I’d like to take another moment to think about authenticity. The word itself has been thrown about a lot during my masters, in various contexts, and I am rather fond of using it. Authenticity is particularly interesting in a heritage/museums context. What is it that makes an object authentic? is a question that I hear asked a lot. And I think, a lot of the time, the authenticity of an object and the authenticity of its heritage are two completely different things. To illustrate this, I use my beloved bike, seen below.
The story of how I came to be in possession of such a beauteous thing is a rather sad one. For the last two years of my undergraduate, I owned a bike with a very much similar look (see below). It was pieced together lovingly by my father, with a Peugeot Provencelle touring frame at it’s core. Now I don’t know a lot about bikes, but I assume that this model (along with my current Dawes Galaxy mixte bike) started to be manufactured in the 1970s bike boom. In touring cycling especially it seems that the trend is to keep your (handmade, steel) frame and custom build your bike around that. When I moved to York, I took my precious Peugeot with me, and had the audacity to chain it up outside my building. Alas, it was stolen.
Needless to say, I was devastated. Over the years I’d grown real attachment to this bike. It’s frame was so obviously retero, and therefore ‘cool’, and I’d attached meaning to it because of it’s connection with my dad. So the only thing to do was to get another one, just as authentically retero and cool, and equally comfortable to ride (I think to buy a new handmade, steelframed and therefore comfortable touring bike in the UK it’ll put you back a pretty £1000) so off I went and purchased a Dawes Galaxy.
The previous owner of this Dawes bike took great pride in the fact that it was in its complete, original state. It had these terrible drop-handle bars that more than once caused me to crash, and a rack on the back that made my panniers slip towards my heels as I pedalled. I realised that I actually placed very little value in the thing as an authentic object. For me, what would make this an authentic, Johnson bike, was extreme customisation and a whole lot of use and abuse. Only once I’d (or rather my dad had) changed the handle bars, added a new rack, given it better mud guards, etc, did I feel like I was ready to name my bike. And I suspect that it’ll be another two years before I develop a similar level of attachment to the one I had for my old Peugeot.
My point here is sort of relevant to conservation and definitely to heritage. Traditional ways of thinking suggest that authenticity is derived from a state of wholeness, completeness and uninterrupted existence of an object. But on a more personal, human level, what we as people and more specifically archaeologists love about objects, is the things that have changed them. The things that set them apart. These are the things that can help us to tell stories about the objects, that help us to understand their (often multiple) owners. Being able to trace an object’s heritage, I would argue, makes it far more authentic than it’s authenticity in the truest, most scientific sense of the word.