Discovering Authenticity

Getting to the heart of places that matter.

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Does heritage nostalgia have an expiration date?

We’re used to seeing expiration dates on food and medicine bottles, but is generational nostalgia for certain heritage attractions something that can also go stale?

A study was carried out in collaboration with the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program and World Monuments Fund and was funded by American Express

A study was carried out in collaboration with the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program and World Monuments Fund and was funded by American Express

Seems like the mythic Route 66 is one of them.  In a 2011 study, a team from the Rutgers Center for Urban Policy Research headed by David Listokin, documented just how passé  the 2400-mile-long heritage attraction has become.

According to the study, a survey of Route 66 travelers indicated that they are 97% white and non-Hispanic, have a median age of 55 (in fact, almost half were 60 or over).  Only 11% of the visitors were in the 20-39 demographic group.

So if Route 66 is a thoroughly baby boomer heritage attraction, what will happen to its economic sustainability and thus physical conservation when the traveling days of baby boomers come to an end?

It’s a problem of obvious concern to the proprietors of the hundreds of kitschy, quirky roadside attractions that line America’s “Mother Road” from Chicago to Santa Monica.

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One of these entrepreneurs, recently featured in a  recent LA Times story, is Kumar Patel, manager of the family-owned Wigwam Motel in San Bernadino, California.  There were once 7 “Wigwam Villages” built across the country between 1930 and 1949, with individual accommodations in the form of “teepees,” meant to lure vacationers to stay overnight at these roadside novelties.

Wigwam Village #2, June 1940. Photo: Marion Post Wolcott for the New Deal Resettlement Administration.

But today’s Gen Xers (born c. 1965-1985) and Millennials (born c. 1985-2005) don’t seem to find resonance in the romance of the outdated, politically incorrect, and stereotyped landmarks of the open road.

Kumar Patel is one of the spokespersons for making the charms of Route 66 more attractive to younger travelers.

He’s organized “Indian Summer” hip-hop festivals at his Wigwam Motel and decorates the teepees as Christmas Trees in December.  All this to create a sense of the weird and unique, rather than the nostalgic.  The jury is still out whether this marketing strategy will work.

And it also brings up a big question about the inevitable transformation of heritage authenticity as generations change.  At what point does literal preservation have to give way to new values?  Do hip-hop, DJ strobe lights, and seasonal celebrations  irreversibly change classic 20th century heritage into 21st century hipster culture?  And does that matter at all?


Are Authenticity and Change Compatible?

I’m guessing that your immediate answer to that question would probably be no.  And you wouldn’t be alone.  To most people, authenticity and change are opposites, if not outright contradictions.

To cultural heritage experts, tour guides and destination marketers, and of course to historic site managers and museum curators, “authentic” usually means unchanged, original, exactly as conceived.  “Change” is therefore the primary threat to authenticity.

But is it really so?  Are we mistaking the authenticity of a material object or monument for the authenticity of human experience?

Take the example of the Parthenon and a busy street in Hong Kong, for example:


If there is a single iconic heritage monument that people agree is “authentic,” it’s the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis.  It has come to symbolize the aesthetic and philosophical foundations of Western Civilization and for the past few decades the Acropolis Restoration Service of the Greek Ministry of Culture has been entirely dedicated to conserving the material remains of the Parthenon (and all other structures on the Acropolis) from the effects of human activity and the forces of natural and environmental deterioration.  

One of the guiding principles of the Service– contained in the 1964 Charter of Venice, which is still widely considered conservation orthodoxy in the heritage field– is “Respect for the authentic material, retention of the structural autonomy of the architectural members and their original structural function.”

Now take a different example from the other side of the world.  The urban fabric of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong in China is in a process of continual change.  With the exception of 105 buildings (mostly restored official structures from the British colonial period), visitors and residents alike witness a city in continual transformation, with at least one conservation architect accusing the Hong Kong government of favoring development over heritage and being “incapable of safeguarding anything that makes Hong Kong special.

But are we mistaking authenticity for a material state, when it is equally a relationship between people and a place?


In the introduction to her fascinating new book, The Parthenon Enigma, Joan Breton Connelly emphasizes the dramatic changes that the Parthenon has experienced– and continues to experience today.

Ravaged by fire and rebuilt with extensive modifications to the rook and interior in the second century BC and the third century AD; transformed into an Orthodox church in the sixth century AD (with a baptistry, apse, and new entrance door created); to a Catholic Church by the holy warriors of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 (with a belltower erected); to a mosque by the Ottoman conquerors in 1458 (with the belltower reconstructed to a minaret).  Then came its use by the Turks as an ammunition depot during the Venetian siege of Athens in 1687)– resulting in a devastating explosion that nearly destroyed it when a Venetian cannonball scored a bullseye.

On through the centuries the changes continued, with a new mosque constructed in the ruins; the stripping of sculptures by Lord Elgin(1801-1812); more damage during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832); energetic and often fanciful restorations throughout the rest of the nineteenth century; a new effort of the Acropolis Restoration Service to peel off any trace of of the “inauthentic” since its establishment in 1975; and finally in its interpretive integration in the flow of Greek history with the opening of the technologically cutting-edge Acropolis Museum in 2009.

The Parthenon’s authenticity has been evolving through each and every change.

Now look at Hong Kong.  Its authentic character remains.  Changing, morphing, combining cultures, and quickly snatching up promising business opportunities as the world around it evolved.  As the Hong Kong novelist Dung Kai-Cheung put it so well in the preface to his brilliant Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, “The miracle of Hong Kong is that it has always been evolving, incorporating elements of both Chinese and foreign cultures, accommodating influxes of immigrants from the mainland in different historical periods, and nevertheless maintaining a distinctive identity.”

So which is more authentic?  The surviving golden columns of the Parthenon or the bustling, busy, hustler-filled streets of Hong Kong?  The answer of course, is that they both are authentic.

Authenticity and change are not only compatible, they are inseparable.

So the challenge today for cultural heritage experts, tour guides, destination marketers, and historic site managers and museum curators may be to balance the experiential and the material aspects of authenticity– to enrich and deepen the interlocked perceptions that make their places and their cultural heritage significant and unique.


Heritage Authenticity: You’ll know it when you see it

Reams of official reports, mountains of monographs, and a babel of professional heritage jargon still have not succeeded in precisely and universally defining the essence of authenticity.  You can’t fault the heritage professionals for not trying:  The Venice Charter (1965) tried to outline the conservation practices that protect it; the Nara Document (1994) tried to globalize it; and the World Heritage Convention Operational Guidelines have established the procedural round hole into which every square heritage peg must be jammed.

An authenticity certificate - Wouldn't it just be easier this way?

Wouldn’t it just be easier this way?

But could there be another way for site and destination managers to think of heritage authenticity– not only as the accurate dating and description of a historical monument or artifact– but as a meaningful relationship between people and a place?

An average person may not be able to define “authentic” heritage concisely or clearly, but give them  a camera and tell them to document what heritage means to them, and they’ll be shooting pictures of their sense of authenticity in no time. Give them the freedom to express what places and things matter, and you’ll have a collection of images that speak more eloquently than a tall pile of policy guidelines.  Individually, they represent personal perspectives, but taken together they are the distinctive mosaic of meanings that give life to a cultural tourism destination or heritage place. 

Photography is a powerful – and handy – medium to use to empower visitors and community members to express their feelings about the meaning of their heritage.  And there are several powerful ways to use it.  Not with professional photographers or with expensive equipment, but with inexpensive digital cameras (or mobile phones) and carefully planned activities.

In coming posts we’ll talk about several specific tools and techniques for eliciting heritage values and inventorying significant heritage attributes in your community or destination using digital cameras.  They include Photographs as Memory PromptsPhotovoice, Digital Storytelling, and the use of Social Media as an evolving visual archive.

By using them, you’ll see how these tools can help you powerfully and memorably communicate the distinctive character of your heritage destination or site.

Whose Authenticity Is It?

Authenticity is the new secret sauce of the global consumer economy.  The quality of being authentic– direct from the source, unmediated, unprocessed, and emotionally significant– is increasingly regarded by marketers as the quality that attracts the most profitable and loyal consumers in every industry.

Tourism is no exception.  This week tourist destinations ranging from Italy to British Columbia to the Great Smoky Mountains were featured in press releases and news articles celebrating the value of their authenticity.  Dozens, if not hundreds more destinations and heritage sites all over the world have made the same claim.

But what exactly does authenticity mean?

Authenticity means different things to different people

James Gilmore and Joseph Pine followed up their bestseller The Experience Economy (1999) with a book on what makes it work.

James Gilmore and Joseph Pine followed up their bestseller The Experience Economy (1999) with a book on what makes it work.

Pine and Gilmore give five distinct genres of authenticity (natural, original, exceptional, referential, and influential); travel industry experts have listed many more.  They all seem to relate to the way that places and things are perceived by visitors at a destination. Thus destination marketers are on the hook for the consequences of visitor dissatisfaction if authenticity is not “properly” perceived; the stakes are high for authenticity marketing.

Authenticity is the cornerstone of cultural heritage expertise, and so one would think that the cultural heritage profession has a single, unambiguous definition.  But here too the nature of authenticity is far from clear.  In fact, there are at least three rival understandings of authenticity within the field:

  1. Some art historians, architects, curators, and archaeologists see authenticity as scientifically validated conclusions about the dating, style, and thus historical significance of a place or a thing.
  2. There are other cultural heritage experts, whose perspective is expressed in the 1994 Nara Document, who go a step beyond scientific validation to also recognize that every culture may have additional standards for authenticity, including design, materials, function, location, and tradition.
  3. And there are academic critics like Dean MacCannell and John Urry, who contend that authenticity is the object of a continuing quest rather than a static quality. It is the never-ending search for significant places and memorable experiences offering an escape from the everyday routines of work and personal life at home.

So how can a travel destination successfully promote its authenticity if there is such a wide range of opinions among cultural heritage experts on what authenticity is? Should marketers emphasize the material or historical aspects of authenticity at their destinations?  Should they focus on the immersiveness of local festivals and cultural rituals?  Or should they highlight self-enrichment as the reward for seeking authenticity at a destination?

Authenticity is everywhere

The fact is that all three of the emphases on authenticity– the empirical, the experiential, and the therapeutic– are valid and attract different types of visitors. Furthermore, these different modes of authenticity often reinforce one another.  If authenticity indeed exists in the eye, mind, and heart of the beholder, a whole new world of opportunities lies ahead for both destination marketers and cultural heritage experts to work together to convey a more holistic concept of authenticity.



Dreaming Big about Open Cultural Data

How about a massive digital heritage project where all participants are welcome and the ideas are yet to come?  In contrast to the many EU and NSF digital heritage projects where the end deliverables are explicitly stated, the  {cod1ng da v1nc1} project— a joint undertaking of the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, Wikimedia Deutschland, and Digis– have thrown open 15 data sets from cultural institutions and 2 APIs (an API or “application programming interface” is what allows developers interact with online data or software) to develop innovative cultural heritage applications.

Coding davinci

Four challenges have been offered up for the most creative solutions that any willing participant wants to tackle:

Mash it!  applications that create new insights by combining different cultural data sets.

Move it! applications that allow more inclusive public participation through things like augmented reality, user experience, and social media

Discover it!  applications that provide playful learning experiences

Improve it!  applications that improve the usefulness of digital data by cultural institutions of all kinds

Goals like these have been aimed at many times before, but never in such a free form way.  The four challenges are the centerpieces of a 10-week hackathon in which programmers, computer geeks, and cultural data engineers from all over Germany are invited to try their hand at changing the way digital heritage is used.

Project concepts have already begun to flow in.  Once the idea is posted and collaborators recruited, it will be a mad dash of brainstorming, programming, and testing until the finished projects are unveiled in July.  Hackathons are already well known in the world of information technology; Google, Yahoo, and even government agencies have held hackathons to harvest public creativity and gain innovative solutions to particular challenges.  Thousands of proposals have been posted and hundreds of professional and avocational programmers have taken part.

Here are two early ideas that benefit both the users and the cultural organizations themselves:

Goethe2Go – geotagging meets gamification

The project idea is for a mobile app contest in which participants race to identify hidden historical spots in their city, and in doing so provide valuable crowd-sourced location data to the cultural institution.  We could imagine such an application to be extremely useful for organizations with archival photographs of architectural elements, buildings, and street views that are lacking locational metadata.  It is a win-win for everyone.


This project idea attempts to overcome the fact that digital archives are steadily growing, but users don’t necessarily know how much of the collected material would be interesting or valuable to them.  How can someone find an archival item that they don’t know exists?  The proposed answer here is the creation of a new search interface in the form of mosaic patterns, arranged according to the degree of relatedness of their content that can be set by the user.  Like the Visual Thesaurus, it could offer not only a new way of accessing museum collections but also provide surprising and enlightening juxtapositions of content that the searcher did not anticipate.

Coding da Vinci - Der Kultur-Hackathon.  Photo: Volker Agueras Gäng

Coding da Vinci – Der Kultur-Hackathon. Photo: Volker Agueras Gäng

We’ll keep an eye on the hackathon as it proceeds.  But it is already opening the door a bit wider to truly participatory cultural archives.

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