Rethinking replicas

Dr Sally Foster and Professor Sián Jones of Stirling University, lead authors of new guidance on working with replicas, share why a rethink on replicas is necessary and how it needs to embrace cross-sector working.

Replicas-from Stirling University resourceIt feels like we have hit a nerve – in a good way. At the end of July 2020, we launched a website that includes a leaflet entitled New Futures for Replicas: Principles and Guidance for Museums and Heritage (which was recently added to the Collections Trust’s online resources). We want this site, which is also called New Futures for Replicas, to be the place for joined-up thinking about, and working with, replicas, particularly analogue replicas. Responses to date suggest New Futures is very welcome. After all, it makes the case that replicas are to be valued, something important to the identity of people who already create, curate or work with them. It also offers a coherent framework for recognising and expressing their authenticity, value and significance, and then acting on that understanding in a structured way.

“These principles and guidance… articulate and champion the significance of an element of material (and other) culture. Collections are riddled with replicas – some good, some bad, some ugly – but this collaborative, multidisciplinary research constitutes an important contribution to the theory and use of replicas in museums.”

Dr Sam Alberti, Keeper of Science & Technology, National Museums Scotland and Honorary Professor, University of Stirling

Birth of the project

Between us, Sián and I have a long history of researching replicas, composite biographies of objects (linking the lives of replicas and originals), exploring alternative understandings of authenticity and co-production with communities. We brought these together in the study of a 1970 concrete replica on Iona, published as ‘Concrete and non-concrete: Exploring the contemporary authenticity of historic replicas through an ethnographic study of the St John’s Cross replica, Iona, and ‘The untold heritage value and significance of replicas’. Our ethnographic work fed into a broader study, My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona (there’s a preview of this here).

But we wanted our findings and approach to make a difference on the ground, and to do so in a way that brought museum and heritage sectors together. We had experienced how the intellectual and practical treatment of replicas is disjointed and fragmented in terms of heritage and museum practices (historical trajectories that are fascinating in their own right). Replicas and their originals often sit between places, collections and sectors, and are subject to inconsistent, different and divergent practices, which may well include inertia and invisibility. We wanted to change this.

Instrumental to changing this is moving away from the idea that authenticity is something intrinsic to an object. Rather it is about how we experience the ‘truthfulness’ and auratic qualities of our subject. This is based on material qualities, a sense of ‘pastness’ and the networks of social relations it is embedded in over time, as our Iona study illustrated.

Replica-handling at National Museums ScotlandWith support from the University of Stirling, National Museums Scotland, ICOMOS-UK and the Scottish Graduate School of the Arts and Humanities Heritage Hub, we held three workshops at which we collaboratively developed guidance and principles with a wide-ranging group of academics, and museum and heritage professionals. National Museums Scotland’s behind-the-scenes tours and replica-handling sessions stimulated and provoked discussion, and we are enormously grateful to all the staff involved.

Overview of the principles and guidance

Our strategy is shaped by Western approaches to assessing the significance of places and collections exemplified by the Burra Charter and the so-called ‘heritage cycle’. Neither were necessarily familiar to our workshop participants, but the frameworks have, we think, proved useful in terms of designing guidance that is practical for the very diverse range of people who might draw on it.

Our 20-page illustrated leaflet contains the following:

  • An introduction and context, explaining the focus on analogue and the gap we are filling
  • Cross-cutting principles (higher level – see below – and sub-principles)
    • new understandings of authenticity recognise replicas as original objects in their own right with stories worth telling
    • replicas are distinctive as ‘extended objects’ with ‘composite biographies’ that link the lives of the copies and the original
    • replicas merit the same care as other objects and places
    • replicas invoke specific local and global ethical issues
  • Guidance that underpins the principles
    • researching and understanding replicas
    • understanding the authenticity and significance of replicas
    • caring and protecting
    • engaging and enjoying
    • creating new replicas
  • An appendix of questions to ask of replicas, individually or in groups, under the headings of evidential, historic, aesthetic and social/spiritual values
  • Glossary
  • Starter reading
  • Credits.

Next steps

We designed New Futures for international application, with a view to it being read and adapted for local, culturally specific circumstances. How does it make a difference to your thinking and practice?

Excerpt from Futures for ReplicasFor example, how can you act on the principle of replicas as ‘extended objects’ with ‘composite biographies’ that link the live of the copies and original? ‘Relatedness’ is a fundamental characteristic of replicas, because their meaning and value is in large measure a product of their relationships with people, places and other things, which may include further replicas. Appreciating the significance of individual replicas requires recognising and appreciating these specific linkages. The values that are given to replicas are complicated and risk being constrained by existing mechanisms. Replicas therefore invite alternative ways of thinking within institutional or disciplinary silos, as well as new ways of working within and across communities of interest. Institutions can help by making their replicas more accessible and visible, integrating them into their catalogues and database structures and improving their online searchability. The intellectual and practical benefits of cross-institutional, cross-sector thinking and/or action would extend well beyond replicas and any one country.

We’d love your feedback and to continue to share your experiences. Do please also contact us.

Images (from the top): from the New Futures for Replicas website; replica handling in National Museums Scotland (© Sally Foster); and the St John’s Cross Iona: a summary of components and direct copies (© Sally Foster and Sián Jones).