting brackets or permanent fasteners.
Less Case Specifications – Many artifacts have serious specifications for lighting, air flow, and case materials driving up the cost of housing. A replica, while still encased in cabinetry can be presented for a lower cost and exposed to higher levels of light. The encased replica may also become part of a larger interactive with changing lighting conditions or artifact rotation/movement.
Fill in the Collection – Replicas are a great way to tell a full story through interpretation and display, especially if your museum is lacking in artifacts or need a key, unattainable piece for an exhibit.