Before we turn to the question of the function of replicas in a museum environment, it may prove useful to reflect briefly on the terms ‘original’ and ‘replica’. An original museum object can be seen as having the following characteristics: distinctive physical properties, a historical heritage, and a particular context. The informative value of a museum object thus presents itself on three levels; it is not limited to pure materiality, but also includes a conceptual dimension that must be revealed through scholarly interpretation.
A replica, on the other hand, has a purely imitative character, since it borrows both its informational content and outward appearance from the original object. The value of a replica lies in its surface similarity to the original.
The fact that originals are to be simultaneously preserved and displayed in museums gives rise to a permanent conservation contradiction that replicas sidestep, since they exist solely to be displayed. Even if they lack the special aura of ‘authenticity’, replicas can achieve similar results to an original object in a museum by illustrating forgotten contexts and by reconstructing bygone historical situations in three dimensions, such as the site of an archaeological find. Replicas are already used in museums for this purpose, and thus are much like models, the material reconstructions of lost, partially destroyed, or oversized objects or ensembles.
Aside from the visitor’s direct communication with the object, the exhibition itself serves as a line of communication with visitors (e.g., through choice of subject matter and design) and the information carriers in the exhibition serve to communicate about the object. Every exhibition can therefore be viewed as a communication structure in which objects are used as a medium and are prepared in a scientifically rigorous manner in an aesthetically pleasing environment for the viewer, with whom they thereby enter a communicative dialogue. An object’s appearance can be enhanced via the ‘scenographic composition’ of an exhibition. While an increase in educational value and a higher degree of communication through dramatic staging (communication about the object) may seem possible with a replica exhibition, communication with the object is naturally reduced to the aspects mediated by the replicas, such as their crafted surfaces or dimensions.
A visit to an exhibition is not just about gaining awareness and accruing knowledge; it is also about the visitor’s experience, entertainment and relaxation. Since the latter three phenomena have a direct positive impact on the viewer’s readiness to learn, additionally increasing learning possibilities through emotional means is a legitimate approach. In the ‘Tutankhamun – His Tomb and His Treasures’ exhibition, this is achieved by means of dramatic reconstructions, in which integrated films not only make up the essential part of the historical introduction, but lead directly to the ‘discovery site’. The reconstructions of the discovery site presented in this exhibition – the main chambers of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the subsequent museum-quality presentation of central object groups – are emblematic of the two key elements of the educational strategy. Here, experiencing the larger picture (context) fosters a sense of understanding: The main axis of the exhibition, along which the shrines and sarcophagi are arranged as they were found at the burial site, leading up to the mask, has a monumental as well as illuminating effect. The content is presented on the one hand via the traditional method of didactic illustrations, and on the other by means of a dramatic audio guide.
A significant educational advantage of a replica exhibition is the ability to reconstruct the full context of an archaeological find. The site as it was found is almost impossible to conserve anywhere using the delicate original artefacts. A replica show also has the important advantage of presenting a complete collection of a particular group of objects, which is simply not possible on this scale, given the generally small selection of originals found in conventional special exhibitions. Moreover, the same object can be shown several times in different contexts.
The academic integrity and the quality of the objects’ presentation are crucial to a replica exhibition’s value from a museological perspective. The former optimizes the ‘communication about the object’, while the latter shapes the ‘exhibition itself as a means of communication’. Both, however, should also be ensured for exhibitions with originals, since pure ‘communication with the object’ is often not enough for a complete exhibition experience and often remains bound solely to the viewer’s subjective perception of the object. This is why, as with the gathering and study of exhibition items, the act of selecting and arranging should be the reserve of academics – in this case Egyptologists – who have the necessary skills to make such decisions. Ultimately, it is the productive interplay between the design and content of an exhibition that dictates its success.
Museums of cultural history, as institutions, are required to combine the collection, preservation, and study of objects with educational communication about them. While the first three tasks necessarily require original objects, they are not absolutely necessary for pure educational communication. Consequently, museums do not have an exclusive monopoly on exhibitions with cultural and historical content: Temporary exhibitions are often held in regular exhibition halls and are initiated by governmental or commercial clients external to the museum. It therefore makes no sense when cultural history museums, including Egyptian museums, doggedly insist on a carousel of special exhibitions, allowing collection, preservation and study to slip into the background.
Replica exhibitions open up new dimensions for the educational task of academics in that the intensity of the experience can be enhanced by the immediacy, completeness, arrangement and various dramatic presentations of the objects shown. If during their educational efforts cultural history museums refuse the experience-rich, didactic possibilities of replica exhibitions out of misguided purism, they could find themselves behind the latest trends, rather than setting them.
It would not be the first time.