‘To visit the Haar Castle, whether to admire its park, its rich history, the exhibitions, gardens, deer or for a wedding, is to be immersed in a different world.’ This is the opening sentence of the Haar castle website in the province of Utrecht, the Netherlands. I remember when I was seventeen years old I visited the castle myself. I wandered through the old ‘medieval’ castle. Daydreaming about all the knights and ladies that had lived here through the centuries. I practically saw baroness van Zuylen van Nijenveld looking melancholically out of her window onto her beautiful garden. Gazing and waiting for her lover to return.
Now seven years later I am older and a lot wiser. For example, I know now that the castle is roughly one hundred years old. Though, this didn’t temper my memory of the castle and its beauty, nevertheless, this discovery did bother me. It felt like the fairy tale and historical bubble that I had created was busted. It felt like a wake-up call. I was woken up by historical facts.
This phenomenon isn’t uncommon. If you follow the news, fictional bubbles get busted all the time. Two weeks ago the Dutch news reported that the regional museum Flipje en Streekmuseum in Tiel, a town in the province Gelderland in the Netherlands, had a replica in their collection. The exhibited golden pendant that originated from 1559 was in fact a fake. It turned out to be a stage attribute with a coat of golden paint, and was produced around the 1950’s.
How did the museum get their hands on this fake? The pendant was found by a student from the horticultural school Warmenderhof in the 1970’s. The student found it during a hike, around the ruins of a castle which belonged to Claes Vijgh. Vijgh was the most powerful man in Tiel in the sixteenth century. This was the time when the Habsburg family ruled over the Netherlands. Because of Vijgh his loyalty to the Habsburg the Spanish king Philips II, Vijhg was promoted to the knighthood of the Golden Fleece. For the Habsburg king this was a strategic plan to make sure that the elite of the Netherlands remained loyal to him.
The jewel that was found by the student looked exactly like the golden pendant from the Golden Fleece. For this reason, and because the object was found close to the ruins of the former Vijgh castle, the connection between the two was made. The student who found it sold it to an American, who loaned it to the local museum. The jewel became a part of their permanent collection in 2013, where the museum presented the pendant as real. In the online catalogue of the museum the object was represented as an authentic remnant of the Golden Fleece knighthood.
The whole story that was built around the pendant fell apart two weeks ago. During a regular inspection it turned out to be a dud. The showpiece of the museum was apparently a stage prop used for theatre plays. This means that there is no connection to the mysterious knighthood after all. Another bubble busted.
How come that it feels like this? According to the famous Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, objects can give us an historical sensation or a historical imagination. Through objects we can transfer ourselves to a different time. We literally can look history in the eye. Huizinga argues that the object must be ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ for this to happen, one must be convinced of its authenticity. This automatically means that when a person realises that the object doesn’t have any historical value or authenticity, the magical sensation disappears. This experience differs per individual of course. Not every seventeen-year-old dreams about being a princess in a castle just by looking at an old building. It is about the sensation itself. Although this is an interesting observation, this doesn’t explain why people get sad, disappointed or even angry when they realise that an object isn’t what it seems.
In my opinion the answer can be found in the way a museum or a site represents itself and its objects. The reason why we perhaps feel fooled by museums, places or castles is because they represent themselves as bearers of authenticity. When you go to a museum to see a golden pendant from the sixteenth century you expect it to be the real jewel. You don’t expect to find a stage prop instead. This can lead to a bad reputation as for example being seen as phony. Secondly, this can cause people to get angry since the visited site isn’t what it pretends to be. The Flipje en Streekmuseum doesn’t advertise their exhibitions and their objects to be replicas. The result is that the visitors feel fooled. When a museum is what it says it is, the visitors know what to expect. This is one of the reasons why Madame Tussauds works so well. It never tells the public that they are going to see real A-list stars. They’re going to see wax statues, who do not talk or even move for that matter. But that is okay, since the visitors are aware of this fact when they walk into the building. They get what Madame Tussauds advertises, nothing more nothing less.
So, what is there to learn from all this? Should we be suspicious of every museum or site we enter? Yes, we definitely should but for a different reason than what is discussed in this small blog of mine. Should we be wary of our imagination, because historical truth might break our hearts? Because it might turn out that the (explicitly detailed) imagination was not possible after all? I think not. To give some comfort, we must remember that our experiences with the artefacts are real. The fact that we feel a historical sensation makes it an authentic experience, even though the object that enhances the sensation might not be historical genuine. Our feelings, sensations or imaginations are very real, and this is something that nobody is able to take away.