Digital technology plays a critical role in documenting and helping to preserve material culture. Digital photographs, scans, and precise measurements insure that curators and cultural resource managers can preserve the visual elements of an artifact. But can digital technology be used to replicate or replace original artifacts? What makes an artifact inherently valuable? Can these values be transferred to a digital reproduction? Do the digital reproductions have their own value?
To begin with, what makes an artifact valuable? In her article, “Digital Cultural Heritage and Indigenous Objects, People, and Environments,” Deidre Brown borrows a definition from the Auckland War Memorial Museum in New Zealand. The museum identified a number of qualities that make artifacts valuable within the Maori culture. These qualities translate beyond the Maori and provide a basis for understanding the inherent importance of material culture. Brown describes “cultural treasures” as embodying authority, power, prestige, sacredness, spiritual power, genealogy, narratives, integrity, everlasting spirit, and life force, among other elements.
Defying previous cultural theorists, such as Walter Benjamin, Brown asserts that “some, if not all, of these cultural values are transferred by digital replication, to a lesser or greater degree, depending on circumstance.” Benjamin would surely disagree that Brown’s recreated Maori carving (replicated based on digital scans) holds the same cultural value as the original. Brown didn’t even believe that photographic reproductions captured the same qualities as an original.
I strongly disagree with Brown, and I believe that the National Register of Historic Places would, too. The criteria for nomination to the National Register are similar to Brown’s list of essential qualities of material culture: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. But where Brown believes these qualities can be transferred to a reproduction, the National Register generally does not. Indeed, a reconstructed building is not eligible for listing, unless “it is accurately executed in a suitable environment and presented in a dignified manner as part of a restoration master plan and when no other building or structure with the same associations has survived.”
Colonial Williamsburg provides a good example of issues of reproduction on a large scale. The town is not listed on the National Register due to its significance as the colonial capital of Virginia – it is a completely reconstructed space. Rather, the National Register recognizes its importance as an early example of historic preservation and interpretation. In this way, Colonial Williamsburg shows us that reproductions, either digital or “analog,” have value in their own right, but cannot replace the sense of place and meaning that original artifacts so powerfully provide.