Inside the Collection

Real vs Fake: Museum objects

Photograph of Powerhouse Museums Ecologic Exhibition
Photography by Geoff Friend, Powerhouse Museum

Whilst working on the new ‘Ecologic: creating a sustainable future’ exhibition, we were looking for objects to help us tell the story of climate change, and more specifically talk about the fossil record.

We searched for real fossils to put on display, and could have easily arranged some 100 million year old fossils to put behind glass in the exhibition. But no one can touch them behind the glass.

I frequently witness visitors to our museum, especially children, touching anything they can, buttons will be pushed, levers pulled, knobs turned, even if not designed to be touched.

We solved out fossil dilemma by getting casts of fossils (thanks Australian Museum!) and putting them on open display, freely touchable by visitors.

Casts of fossils
Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski, Powerhouse Museum.

I am curious as to what you think.

Would you rather.. be able see real objects that are safely locked away from your grasp….or to be able to touch replicas/fakes?

14 responses to “Real vs Fake: Museum objects

  • Since I feel the object in and of itself is powerful for its very existence and the story that comes along with it, I do not feel that we should completely remove the object from display. However, I feel a great part of our humanity is about truly experiencing the world around us. Why else do we have our five senses?

    What I have always preferred are exhibits that provide the objects displayed safely behind glass with replicas alongside that I can touch and manipulate. That way the object is preserved and protected so that its story can be passed down to later generations, but I can still interact with a double.

  • If completely replaced by fake objects where does this leave the museum? Doesn’t it become more like a theme park and play area for kids? We need museums in order to preserve and interpret our heritage, culture and past, which is done by real objects which tell the (hi)story. We have to listen to those stories rather than replace them for entertainment purposes.

    I am a big fan of hands-on and my opinion is, as Ka mentioned above, that we need to use our five senses to engage with our surroundings completely. But we also have to teach children (and adults) that some things have to be embraced with the other senses but touch.

    Hands-on and real object should work in a partnership to communicate the overall picture.

  • The power of a museum is that it allows you to be in the presence of the original and make an intellectual, emotional and perhaps spiritual connection with something wonderful, historic, precious and irreplacable. Better if there is no glass in the way, but if circumstances dictate, it is still better than a replica. If I want to be entertained with replicas, the sizzle rather than the sausage, I will go to a theme park, not a museum. In fact, you can achieve more at home with Google than a replica.

    The real home of the replica is the gift shop. 😉

    Models are a different category. They can be very effective when used as a 3D explanatory graphic.

    Fossils are an interesting case. They are already an abstraction (in rock) of the real thing (or trace of the real thing) that vanished millenia ago. The mold (or cast) is itself a real thing that can be used to make another real artifact of the scientific process (a cast or mold) for visualization and study. And you can make as many of these things as you like, and even use them as sacrificial display items for inspection by sticky fingers. You just have to explain that it is a real cast, made from a real mold, but unfortunately not a real ammonite because for some reason we don’t seem to have any of those.

    • Some great exploration of this topic, thanks everyone.

      Yes fossils are an intersting case Jim, and ours were put in the exhibition specifically for kids to be able to touch (funnily enough they came from a gift shop 😉 . They sit next to metorites and Lava from Mt Vesuvius, both behind glass.

  • Touch the object! How many times have I cursed the beady eyed guards who rightfully kept me from leaving my ever so slight mark on an irreplaceable object!

    You definitely made the right choice.

  • I think its important to still have real objects on display. Where else can you see such objects? But having something to touch/feel is great as it allows you to experience objects with a different sense.

  • Both!

    Have the original preserved, safely behind the glass and have a model available for touching and weighing close by. Always ensuring, however, that there is an explanation from the Museum that the casts are not the genuine article but a replica for our very tactile, tangible purposes. My kids aren’t the only ones that want to touch everything 🙂

  • I’m with PY. Both! Vision and touch are different senses, being able to use both creates a deeper experience and may attract a wider audience. For people with a visual impairment touch is the experince.

  • Both! By putting out something that can be touched, you make your exhibit accessible to people who are vision-impaired, and inclusion of everyone in the museum experience is a worthy goal. Also, there is a big difference between looking at an exhibit and engaging with it. Engagement strengthens learning and encourages return visits.

  • In my opinion, a fake has very little value. As a teen I went to various archeology museums, fascinated by the fossils, just to be dissapointed 5 minutes later when I find out it’s a fake.
    If your target market is a very young audience, I’d say go for fakes. In the kid’s section. Older people rarely feel the need to touch things. If you want a touchable version of the object, sell it as the real thing. People value that kinda thing more. Like Jim Croft said, you can achieve more at home with Google than a replica.

  • I think ‘both’ being displayed is the verdict. I love seeing what I believe to be the original and I am also tactile, so to see and touch would be fantastic.

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