Peter York, writing in the Guardian, recently offered a pithy deconstruction of ‘authenticity’ as a con: a vacuous term that ‘implies truthfulness with no uncomfortable requirement for facts’. I used to encounter a fair amount of ‘policy guff’ in my previous career so calling out the ‘head-bangingly content-free’ character of much PR-type material certainly resonates.
‘Authenticity’ is also an idea that features prominently in public history. York alludes to this when he suggests we ‘just imagine the lives led in those 1720s houses in Spitalfields, so assiduously, so authentically restored. How authentic do you keep it? Do you want back the world of public executions and outside loos?’. Imagined authenticity is highly selective. We choose to edit out the hangings and the lavs of the early eighteenth century when we imagine that past, just like we do the many prejudices and exploitations of the 1950s when we invoke the virtues of a so-called simpler, safer, more decent time.
As Jordanova has pointed out, there is no such thing as an ‘original state’ when it comes to historical houses and the like. ‘Houses evolve,’ she reminds us, ‘there is unlikely to be one single time that they genuinely evoke’ . Does an ‘authentic’ visitor experience demand that a house is fixed in time, a reconstruction of a representative period? Or even a moment? (‘a ripped bodice on the floor or his lordship’s cigar smouldering in an ashtray’ as Steven Bayley, critic and founder of the Design Museum, caricatured the National Trust‘s efforts in the authenticity department).
Yes, but I’m not sure the idea of ‘bringing history to life’ can be so easily dismissed. Drawing in sustainable visitor numbers – and securing positive feedback about the experience – is vital for public history settings, such as museums and historic houses. So what to do?
There clearly aren’t any simple or generic answers (I’ll be seeing what my new students make of this one in the coming semester). But maybe the concept of ‘authenticity’ is a place to start. It doesn’t really mean anything, either as PR guff of the kind York’s polemicising, or as an objective for a piece of public history.
Bayley’s right to alert us to the assumptions about the viewing public that can lie behind attempts to create ‘authentic’ recreations of the past. Visitors may not have an extensive ‘knowledge’ of a particular history, but they can still engage in complex ways with how it’s represented to them. As audiences, we can allow ourselves to be immersed in the experience, while recognising that what we’re seeing is an artifice.
What’s missing for Bayley is the encouragement of scrutiny, and this for me is an important point. How can displays speak to visitors’ ‘knowingness’ about historical representations and recreations? How can they invite viewers to ask questions, not just about the past, but also about the difficulties we have in accessing and understanding the past in the present?
We expect, as historians of all kinds, to have these debates inside own professional communities – maybe we need to involve the many audiences for history to a greater extent. These debates also involve others – journalists, critics, politicians, for example – and they also have a role. Inspecting their assumptions would be a start, including that some simplistic ‘staging’ of the past is all audiences are looking for. It’s all very well being ‘against authenticity’ and the smouldering cigar, but what do you do next?
 Jordanova, History in Practice (2nd edn, 2006), p. 131.