CfP: Making it Real. Historical Authenticity in Museums and Collections in the UK, Germany, and Europe

Call for papers, deadline 1 September 2019
Location: Cambridge
Whipple Museum of the History of Science
Liba Taub (Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge); Ulf Hashagen (Deutsches Museum, Munich & LMU, Munich); Achim Saupe (Leibniz-Research Alliance Historical Authenticity – Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam)
Date: 03.12.2019 - 05.12.2019

'Authenticity' is a concern that shadows every step of the work of the museum, from the acquisition of objects to their display and interpretation. Variations on the question 'Is it real?' underlie all aspects of our work. Historical authenticity—linked to dynamic issues of cultural and societal expressions and values—and the question of being authentic with regard to a specific time, place and situation cannot be assumed, nor taken for granted. The conference will interrogate issues of authenticity in our museums, especially with regard to material held in our collections and its preservation.

In the last decades, museum studies have developed divergent approaches to the authentic. Some regard the specific materiality of objects, their "sensuous and emotional appeal" as most significant for the attribution of authenticity by museums, experts and visitors. From this perspective, the museum is one of the few places where it is possible to directly encounter what has been passed down to us via "relic authenticity" and the "contrasting fascination of the authentic" (Gottfried Korff). Juxtaposed to this, constructivist approaches have often tried to demystify the authenticity phenomenon of the museum, remarking that "authenticity is not about factuality or reality. It is about authority (S.R. Crew/J.E. Sims)." According to this viewpoint, authenticity is more or less a culturally specific product and attributed to things largely independently of their material substance or object biography. Furthermore, authenticity in museums has been described as a "rhetorical mode", which is generated within the framework of exhibitions by a "pact" or a "collaborative hallucination" (Joachim Baur/Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett) between visitors, exhibition makers and institutions. Newer concepts try to build a bridge between these concepts, arguing that authenticity is an effect that arises from the interaction of individuals or groups with artefacts and things within places and environments that are relevant for their own historical self-understanding (Siân Jones/Thomas Yarrow).

Topics to be addressed include:

Collecting, Authorization and Authentication: What are the reasons for the selection of what is preserved and “authenticated” in our museums and collections, while other remains of the past sink into oblivion? Ascribing authenticity is a mode of generating evidence based on scholarly methods and practices, well-rehearsed rhetoric and socially anchored and institutionalized rituals. How do museums and experts “authorize” and “authenticate” objects? Is historical authenticity a mere attribution, or a relevant category for the description of objects, displays, museums and how people deal with their past? Papers can look at how scholarly styles of thinking, institutional and social frameworks and the practices and techniques employed by museums, collections, conservators and restorers concerned with cultural objects have influenced authentic objects over the course of history.

Historical authenticity and politics in Europe: Labeling objects as “authentic” is a highly political gesture, because processes of authorization and authentication largely determine what societies choose to perceive as “their” history or cultural heritage. Given the changes that we are currently undergoing in Europe (Euro-skepticism, new nationalism, populism), the conference will consider how ideas of the nation in Germany and the UK, of Europe and of globalisation and global transfers authenticate similar/comparable objects in different ways. When speaking about artefacts and specimens in our collections, are there (or might there be) conflicting narratives about Europe in Germany and the United Kingdom? How is Europe presented in museums and collections in the United Kingdom and Germany?

Last but not least, we invite papers dealing with transnational relations between Leibniz and Cambridge collections, as far as they are concerned with the above addressed questions of authenticity.

Please send your abstract up to 300 words and a short CV until September 1, 2019 to Paula Dahl: