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Creating Authenticity

Authentication Processes in Ethnographic Museums

Alexander Geurds & Laura Van Broekhoven
01 January 2013

Book explores the authentic in contemporary ethnographic museums, as it persists in dialogues with stakeholders, and in the way museums portray themselves.


This edited volume is that outcome of a symposium, held in November 2012 at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, titled “What is Authenticity? Questions of authenticity and authentification in ethnographic museums”. The book engages with contemporary debates in archaeology, anthropology, and museology, centering on identity construction, the balance between renewal and tradition, and where in time to locate the authentic.

‘Authenticity’ and authentication is at the heart of museums’ concerns in displays, objects, and interaction with visitors. These notions have formed a central element in early thought on culture and collecting.

Nineteenth century-explorers, collectors commissioned by museums and pioneering ethnographers attempted to uncover the essences of cultures through collecting and studying objects from distant communities. In a similar way, historical archaeology departed from the idea that cultures were discrete bounded entities, subject to divergence but precisely therefore also to be traced back and linked to, a more complete original form in the (even) deeper past.

Much of what we work with today in ethnographic museum collections adheres to that conviction. Post-structural thinking brought about a far-reaching deconstruction of the authentic. It came to be recognized that both far-away communities and the deep past can only be discussed when seen as desires, constructions and inventions.

Notwithstanding this undressing of the ways in which people portray their cultural surroundings and past, claims of authenticity and quests for authentication remain omnipresent. This book explores the authentic in contemporary ethnographic museums, as it persists in dialogues with stakeholders, and how museums portray themselves. How do we interact with questions of authenticity and authentication when we curate, study artefacts, collect, repatriate, and make (re)presentations? The contributing authors illustrate the divergent nature in which the authentic is brought into play, deconstructed and operationalized. Authenticity, the book argues, is an expression of a desire that is equally troubled as it is resilient.

Creating Authenticity: Authentication Processes in Ethnographic Museums. 2013. Alexander Geurds & Laura Van Broekhoven (Eds). Mededelingen van het Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 42, Sidestone Press, Leiden. 2013.

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