I teach courses on Interpretation, a topic I was involved in in the mid-1990s when I was tasked with setting up a Wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The challenge there was prodigious, trying to make visible the geological and historical connections between 100 miles of industrial towns and parks in a diverse modern landscape.
I & M Canal at Lockport. Figure in the distance is one of the results of our Wayfinding project, a Cor-Ten steel silhouette of a historic figure, in this case Wild Bill Hickok.
As a 1990s preservationist, I spoke a lot about the value of preservation being authenticity, the REAL buildings or landscapes or places that contained REAL history. For contrast, I would throw up a slide of a postcard of Mickey Mouse standing in front of Disney World. I was giving this lecture at the Burren College of Art in 1998 and in the back of the room, my own 20-month old daughter let out a gleeful “Mickey!” when the slide appeared. This got laughs, and we all were comforted by our knowledge and her innocence. But in a sense, it was the only slide that had authenticity for a 20-month old.
The Imagineers of Disney seemed to me quite nefarious. I still treasure a New York Times article from 1996 about the construction of a 1/4 mile Atlantic City boardwalk at Disney World. The reporters asked a couple about their experience of this newly-constructed, sanitized “historical” experience and their reply was fantastic in every sense of the word. “It was great! It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew!”
Let that sink in a minute. What does it mean? Is it like Philip K. Dick sci-fi come to life, where memories are implanted? Perhaps it is like Thomas Kincade paintings, where images of cultural comfort are ladled with an impossible amount of cheese like a horseshoe sandwich? In any case, a cultural elite like myself should hate that stuff, right?
I gave a paper at the ICOMOS conference last year on Authenticity and Tourism in China, using my favorite example of Dali, where the Butterfly Spring is a 20-year old attraction based on a romantic story lacking “REAL” history, and the Nanzhao temple is a multi-million dollar complex of temples built in 2006 suggested the Tang-era complex of 1300 years ago. It is manufactured history, or at least manufactured artifacts created without documentation or forensic evidence of what was there before.
The Dali story is even trickier, as I learned from a book by Beth Notar. Western backpackers started to arrive in the 1980s and by the 1990s they had created Foreigner Street, thus attracting domestic tourists who wanted to see the backpackers eating their banana pancakes. The first tourists, seeking authenticity, were now the object of attention for a second wave of domestic tourists, who wanted to see authentic backpackers.
The Butterfly Spring trades on nostalgia for a popular 1959 movie set in Dali, which is the other attraction for domestic tourists, later supplemented by Daliwood, the palace where the popular Jin Yong novels (think Grisham or LeCarre, this guy is HUGE) were made into television shows.
So, a place based on a movie seems to be the most inauthentic history of all, right? But I immediately thought of a place we have gone many times, Mismaloya south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was made famous by the 1960s movie Night of the Iguana, shot on the beach during a particularly romantic and papparazzi-filled episode in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who wasn’t even in the movie). Then, a generation later they shot “Predator” in the jungle above the beach, and we have gone ziplining there with the kids.
The most popular tour in Chicago lately has been “The Devil and the White City” tour, which is based on REAL history but is popular because of a book, and soon a movie. Paris was beset with “DaVinci Code” tours after that fictional book came out, and Hollywood homes of the stars have always been popular. Heck, the world often elects actors and celebrities into positions of governance, putting them on the REAL stage.
And then the authenticity question crawled into my other favorite seminar topic on historic districts and urbanism. Sharon Zukin’s book on the Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places fomented an interesting discussion in my class. Zukin had a devil of a time trying to define authenticity, ending up combining a sense of connectedness (to the past, to a culture) with a sense of possibility or change. But each concrete example seemed to slip into the familiar vagaries of “I liked it better before…” Before Starbucks or yuppies or hipsters or sidewalk cafes.
My take in the discussion is that we form an image of a place within time and then are disappointed when time keeps moving (which is, like, all it ever does) and the place changes. We tend to find neighborhoods “authentic” when they are in the early throes of transition – still seedy, still rough, still ethnic, but with enough artists and hipsters/yuppies/punks to provide each other with emotional support while they thrive on the adventure of the urban edge. They settle into the neighborhood at its height of authenticity and sow the seeds of its future eclipse.
So, is authenticity a moment in time that is forever fugitive and fleeting? Or is it the emotional logic of “a time we always loved but never knew.” As a historian, authenticity has something to do with accuracy and documentation, but we experience both community and travel in emotional ways and with emotional logic.
This fugitive temporal nature of authenticity infuses Notar’s book as well – people lamented the loss of the “real” Dali to water features and the huge gates that now announce “Foreigner Street.” But last time I was there in August we walked the side streets and found both authentic Dali and MORE authentic backpacker places than you now find on Foreigner Street. And we found the coolest Catholic church you will ever see, built in the 1920s.
It has no Christian imagery on the outside beyond the big cross. The carved narratives are familiar Chinese stories and symbols. There is authenticity here, partly because those who built the church were still in traditional society and had not crossed into global modernity. Perhaps that is what our search for authenticity is: a search for natural communities not yet transformed by globalism.
Historic preservation, or the more precise term, heritage conservation, was born of the impulses of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, which in turn arose from the globalizing European journeys of the 16th and 17th centuries. The impulse to preserve history, even to record or document history, only emerges with the sense of loss occasioned by modernization. There is nostalgia (a diagnosed and treated disease of the 18th century) in that impulse, and the object of nostalgia’s desire is authenticity. No wonder it is so hard to define in a logical way.
When I traveled Asia as a backpacker in the 1980s, I saw the futility of that search. There were waterborne bamboo houses in western Thailand but they all had televisions. We drove for hours onto a palm plantation island off of Malaysia to find a certain woodcarver and when we found him he was chatting with a guy who shared a studio with my cousin’s husband in Milwaukee. I stumbled across the funeral of the last Prince of Ubud along with 10,000 other tourists being sold the t-shirt.
The post-industrial world is built on culture, and authenticity is a defining thread in the fabric of culture. But what is it?
Maybe authenticity is like pornography – you know it when you see it? Hmmm. That lack of rigor may satisfy the Supreme Court, but not me. I think the best analogy may come from subatomic physics, where the act of observing a phenomenon affects the phenomenon.
Authenticity is a perception. It has an emotional logic and it impacts the objects or places it perceives. The perception of authenticity has a huge impact on our environment and economy: on tourism, gentrification, the discovery and/or fabrication of attractions.
But it is fugitive, like all emotions and all perceptions. As soon as you find that undiscovered place, your act of discovery transforms it forever.