Aura, authenticity and materiality​- Engaging with digital collections


This January 2020, students of the MA Media Studies: Digital Cultures from the University of Maastricht collaborated with the Nederlands Mijnmuseum (Dutch Mining Museum) to create a digital collection of mining objects. Whereas the emphasis lay on creating 3D models of objects through computational imaging, objects were also digitised using photography and scanning. As a result, audiences can access and engage with digital collection of the mining museum online as supplementation, or as a replacement for visiting the mining museum.

To digitise or not to digitise

There are various arguments and counterarguments as to whether heritage collections should be digitised or not. With the increased possibilities to store information in bites, archivists have explored the technicalities of several media to expand the capabilities to preserve heritage objects. Digital platforms and formats increase accessibility to study archival material without physical presence, can aid in restoring lost artefacts, and offers novel approaches to documenting historical objects (Younan & Treadaway, 2015, p. 240). This can aid in understanding the past and our understandings of it and reflect on how we view the present. At the base of this argument lies the concept of cultural memory and commemoration. Conway (2010), regards practices of collective memory and commemoration as a relational and selective process (p. 442- 443). He refers to collective memory as the values and beliefs about the past in a society, whereas commemoration refers to the objects and practices drawn upon by groups and individuals to engage with the past (p. 443- 444). Thus, can objects provide us a link to the past; either to commemorate by engaging with them physically, or by studying or reviewing them to inform a society about the past. In the case of the mining museum, this means that we can review our understanding of this era, and reflect on how we perceive this in our contemporary collective memory. Digitising this collection could expand the accessibility to these objects both temporally, and spatially; an online collection can be accessed from multiple locations, and in the case of destruction or decay of an object, we can still access them in the future.

Spatial-temporal (dis)advantages

However, it is exactly these functions that inform some of the counterarguments towards digital preservation.  The detachment of the spatial and temporal contexts of an object can lead to the decay of that which gives it authority and aura. Benjamin (1936) argued that the mechanical reproduction of a work of art decays its’ aura; that which gives an object its unique properties and authenticity, as the reproduction of the object provides access to it removed from its unique place and time, its usage and tradition (p. 21- 23). A 3D reproduction of a mining object serves as an access point that can enable engagement, away from the original.

            Nevertheless, some scholars argue that digital reproductions can add to the auratic and authentic qualities of an object. When new audiences receive access to the representation from scattered spatial and temporal contexts, it can inform new narratives and interpretations (Jeffrey, 2015, p. 147).

Aura and authenticity- a question of materiality?

The complexities at play here relate to question whether the materiality, or the physical substance of an object, can inform its authenticity and aura. Before expanding in this, it is important to clarify the difference between these two concepts. To start, aura and authenticity have no universal, fixed definition. Jones (2010), summarises the perspectives on authenticity as either constructivist; regarding the cultural and social interpretations as changing through time and space, and the materialist perspective, that regards the objectively measurable aspects as defining authenticity (p. 182- 183.) The towel in the picture can serve as an example. Does the object hold more authenticity if we can do physical tests to establish its uniqueness? Or can a replica used in the context of mining, demonstrated as its use serve as a commemoration?

            Benjamin (1936) argued that the authenticity and the authority of an object inform its aura: its’ uniqueness, that which cannot be entirely detached from its ritualistic function (p. 24). It is a matter of whether the materiality of an object is a prerequisite for its auratic and authentic qualities.

New narratives, new perspectives

The materiality of an object becomes more important when regarding the practice of archiving as a tool for debunking false narratives and proposing alternative perspectives. Critical archival studies is a field in which the power structures embedded in archiving are studied in relation to past and current discourses, and are conceived as tools for oppression and liberation (Caswell et al., 2017, p. 1-2). The way a society regards and executes preservation can reveal aspects of the collective memory of social groups. This assumes that archiving is not neutral. Curators make selections based on immaterial and material conditions; personal beliefs, access to resources, and societal rules and laws that inform the practice of archiving. These beliefs relate back to the argument of materiality. Jones (2010) argues that for audiences to engage with an object and experience authenticity and aura, they touch upon networks of people, places, and things, and materiality is essential (p. 189). An alternative perspective poses 3D objects as creating liminal spaces, which are between the material and the imagined, and can enable engagement with such objects on a personal and narrative level ((Younan & Treadaway, 2015, p. 241). Both perspectives regard materiality differently but have one important commonality: that of engagement.

Reimagining the mining era through engagement with 3D models

During the process of digitising part of the mining museum collection, the curator explained the importance of remembering the mining history. She made the argument that even if you no relatives with direct relation to the mines, if you are from this area, you are influenced by its operations in the past. This remark touched upon some sensitive issues. Despite the large impact mining had on the post-war development of the Netherlands, there is little reference to this in the collective memory of the country. In 2020, the city of Heerlen that was one of the most prosperous mining cities in the region, faces grave socio-economic challenges that are considered to be (partially) caused by its mining past. Can the lack of public discourse mean that this history is not seen as important? How does this affect those whose lives were connected to the mining operations?

If archives can serve as a tool for liberation, ownership of the narrative surrounding the mining history can counter this national amnesia. From this rationale, a digital collection of mining objects can open up the discourse to a wider audience and serve as a virtual space in which audiences can engage with the objects. However, this ‘tool for liberation’ has caveats. As mentioned before, (digital) archiving is not neutral. Those engaging in the practice operate within an ideological, temporal, and geographical framework. None of the students involved in digitising these objects witnessed that era and had to rely on alternative resources to inform our understanding. Second, even if we were objective, we encountered practicalities that influenced our selection. Time, financial resources, material qualities of the objects, and skills affect our choices and the final results of the digitised representations. The third reason that our practice was not neutral relates to the digital tools we used. Choosing computational imaging, or creating 3D representations from photographs of the objects, brings about technological affordances that affects this process. For example, reflective and monochromatic objects are difficult, if not impossible to turn into 3D models. This limited the total amount of suitable objects.

As a result, the digitised collection contains representations of a fraction of the totality of meaningful objects. In addition, the 3D models lack materiality and original context. Through annotations and hyperlinks, this context can indeed be created, but does so in a digital format; an explanation of mining conditions is not the same as experiencing these mining conditions.

            Concluding that the practice is not neutral, does not disregard the argument of engagement. With sufficient context, even if the objects have no authenticity or aura, audiences can still engage with them and inform their understand of the future. However, my final point positions this engagement within this same context of subjectivity. To have an engagement, audiences must recognise an object an sich, or the referral to that object in a representation. What constitutes this recognition? Whether objects are on display behind glass in a museum, or through a representation on a digital platform, the dominant access to this recognition is via visual sensory input. With the exception of some alternative exhibitions, one cannot touch, smell, or feel an object in a museum. In a digital environment, this is impossible. How can audiences engage with these 3D objects if the curators have pre-determined how these relationships can be established? The focus on visual stimuli illustrates how audiences with visual impairments are excluded from engagement. Yet, this does not cover the entire point. Following the constructivist perspective on authenticity, how audiences relate to an object changes as temporal and spatial conditions change. Add to this cultural, religious, and personal alternative interpretations, and engagement becomes ungraspable. If the goal is to increase access to a collection- and thus inform collective memory- by digitising it, then it is important to question the assumptions made about engagement to make room for alternative approaches.

Future perspective

At the start of this post, I raised the point that a digital collection can provide access to and engagement with objects related to the mining history of the Netherlands. After an exploration of aura, authenticity and the complexities of materiality in relation to digitisation, it seems that this engagement is influenced by multiple factors. Assumptions on what establishes a relationship, what and when to archive, and practicalities of archiving deem the practice of preservation as subjective. Does this mean that the entire practice is irrelevant?

The arguments for archiving are not disregarded in this line of reasoning. Instead, the importance of transparency comes to the forefront. Creating digital collections thus calls for open access to the choices, tools, and presumptions made by the practitioners. In addition, diversity and inclusion in the process can illuminate choices that can be seen as obvious or truthful. Perhaps asking someone with a visual impairment how they relate to an object can offer insights that can transform the practice of cultural archiving.

Reference List

Benjamin, W. (1936). The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, and other writings on media. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Caswell, M., Punzalan, R., & Sangwand, T.-K. (2017). Critical Archival Studies: An Introduction. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, 1(2).

Conway, B. (2010). New Directions in the Sociology of Collective Memory and Commemoration: Sociology of Collective Memory and Commemoration. Sociology Compass, 4(7), 442–453.

Jeffrey, S. (2015). Challenging Heritage Visualisation: Beauty, Aura and Democratisation. Open Archaeology, 1(1).

Jones, S. (2010). Negotiating Authentic Objects and Authentic Selves: Beyond the Deconstruction of Authenticity. Journal of Material Culture, 15(2), 181–203.

Younan, S., & Treadaway, C. (2015). Digital 3D models of heritage artefacts: Towards a digital dream space. Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, 2(4), 240–247.

Read more