The Talismanic Aura of Authenticity (Part 1)

by Sally J.

in Big Ideas, Free Articles / Blog, The Talismanic Aura of Authenticity

Oh, my. I love that phrase so much I built a whole goshdarn series around it.

The Talismanic Aura of Authenticity – The Series

This is Part 1 in a series exploring why certain objects have a kind of power over us. It’s is the kind of power that transforms an ordinary object into a treasure worth keeping at any cost.

In this series, we’ll look at this issue from different perspectives. First off, we’re going to bask a little bit in the warm glow of this aura. I’m going to describe some of the treasures I’ve seen and encourage you to share your own favorites.

Later on in the series, we’ll take a good hard look at how this power can transform non-valuable objects (clutter, basically) into something so sticky it takes a lot of internal strength to get rid of it. In other words, sometimes we see a “talismanic aura” around objects that don’t really deserve it. We’ll also explore how one object can have different meanings to different people. Or even the same person at different points in time.

Two important things before we go any further.

“The talismanic aura of authenticity.” What on earth are you talking about?

Right-O! Quick definitions before we move on:

  • Talismanic = Having or belief that something has magic power. Hear it pronounced by clicking here.
  • Aura = A distinctive but intangible quality surrounding a person or thing. Often expressed as air, such as “an air of mystery” or “the house had a neglected air.” Hear it pronounced by clicking here.

Secondly, I have to make sure everyone knows that I stole this drop-dead gorgeous phrase from a comment on an earlier Practical Archivist post about historic reproductions. The commenter’s name is Trevira, and she had a bunch of interesting things to say. In fact, there are lots of great comments about what is and what is not authentic. You can go skim it right now if you want, I’ll still be here when you come back, I promise.

There is power in authenticity (Lewis & Clark Map)

I know this is true because I have experienced it myself. There is a “you-are-there” power that is palpable, that you can actually feel.

When I worked at the Library of Congress, I was part of a group that got behind the scenes tours of each division. While visiting the Maps division, I got to see a map carried by the Lewis & Clark expedition. It was encased in mylar, so I could get rrrrreally close without risking any damage.

What’s the first thing you do when you see a map of your corner of the world? Well, I don’t know about you but I always look for where I live. So I lean in real close to get a good look at Wisconsin — and yes I know Lewis & Clark didn’t travel through Wisconsin, and I know it wasn’t called Wisconsin in 1803… but the map they carried included it. My corner of the world. Now known as Wisconsin.

So far it’s interesting, but not anything to write home about, really. Then I see it.

There’s a small “X” written by hand on the printed map. I realize immediately that someone has marked Portage, Wisconsin. Nowadays it’s a sleepy town (pop. 9,827) in a county where that kind of size makes you the biggest city in the county. Back in 1803, it was the shortest dry distance between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. I’ll let the City of Portage tell the story:

The historical distinction of Portage lies in its unique geographical location between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers.  Here, the two rivers, one flowing north to the St. Lawrence, the other south to the Mississippi, are separated by a narrow neck of land over which, for two centuries, Indians, missionaries, trappers, traders, adventurers and settlers traveling the waterway had to portage their canoes and heavy packs from one stream to another.  The settlement which grew here because of the resulting traffic was first knows as “Wau-wau-onah”, Winnebago for “carry on the shoulder”.  During the French occupation, it was simply “le portage” (from porter: to carry).  This was eventually anglicized to Portage.

Back to Lewis and Clark. Even though they didn’t travel through Wisconsin, the location of Portage was important enough to hand annotate one of the maps they carried on their expedition. That’s when I started feeling a little dizzy. I felt a connection to the distant past, even though normally it felt like a foreign country I would never have a chance to visit.

Now it’s time to share your favorite story about an object that gave you the shivers…in a good way. Or an item that makes you feel like it someone you love is with you, even though they are far away.


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