Great Read: The Museum of Obsolete Technology

by Sally J.

in * How to PRESERVE Family History Treasures, Free Articles / Blog

Alexander Stille
is one of my favorite writers. Here is a link to the first essay of his that I ever read. I discovered it while I was in grad school over a decade ago, and I never forgot it. It’s free to read, and I hope you enjoy it.

Free Online Essay:
Are We Losing Our Memory?
Or The Museum of Obsolete Technology

This essay comes from a collection called The Future of the Past. I devoured the entire book earlier this year and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a fascinating look at the big picture of historic preservation. If you like the free essay in the link above, you’ll probably enjoy the entire book:

Discussion Topic: Do Replicas Count?

This was one of the most interesting points of Stille’s book…

In China, it’s considered preservation to rebuild crumbling treasures. Since the new parts are in the same style, they make no distinction between the original and the copy. Stille talks about how this cultural difference has caused problems when treasures go on exhibit to western museums. Westerners don’t want a copy, they want what they consider to be the only authentic copy…the original.

What do YOU think?

  • Would you feel cheated if you went to a museum that only had replicas?
  • Would it make a difference to you if the reproductions were created using the same tools as the original?
  • Does it bother you if your historic family photograph is a modern print from a recent scan and not the original antique?
  • What is lost when you create a copy?
  • What is gained when you create a copy?

Sound off in the comments section, below.

Oh, and feel free to leave your comments about Stille’s Museum of Obsolete Technology essay if you like. I’d love to hear what you thing about it.

Laurie April 14, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Interesting stuff!
Best wishes

Jane March 27, 2009 at 6:52 pm

I think sometimes we give excessive reverence to the original. All works are somewhat derivative of previous works and often the copy requires the same or greater skill (if not vision) than the original. A good copy will bear many if not all of the attractive features of the original. The real risk comes from confusion or deception.
Great blog by the way and provocative post.

Genealem February 21, 2009 at 11:16 pm

You have a great site, and I want to share the Kreativ Blogger Award with you.

You can drop by my writing blog at: to pick it up and the instructions.


chelledge December 26, 2008 at 2:20 am

I’m an avid family historian and while that photo my Aunt Joan has of my great-great-great grandfather in his Union Army uniform is great and has that antique aura, the scanned, and “re-mastered” photograph is sharper, cleaner and has better depth. I’d argue that in many if not most cases where a reprint isn’t as sharp or pictorially pleasing as the antique original the processor didn’t know what he was doing or didn’t have the correct tools available to make the copies. There are two completely different standards here – on the one hand the sense of vintage history the original has – on the other the better pure pictorial information a professional restorer can bring out with up-to-date tools.

As for replicas, I think it entirely matters what item is being discussed. I don’t even begin to want fragile irreplaceable originals put on display – give me as authentic looking a reproduction as possible. Keep the original safe.

I would only feel cheated if told that a reproduction was the original.

king November 30, 2008 at 4:50 am

I haven’t read the essay just yet, but I am in agreement with most here. I don’t mind replicas, and in some circumstances prefer them (hand-held objects for teaching or detail-rich paintings and photos), as long as they are labeled as such and are accurate replicas.

Originals are exciting because they directly tie you to history, it’s not just something you read about anymore. I couldn’t imagine a museum without them.

Oh, speaking of original photos, I thought you’d get a kick out of a photo I found, most likely of one of your relatives, through the link.

(I might have just posted this comment twice, sorry)

Amy November 28, 2008 at 1:39 pm

I am so glad you mentioned that book! I bought that goodie a few years ago and loved it from beginning to end. I think anyone who works in history in any capacity whatever should give it a read.

And in short answer to but one of your interesting questions, I feel fine about replicas, as long as, and only as long as I am told they are replicas from the start. I fully appreciate the need to keep some irreplaceable artifacts in carefully-controlled environments. In such cases, I believe displaying replicas–cited as such–is perfectly acceptable.

Cheers! I rec’d your great blog at my own genealogy site.

Msteri November 25, 2008 at 4:45 am

You have been tagged at

Love your blog!


In The Ohio November 23, 2008 at 1:53 pm

I think that replicas would be great as long as they were advertized as such. This would give educational opportunities to more people at a more affordable cost.(Though there is no substitute for the King Tut, Ramsees, or Terra Cotta Army that I’ve seen)
Creating them using the same tools would afford people again, a greater educational opportunity, since video could be produced showing the creation.
As far as family Photograghs are concerned, Copies are wonderful, but it is nice to have a few originals. But copies afford all family members the opportunity to appreciate and remember their ancestors.

Frank DeFreitas November 10, 2008 at 4:01 pm

A recent project was to record Civil War artifacts as 3-dimensional holograms (to be sent on tour to rural areas, far from urban museums). Many thought of the resulting holograms as “replicas”, and stated that they would prefer to view the actual artifacts.

However, for all practical purposes (at least as far as the physics of light is concerned), these holographic Civial War artifacts ARE the originals.

As with many aspects of holography, some concepts are a bit difficult to both explain and comprehend.

I guess a good way to put it (and I’ve just thought of this, so thank you) is that holography clones the objects being recorded (via laser light).

Apple November 9, 2008 at 7:08 pm

Replicas are OK with me. I like to see the way things worked and many old things no longer do or can’t be handled. As for photographs, the “old” photos I display are all copies, the originals stored away.

Trevira November 9, 2008 at 6:47 pm

Loved the Stille essay, and I could go on at length about the difficulties of prioritising what to keep and what to ditch, especially given that things that might not appear interesting or important to us now, may become much more so to future generations. But I won't!

The issue of replicas grabs me because I'm particularly interested in material culture. I relish objects such as, for example, a 19th century shawl worn by a working class woman. It might have pin holes where its been fastened around the head, or have careful patches sewn over worn areas, and all these imperfections are precious evidence of use and the life story of the object. You sense a direct connection with the woman who wore that shawl that dissolves the distance of history.

A careful reproduction, made using authentic wools on period looms would give an impression of what these shawls may have been like, but it won't have that talismanic aura of authenticity, nor the marks of use and wear that tell us that people just like us wore this, and give us clues to how it was used.

Similarly, the marks of fingers in an antique clay pot, are the marks of the maker, something that might span centuries, even millenia. The immediacy of that realisation is part of what's special about seeing the genuine artefact.

We revere 'authenticity,' and perhaps that's a cultural preference. Even so, I'm sure its safe to say that people long dead 'speak' through their objects, and a replica is not reproducing that voice, but merely an echo of it.

Having said that, I think replicas are perfectly valid as handling objects, giving us chance to interact with them in a way that we couldn't with the fragile and precious genuine articles. Replica corsets and crinolines, such as those I tried on in the British Galleries at the V&A, give you an unrivalled insight into what they felt like to wear and use. Plus they're great fun!

As for modern prints of old photographs – I often scan and print old photographs for framing and display, because I'm aware that light will eventually destroy the originals, but they're never quite the same crisp resolution or subtle colours.

That said, I'm happy for museums to display copies and enlargements of old photographs in displays and information boards because I understand that they must preserve the originals.

Sorry for the long rambling comment. This subject is very important to me!

Jeri Dansky November 9, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Regarding question 1:

I went to Lascaux II in France, which is entirely a replica cave, and did not feel cheated. (I would have loved to see the original, but I understand why that isn’t possible.)

Knowing something is a replica is important to me, though.

And being able to visit other caves that were originals was probably part of the reason I didn’t mind that this one cave was not.

George Geder November 9, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Wow, great post!

And I thought my data collecting/archiving practices were shaky! Stille’s essay is alarming.

Now, Do Replicas Count?

1. Yes, I would feel cheated.
2. No, just as long as the height, width, weight and scale were correct – I’d still feel cheated.
3. No, better to have an image than not at all.
4. the tactile integrity of the original.
5. Access and distribution

“Guided by the Ancestors”

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