Do We Really Want Authenticity?

“Authenticity” is a word we keep coming back to in the world of cultural heritage conservation. The concept of authenticity lies at the centerpiece of the international charters that have defined preservation practice since the 1930s, and especially since the shift toward “intangible cultural heritage” that began with the Nara document in 1994.

Shoso-in, 8th century temple pavilion at Nara, photographed 2004.

Authenticity is a key aspect of how visitors encounter and experience historic sites. In our work in the Weishan Heritage Valley in China, we stress the value to the heritage tourist of authenticity. This is an argument for maintaining local businesses along the Southern Silk Road in Weishan, rather than removing them for tourist shops, as has been done in Lijiang, a World Heritage Site that experienced catastrophic tourist development and became an economic monoculture.

Peaches for sale, main road, Weishan, China, 2009 Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Weishan, main road, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Tinsmith, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael
Weishan is a county seat for the Yi and Hui Autonomous county, a diverse region made of many ethnicities, including the Hui, a Muslim group whose stunning Dong Lun Hua village I visited in 2008 and 2009.

Courtyard house at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Mosque at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

As a county seat, Weishan has businesses that service the entire valley countryside, such as coffin makers and funerals. These are authentic, and they are still done in their authentic location, in stark contrast to the tourist shops in downtown Lijiang.

Funeral wreath, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Funeral procession in Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Coffin shop, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

But I have also written in the past about the large market that exists for sites and stories that SEEM authentic but are not. My favorite example from near Weishan is the famed Three Pagodas at Dali, where tourists flock to see a T’ang era pagoda flanked by two of more recent vintage. These once stood in front of a large Buddhist temple complex during the era of the Dali Kingdom in the 10th century.

So they rebuilt it. In 2006. A massive complex of more than two dozen brand new temples filled with hundreds of gold leafed statues. There was a temple complex here a millenium ago, but it has not been here for a long time and the reconstruction is extremely conjectural. It lacks authenticity.


Changsheng temple complex, Dali, 2009. Photographs copyright Vincent L Michael

But it does not lack tourists (although apparently it has not attracted as many as they would like). The point here – and in Lijiang, is that for a large group of tourists, authenticity doesn’t matter.

You can call it the Disneyland effect, and while I used to use Disneyland as a sort of insult to authentic places, it is worth remembering two things. First, Disneyland itself is now an historic landmark more than 50 years old. Second, places do not have to be old to be authentic. Disneyland was authentic when it was new. But there is a reason that Disneyland becomes an epithet for the heritage conservationist: part of what it offers to the tourist is the FEELING and IMPRESSION of age and nostalgia. It is authentically new, but part of its authenticity is an inauthentic channeling of impressions of the past into the present.

One of the ways you can distinguish between Disneyland authenticity and REAL authenticity is that the real stuff sometimes is stinky or ugly or unkempt or unresolved. Like reality.

deer hoof as a hook in courtyard house, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Despite the plethora of China images and examples above, what got me thinking about this today was a new restaurant in Chicago by the unparalleled Grant Achatz, whose Alinea has three Michelin stars and has soared past the entirety of Manhattan cuisine. His new concept is called Next, and will change its theme every few months, as reported today here. In cuisine, as in heritage conservation, there is great interest in authenticity, and Achatz’ first attempt will be to bring Next back to Paris in 1906. As the article notes, the reaction to a recreation of a 1906 sunchoke and roasted hazelnut soup was “polarizing”. A lot of people hated it. Because it was authentic.

This reminded me of a trip I did for Michelin (green guides, not cuisine) to Indianapolis in 1999. I visited the James Whitcomb Riley House in Lockerbie Square, which was never restored, only preserved exactly as it was. The proof of this authenticity came as soon as you walked into the living room, for the ceiling of the 1872 home was painted in a silver color that was uncomfortable, garish, and generally awful. And absolutely authentic. Fortunately for you, they did not allow pictures inside.

Disneyland would never have used that color, because it would drive away business. Grant Achatz is such a star at this point that he can dictate the authentic experience and NOT cater to popular taste. Alinea famously chooses your 13 or 14 courses for you (see this comic.). Special needs or tastes can eat elsewhere, which, in a sense, is the price of authenticity.

The same issue came up on the near north side of town in the Kemper House, an 1873 home that was restored by Eli Lilly, the great Indianapolis preservationist who endowed the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. HLFI had restored the house as their offices and then as a house museum, and returned the original exterior paint scheme, which upset many locals who had been used to seeing the exterior painted white, as it had been for many years. That was the authentic memory, but true, original authenticity had another color scheme.

But that scheme did not extend to the interior. They researched the original wall colors inside and through scientific analysis found the original color of the walls. And it was godawful and they could not bring themselves to recreate it. It would have been too off-putting.

I started thinking about authenticity the other night when I was perusing a hot rod magazine given me by Chris Osborne, the purveyor of the lovely magazine Brisbane Modern, which charts the mid-century Modern aspects of Queensland.

As I read about the hot rods, a cultural artifact I do not know much about at all, I noted that all had historic labels: ’34 Willys, ’29 Ford, ’50 Buick, etc. But often the bodies were fibreglass reproductions, the chassis extensively chopped or boxed, and it was very difficult to discern from the descriptions which cars had much historic material, if any at all. I guess it was beside the point: taste and appeal to past elements was the agent here, not authenticity.

Disneyland itself did this from the beginning and still does. I always have my students read a description in the Wall Street Journal from 1996 about the opening of an Atlantic-City-styled boardwalk in Disney World. It has all of the attractions of Atlantic City without any of the beggars or gambling down-and-outers. It was sanitized history, and it was a successful product. But what really struck me was the reaction people had to it. My favorite quote:

“It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.”

That’s it.
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Philip K. Dick has come true.

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One Response to “Do We Really Want Authenticity?”

  1. Sabra Smith Says:

    Thanks for the vicarious trip to China — delighted to hear about the effort to keep peach vendors etc in place. I have friends in Scotland and I can never think what treat to send them from here — their shopping center is our shopping center: Apple store, GAP, McDonald’s.

    Your post also puts me in mind of Howard Mansfield’s book, “The Same Ax, Twice.” If a farmer replaces the worn ax blade, and later replaces the broken handle — is it the same ax? It’s a question I’ve been considering while looking at maritime preservation — ships are quite different from buildings.

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