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Sensing history: In which I suggest that 'hands-off' experiences need to make a comeback.

His eyes are wonky.

We’ve all been to a museum where the fur-lined Neanderthal mannequin carrying a fish is hypnotically bad, or the fake mine with a replica cart full of spray-painted gold unabashedly gleans under the LED lights while you ponder the impossible measure of polystyrene it’s made from.


I love it. It’s a weirdly comforting, nostalgic experience and I appreciate the effort and creativity that’s gone into it, I really do. It’s a great visual aid, a wonderful way to imagine form and scale, and it’s an epic way to introduce children to the past.

But it’s not at all convincing is it.

The aim mightn’t be to persuade us this cave-dwelling dreadlocked fisherman or wonky donkey is the real thing of course, but there always seems to be something missing from these displays. The historical memory of the represented subject seems glaringly absent, and its energy lackluster.


Feeling history versus touching it.

'Heritage experiences' tend to treat the past as some sort of absence in our lives that must be remedied — a gap in the present that needs to be filled with historical materiality. Museums are not just a matter of presenting artefacts, knowledge or imagery of the past, but creating something we can see and touch ~ the dreaded ‘hands-on experience’ of the past. Cue laminated surfaces and interactive floors.


The very idea of heritage as an ‘experience’ is incredibly symptomatic of our times. Museums and historical sites are filled with metaphorical objects and things that are ‘like’ things from the past, so that we might immerse ourselves in an exciting faux-context. In New Zealand we might consider Howick Historical Village (Auckland), Oamaru’s Victorian precinct or Southland Museum’s Victoriana display.

These places are great. So much fun. But in viewing historical likenesses, audiences admire verisimilitude (or lack thereof) and, in so doing, we also establish temporal otherness. We become removed from the essence of the very history we're trying to experience because of the modern veneers between us.

Howick Historical Village, Auckland, NZ (Source:

Presence in absence.

I would argue that the quality that is lacking in replica museum pieces ~ in all their wonderful, tacky, spellbinding glory ~ is the ‘historical sensation’. Historical sensation is aroused by the presence of a verifiable historical artefact, the bona fide presence of history is sensed, felt, and known intuitively. We don't need the raw object dressed in a false context.

Imagine seeing Frida Kahlo’s decorated corset in a glass box as compared with a replica on a themed mannequin. The former might make me spontaneously gasp or weep, whereas the latter has a secondary relation to the subject and is more likely to make me think rationally about the reconstruction. Frida is more present in the air around her corset, in the space she once genuinely filled, than she is in the fiber glass look alike wearing her garb. She is more present when absent.

Frida Kahlo's hand painted corsets (Source:

Where objects of the past are presented in primary form like the corset above (but it might be a soldier's helmet, a chimney sweep’s brush, an Egyptian scroll, a significant building), or when we stand upon the site of a given event (a battle, a coronation, an earthquake), it is likely that the directness of our impressions will be much more compelling than someone’s recreation or transcription of it. Of course, museums and galleries don’t always have access to the original piece so by all means, recreations are useful, fun and informative. I am simply interested in identifying that sense of absence in representation, it’s as though we can see that the object has no ‘memory’.

Replica helmet (source:

Hands off, people.

As a final thought, our experience of history arrives through the attachment of our senses to memory ~ lived memory (our own) or vicarious memory (manufactured ‘memories’ inherited from external sources). I believe that successful heritage sites are those that effectively marry the historical sensation (an internal experience) with historical knowledge (the external communication of details) in representing parts of history.

I think that we’d do well to focus less on recreations that visually and materially detail every aspect of an object and its context, in order to focus more intently on building audience’s conceptual and imaginative capacities. Let us be less distracted by the tools for discourse, glamorous methods of transcription and elaborate replicas, so that we have more direct conduits to the past via our senses.

I believe we ought to trust a viewer's capacity to contextualise and experience artefacts by gathering information for, and within, themselves. The gaps we have in our knowledge is where the intrigue lies. It makes us want to look deeper for longer. If that sounds like harder work than being simply being presented with a full-scale eighteenth century street made of plywood complete with mechanised carriages then perhaps that’s a good thing.

I ultimately think that museums and heritage experiences are two entirely different entities that are working against each other in terms of efficacy, integrity, and the transmission of knowledge. In short, keep making tacky Neanderthals and replica dinosaurs in heritage experiences, but leave museums to deal with the presentation and dignity of archival objects.

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