Museums archiving originals and displaying copies

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Mar 14, 2009
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This side conversation started in the "NASA Astronaut Program Rejection" thread started by*djkingsley. dhbarr and I started discussing how museums sometimes/often do no put original documents on display. They copy them and make the copies look like an original by fading, discoloring, etc. I felt the need to start a new topic as we had wandered from djkingsley's topic.

In response to dhbarr about the need for museums to preserve historical documents, I said:

I understand the need to preserve unique items. But if I can't see the original in a museum, why go to the museum? Especially if I can see a digital copy online. What's the difference between a digital scan or an expertly made copy? Neither is the original. And shouldn't the museum have an obligation to tell people that the items that they are looking at are not originals?
Fakes should be noted.

If the cost of safely displaying origonals is too high, I can see displaying copies for important documents. However there should be short events with the real documents displayed. Otherwise why even have them?
I kind of liken it to going to a concert, and then finding out afterwards that the artist was lip-syncing the performance. Still a concert, but you feel a little cheapened by that.

Granted, a good portion of the music I listen to sounds like ball bearings in a washing machine, but still.
Interesting topic. I agree that copies should be identified, both in their on-line promo material as well as on the actual display. Old documents are very expensive to preserve and more so if you have to display them. It seems I remember some of our older ones are only displayed for a short bit at a time to extend their life.
The concept of copies being displayed instead of the actual ones dates back a long time. You think that the dinosaur skeleton you're looking at is stone? Quite often they're a cast of the original due to the limitations on weight, and the fragility of the originals.
If they are advertising the real document, and then displaying a copy, I could see a class action lawsuit resulting. False advertising.
I think it's pretty common to display reproductions of very rare documents, but they are generally identified as such. I don't really see a problem with that. Often when you do see an original, it's so well protected behind glass and with low lighting, you don't really get a visceral sense of it anyway.

But it is a thrill to see an original up close. My aunt lives in Virginia, and she has a friend who has an important position at the Museum of the Confederacy. Now I believe the museum has a much bigger and better location, but when we visited in 2010, it was in a relatively small building in Richmond, and something like 90% of the museum's collection was not on display due to space. The friend took us on a behind-the-scenes tour, and it was a real treat to be able to see the items right in front of you, not behind glass. We spent some time with the archivist who deals with the documents. She had the original provisional constitution of the Confedracy in the collection, and she rolled it out in front of us on a long table (it's like a huge scroll). Very cool! In high school my aunt had had to memorize Robert E Lee's order to his troops declaring the war over and ordering them to return home. She asked the archivist about it, and we were able to see the original with handwritten changes and corrections in it. I'm not a history or Civil War buff, but it was still pretty magical to see some of these original documents!
I am a massive fan of paper documents and original text. I'm pretty OK with displaying reproductions as long as they are clearly identified as such. The main reason is what Thirsty and rstaff were getting at--that it's hard to really get a sense of the originals because they have to be protected so well. Also, sometimes the things we do to preserve artifacts ends up harming them--think of all of the changes in how the Fort McHenry Star Spangled Banner has been displayed over the years. On the other hand, it was very cool to be able to see the entire library Jefferson donated to Library of Congress on display at LOC.

Finally, to what K'Tesh said about dinosaurs, someone pointed out a neat trick. If you see the bones supported by an extensive framework, then they're real bones. If you can't see any steel other than at the feet, they're reproductions with the framework inside.