Are museums being clear enough with the public about what’s real and what’s fake?

A visitor looks at a framed picture behind glass at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The picture, labeled as a Jacob Lawrence, isn’t disclosed as a copy of the original, which is on view at the Phillips Collection. Photo: Menachem Wecker

My article “The Imitation Game: Are museums being clear enough with the public about what’s real and what’s fake?” appears in Washington Post Magazine.

I looked at every single work of art, artifact, specimen, and other object on view at the following Smithsonian museums:

  1. National Museum of the American Indian
  2. National Air and Space Museum
  3. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  4. National Museum of African Art
  5. Freer Gallery of Art
  6. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
  7. National Museum of African American History and Culture
  8. National Museum of American History
  9. National Museum of Natural History
  10. American Art Museum
  11. Renwick Gallery
  12. National Portrait Gallery

I also did the same at the following non-Smithsonian museums:

  1. Phillips Collection
  2. National Gallery of Art

I compiled a list of hundreds of objects in these museums, and in museums elsewhere in the country, which aren’t real and probed the degree to which visitors have a fighting chance off knowing what’s “fake news.”

As I write in the piece:

At all the institutions I toured, visitors would have to sometimes read the curators’ minds to grasp whether certain objects are the real McCoy. On museum labels and wall texts, curators use wildly inconsistent terminology. Some terms — such as “replica,” “copy,” “reconstruction,” “facsimile,” “reproduction” and “scale model” — are generally understandable. But others are more esoteric, such as “conjectural restoration,” “proof test article” and “engineering test model.”

Read the full article here.

Update 2/27: SFGATE, the Hearst-owned, sister site of San Francisco Chronicle, has also run the article under the headline “When museums use copies of art and artifacts in their displays, can we really tell?

Update 2: 3/1: The NMAAHC has posted a response on its website. More here.

Update 3: 3/4: The article appears in artnet‘s Art Industry News, “a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market.”

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