Reproductions of Original Artifacts in Museum Programming and Exhibits
by Kent J. Goff
Museums exist for many purposes, but among these purposes preserving artifacts and using those artifacts in exhibits and other educational programming are perhaps the most prominent. Unfortunately, these two purposes often conflict. Even the minimal use of an artifact, such as putting it on display, poses risks to the artifact from light damage, environmental agents, and other risks greater than in secure storage. At the extreme level of use, for example by demonstrating or operating a historic machine, the artifact is not only exposed to the wear and tear of its "normal" use, but additional risks from the increased handling and exposure to the environment. Continued use of the artifact will result in its wearing out at the very minimum, and thus drastically reduce its value as an artifact for research. The traditional conservative museum ethic is to not use objects in a deliberately consumptive way.(1) But as Mann points out, this assumes "the only evidence in the artifact is of a material nature."(2) On the other hand, the demonstration of historic tools and machines is very popular with the public, and a complete understanding of an artifact may only be determined by testing the object. Schlebecker advocates that serious historians "if at all possible" must touch, handle or lift the artifacts of their study for a complete understanding.(3)
This quandary may be solved in part through the use of good reproduction artifacts for use in living history programs, hands on exhibits, experimental archeology, and operating exhibits. Another use of a good reproduction is to replace a deteriorating object that can no longer stand the stresses of display or exhibit, but is essential to the museum's mission. Schlebecker believes that "a replica, if properly made, can sometimes substitute for the real thing.(4) Yet these reproduction artifacts must be produced or acquired in a manner as to enhance learning and ensure historical accuracy. The purpose of this paper will be to examine the using artifacts and reproductions in museums and recommend a methodology for using reproduction artifacts.
Traditional methods of curation and collections management should not change valid throughout. The decision making process of choosing an item for acquisition, its planned use in programming, and its proper documentation must be carried out with the same rigor as with traditional artifacts. Hawes calls this the "living collection" that includes the reproductions used to supplement the traditional "static" collection of artifacts.(5) The processes of making, using or demonstrating a historic artifact should also become part of the collections as these processes are recorded.(6) Obviously, a reproduction would only be purchased if there was an identified need, such as for an interpretive program, otherwise the money spent and storage space used would be an waste. Thus, the first step is to determine if accessioning a reproduction artifact is required.
A reproduction artifact should be considered if the educational objectives or programs of the museum would benefit from the demonstration of an actual machine or tool, or the object would be exposed to public handling. Another possibility is that a scholar desires to test something he has found in other sources, for example why different agricultural workers were paid different rates based upon the tools used.(7) If the need will risk an original artifact beyond a conservative ethic, than a reproduction is called for.
The second step is to research the desired object. If the desire is to simply copy an artifact the museum already holds, that object should be carefully studied to determine if the object has already been modified or repaired in some way. But then the copying may take place with a high degree of certainty about the authenticity of the result. But sometimes it is desired to produce an object mentioned frequently in primary source documents, but no documented originals exist. Reproducing this item will require a great deal of research, contacts with other museums, and so forth to be able to accumulate enough information to produce an acceptable copy. The costs in time and money alone may require that the purpose to what the object was to be put may have to be rethought. In any case, carefully documented research will assist in the preparation of the exhibit or programs that the object will be used in as well. Ethically, the reproduction artifact must be as close to the original in form, construction, and materials as possible. In the real world, cost will be a real factor of consideration, and an estimate of the reproductions' cost will be determined during this step. Higher standards of authenticity and accuracy in the reproduction will also cost more. The obvious question then must be asked is what is the acceptable level of accuracy for the reproduction? In discussing clothing accuracy, Thomas Shaw of the Fort Snelling Museum thinks that "if the museum takes the matter on, it should really take it very seriously. Costumes are for clowns."(8) Many visitors to museum are relatively knowledgeable, and a less than accurate reproduction would reflect badly on both the museum and the professionalism of the staff. At the other extreme of the problem, the non-knowledgeable public will accept the reproduction as a fully accurate representation. Therefore, what the acceptable level of deviations must be carefully evaluated and documented.
The third step would be to select an artisan or supplier to provide the object. Ideally, the artisan would have references for producing similar work or be in the business of supplying similar artifacts for historical programming. There are now many suppliers that use original molds, tools, gauges, etc. to produce reproduction items for the public market. An additional number of suppliers (Lehman's for example) provide "old-time" goods and reproductions for use by the Amish and other "simple living" communities. If ordering a standard item from a supplier versus having an object custom made or copied, the drawback may be to accept differences from the original. And, as there are a limited number of reproduction suppliers, the reproductions used may not reflect the original regional and national variations of design.
If an artisan is selected to produce the artifact, several steps should be taken to determine if the artisan is qualified, has references for quality work, and is capable of producing the artifact from the information available. Many traditional craftsmen working today have an eclectic view of history and their craft, and may desire to impart their own interpretation in the production of the artifact. The artisan may request what changes in the construction methods he may use. For example, in my own work on 19th Century reproduction shoes, I use modern cement in the construction to substitute for tacks in the shoe assembly process. This allows my reproductions to be made more quickly and efficiently than the original method, and also makes the shoes stronger for wear. The glue is not visible in the completed reproduction, nor are the salient features of the construction details changed, only the method and the glue is not original. But, it may be desired for the most authenticity to require that not only the final form be indistinguishable from the original, but the process of reproduction as well. If a researcher desired to study the sturdiness and working life of a pair of pegged shoes, only a pair made in the original method using original materials would be acceptable. Therefore, based upon the research phase, not only the final dimensions but the methodology and materials may have to be specified to the artisan.
Do not overlook that the artisan may also be of great help in the study of the artifact. Most traditional craft workers study original examples of the work they replicate or interpret in their own design. Many details of construction and method can be learned. For example, a traditional chair maker once explained to me how different species of wood were used in various parts of the chair to take best advantage of the differences in shrinkage, spring, hardness, etc. An artisan may add considerable to the information about the original by his study from a different perspective. In most traditional processes, the "signature" of the maker is found in small details of the how an object was made, an individualistic style much like that of an artist. Someone who is familiar with the production process will be able to note whether or not the object was made by a highly skilled craftsman or an unskilled apprentice. Obviously the access policy and procedures for handling objects by the artisan must be addressed.(9) The artisan may desire to disassemble parts of an artifact to help in the replication process. The museum staff must be prepared to accept the tradeoffs in accuracy of the reproduction and risk to the artifacts.
The entire process should be documented so that if new or contrary information comes to the attention of the staff, how the reproduction was made, who made it, based upon what specifications, and for what purpose in the museum's mission may be found. Anderson notes that the process should be documented well enough for other researchers to replicate the work.(10) For example, it may be determined that the object is incorrect for the time and location it is being used to represent. Or, worst of all, if the data concerning the object is lost, the object may come to be considered an original artifact. Ideally, the files should contain the accession numbers of the artifacts copied or used as reference, photographs or video of the construction itself, notes from the artisan relating to the materials, techniques, and additional data used, and a summary of the research and purpose for the object being reproduced written by the museum staff. Ideally, an accession number of some sort, even if of a different method, should be assigned to track the relevant information to the reproduced artifact.
Information about the period use of the reproduction artifact should be collected and documented as well. For example, a 19th century agricultural scythe may be relatively easily reproduced, but the physical skill required to use the tool effectively only may be acquired through practice. Notes, photos, and video tapes showing how a reproduction artifact is used with the knowledge and skill "software" together will be invaluable for interpretation to the public. Internal uses for the museum staff might include training docents in the safe demonstration of a the tool or machine is another example. Hawes emphasized that "the skills, knowledge, and behavior of the reproducers become an important resource."(11) Therefore, part of the plan for the use of the reproduction artifact should be to capture the ephemeral knowledge that comes from its use.
Finally, the object is put into service in its educational or demonstration purpose. Feedback from the public and other scholars should be sought about the effectiveness of the programs using the object and as a check to ensure the object is being demonstrated in a historically appropriate manner. Maintenance of the object must be properly performed to preserve the investment made and reduce later repair or replacement costs. This step completes the cycle in that it points back to the beginning - effective museum programming and the use of the reproduction as a means of education. Feedback from the use of the artifact may result in expanded programming using reproductions, or may result in the abandonment of a particular program because of lack of public interest.
For the museum, reproduction artifacts are a useful exhibit tool for hands-on interpretive programs, living history programs, researchers seeking to study how artifacts were used and their attendant skills, and or other consumptive uses that original artifacts should not be subject to. Additionally, reproductions may satisfy the public's desire to not only to see but to touch and experience history. Wexler quoted one visitor as saying "A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an experience is worth a thousand pictures."(12)
However, the reproduction artifact must be made to high standards of scholarship to ensure the results obtained from the intended use of the reproduction do not create false impressions or erroneous conclusions of the original. This paper has outlined a step by step process of evaluating the need, gathering the information required to reproduce an artifact, documenting its manufacture, and capturing the ephemeral knowledge that comes from its demonstration or use. This process should be easily understandable to the museum professional and scholarly historian alike, and if applied, make the use of reproduction artifacts a valued tool in museum education programs.
1. Peter R. Mann, "Working Exhibits and the Destruction of Evidence in the Science Museum." in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 35-46. New York: Routledge, 1997, 36.
2. Mann, 36.
3. John Schlebecker, "The Use of Objects in Historical Research" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, 107-113. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1982, 109.
4. Schlebecker, 108.
5. Edward L. Hawes, "The Living Historical Farm in North America." in A Living History Reader ed. Jay Anderson. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1991, 87.
6. Hawes, 87.
7. Schlebecker, 111.
8. Thomas Shaw, "Feature Article" ALHFAM Historic Clothing Committee News, Vol. 3 No. 4 Fall 1998 (accessed 4/28/99); available from http://www.alhfam.org/his.clo.news/f98ahcc.html, 3.
9. For a lengthy treatment of the considerations, see Jeanette A. Richoux, Jill Serota-Braden, and Nancy Demyttenaere, "A Policy for Collections Access" in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 179-186. New York: Routledge, 1997, 182.
10. Jay Anderson, "Immaterial Material Culture: The Implications of Experimental Research for Folklife Museums" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1982, 309.
11. Hawes, 87.
12. Henrietta Wexler, "Hands-on History" in Museum News Jan/Feb. 1988, 67.
Anderson, Jay A. "Immaterial Material Culture: The Implications of Experimental Research for Folklife Museums" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, 306-315. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1982.
Ascher, Robert. "Tin*Can Archaeology" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, 325-337. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1982.
Bradley, Susan M. "Do objects have a Finite Lifetime?" in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 51-59. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Craig, Tracey Linton. "Retreat into History" History News (June 1983):10-19.
Craig, Tracey Linton. "A Hard Row to Hoe" History News (January/February 1988):65-66.
Hawes, Edward L. "The Living Historical Farm in North America: New directions in Research and Interpretation." in A Living History Reader, Volume One: Museums, ed. Jay Anderson, 79-97. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1991.
Kalkbrenner, Mark. "Living History" M.A. paper, University of Arkansas, Little Rock, 1996.
Levstik, Linda S. "In My Opinion: Living History - Isn't" History News 37:5 (1983):28-29.
Mann, Peter R. "Working Exhibits and the Destruction of Evidence in the Science Museum." in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 35-46. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Richoux, Jeanette A., Jill Serota-Braden, and Nancy Demyttenaere. "A Policy for Collections Access" in Care of Collections, ed. Simon Knell, 179-186. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Schlebecker, John T. "The Use of Objects in Historical Research" in Material Culture Studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, 107-113. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History Press, 1982.
Shaw, Thomas. "Feature Article, " in ALHFAM Historic Clothing Committee News, Vol. 3 No. 4 Fall 1998 (accessed 4/28/99); available from http://www.alhfam.org/his.clo.news/f98ahcc.html
Wexler, Henrietta. "Hands-on History" History News (January/February 1988):67-68.
Wexler, Henrietta. "The Way Things Really Were" History News (January/February 1988):62-63.