The Imitation Game

Some of the most beloved objects in Washington museums are not as authentic as visitors might assume
One of Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” sculptures at the National Gallery of Art was cast posthumously. (Photo illustration based on photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)
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On the second concourse of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, you can view Panel No. 1 of Jacob Lawrence’s 60-painting “Migration Series.” Installed as part of the exhibit “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom,” the painting addresses the northern migration of millions of African Americans after World War I — showing throngs of abstracted figures largely rendered in green and black filing through a train station, bound for Chicago, New York and St. Louis.

It’s hard to imagine a more poignant place to contemplate this artwork. Yet the African American Museum’s Lawrence isn’t the real thing; it’s a photograph of the original. The real painting is on view at the Phillips Collection, the owner of the series’ odd-numbered panels. (The Museum of Modern Art in New York owns the even-numbered ones.) The only clue that it’s a copy is a reference on the card next to it, which reads: “Lawrence, Jacob (1917-2000)/The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., USA/Acquired 1942/Bridgeman Images.” Bridgeman is an art licensing and copyright clearinghouse that owns the rights to reproduce the likeness of the work — but if you don’t know that, you might not realize that you’re looking at a copy.

One of Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” sculptures at the National Gallery of Art was cast posthumously. (Photo illustration based on photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)

A spokesman for the African American Museum did not comment on the vague labeling of its copy of Panel No. 1. A spokeswoman for the Phillips, meanwhile, said the private museum in Dupont Circle is aware of the copy at the African American Museum and would not offer an opinion about the way it is labeled. (Update: After this story was published, the African American Museum said in a statement: “Although the Jacob Lawrence label accurately describes, sources and credits the image, it does not explicitly state that the image is a reproduction. For that reason, we will edit the label to ensure the image is not mistaken as the actual painting.”)

There are, however, museum curators and professionals who consider the idea of displaying copies without full disclosure at odds with the educational mission of museums. Graham Beal, who retired in 2015 after 16 years as director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, says the institute hangs reproductions alongside original artworks but doesn’t frame them (as the African American Museum has done with the Lawrence copy), and clearly notes that they’re reproductions. “I’ve never known or heard of a museum resorting to that sleight of hand,” he told me. “The one thing museums should stand for is authenticity. Museums should be the absolute polar opposite of fake news.”

Gary Vikan, a former director of nearly 20 years at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, worries about a tourist seeing a copy of a great work, then “getting on the plane with some little niche of knowledge in their heads that’s not true, through no fault of their own. … We are being lied to on the Internet. We are being lied to by the White House. Are we more and more comfortable with things that aren’t true?”

Even current and former Smithsonian staff were surprised that such an object wouldn’t be identified as a copy. “I would raise an eyebrow if that happened,” said Peter Liebhold, curator of the National Museum of American History’s division of work and industry. Steven Lubar, former chair of the history of technology division at the American History Museum and now a Brown University professor, said the Lawrence copy should be clearly labeled. “If you pretend that it’s real and hang it in a frame, then I think, if I were director of the museum, I would say that should be indicated,” he noted.

The vague labeling of the Lawrence panel could be easily overlooked if it were not for the fact that it’s just one of hundreds of copies of art, artifacts or specimens on display at reputable cultural institutions all over Washington. Museums can, of course, have practical reasons for exhibiting, say, a dinosaur skeleton composed of real and fake fossil bones instead of a complete original set, or for displaying a model of a space capsule instead of one that orbited the Earth. But the role of copies still raises larger questions about the mission of museums and the nature of authenticity. Does it matter if the works of art or historical objects on display are copies? Does it render the experience of visitors less meaningful? And are the institutions that don’t clearly identify the copies in some way shirking their responsibility to the public?

Unlike the typical visitor, I had gone in looking specifically for wording on labels that might indicate something is a copy. But I still felt duped at times.

The Lawrence at the African American Museum leaped out at me while I was on a press tour of the museum a few months after it opened to the public. I had seen the original at the Phillips dozens of times before. When I went back a little less than a year later and was surprised to notice it was still there with the same label, I decided to seek out other examples of faux art and artifacts that are easily mistaken for originals.

On a rainy, brisk day in October, I set out on my peculiar scavenger hunt, starting at the National Museum of the American Indian and working my way around the Mall over the course of a week and a half. I spent at least a couple of hours at each stop. (The National Museum of Natural History, where the mineral hall alone has 2,500 objects, took five.) Once I was done with the Mall, I hit the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, then the Phillips. My last stop was the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery by the White House. All told, I surveyed 12 Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips, scrutinizing labels for several thousand pieces of art and artifacts.

I discovered many of the objects that captivate tens of millions of annual visitors to Washington each year are not authentic, or at least not in a way that viewers might assume. To be clear, inauthentic objects represent a small percentage of the Smithsonian’s and National Gallery’s immense holdings, and the overwhelming majority of copies are labeled as inauthentic. Still, curators and museum leaders readily admit that visitors are unlikely to read many if any labels. And when they do read the fine print, the onus is on the public to parse the varied and often confusing terms.

At the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, visitors can lounge eyeing Rodin’s sculptures “The Burghers of Calais,” “Monument to Balzac,” “Crouching Woman” and “Walking Man.” But unless people spend some time examining the labels, they may not piece together that Rodin, who died in 1917, couldn’t have touched these particular objects, which were cast between 1953 and 1966. For example, one card reads: “Auguste Rodin, French, b. Paris, 1840-1917, Crouching Woman, 1880-82, enlarged 1907-11, cast 1962, Bronze. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966.”

The same is true of one of the two “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” sculptures at the National Gallery of Art, attributed to Edgar Degas. One of the Little Dancers (in wax) on display at the National Gallery is the only sculpture he ever exhibited; the other (in plaster) was cast posthumously. Degas’ heirs authorized casts of some of his sculptures — which were originally done in ephemeral materials such as wax and modeling clay — though Degas himself did not authorize anyone to do this after his death. These are now among 60 Degas sculptures that you can see at the museum.

A copy of Panel No. 1 of Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series” is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo illustration based on photo courtesy of the Phillips Collection)

A wall label in a different room from the Little Dancers explains much of this complicated history. And a label on the plaster Little Dancer notes that Degas lived from 1834 to 1917 and that the cast was possibly made in 1920 or 1921. As a visitor, it’s definitely possible to understand the situation — but it also seems reasonable to guess that many tourists never put all of this information together. (A museum spokeswoman said that Degas’ heirs authorized posthumous bronze casts to preserve and display a “crucial aspect of Degas’ creativity,” which was otherwise at risk of falling apart due to its fragile material — and that the posthumous plaster cast was made before the original sculpture had undergone repairs, so it allows viewers to compare the two.)

The Hirshhorn was one of the first museums in the world to put casting dates on labels, former senior curator Valerie Fletcher told me. (When I asked the museum for comment on its use of casts, I was referred to Fletcher.) The museum used to display posthumous Degas sculptures, too, but pulled them after deciding to show only casts authorized by their creators. The Rodin sculptures in the Hirshhorn garden meet that standard because he gave the French state permission to cast his works posthumously, and the Musée Rodin in Paris today holds those copyrights and sells new Rodin casts from time to time. (There are curators who deride even some of these copies as “chocolate bunny Rodins,” for their surfaces’ evocation of Easter candy.)

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.”

Of course, visitors need to read the labels to begin with — and many don’t bother. Jake Barton, founder and principal of New York-based Local Projects, which designed the exhibits at the National September 11 Memorial Museum and is working on Planet Word, a language-arts museum slated to open in Washington in the spring of 2020, told me studies suggest the average museumgoer spends anywhere from three to 17 seconds looking at a piece of artwork, including the label.

Unlike the typical visitor, I had gone in looking specifically for wording on labels that might indicate something is a copy. But I still felt duped at times. As I was leaving a small one-room exhibit, “Stories on Money,” at the American History Museum, which consists of about 100 paper bills and coins displayed in glass cases, I noticed one of the bills bore a “reproduction” label — but if visitors don’t look at it from the right angle, the light obscures that cautionary word. I went back and looked more closely at the other bills and saw the same lettering on about 30 examples of paper money in the exhibit; even a $5 bill from 2003 proved to be a reproduction. All of this was ironic given the exhibit’s exploration of counterfeiting. Elsewhere in the museum, objects can serve as stand-ins for other, similar objects. One example that Liebhold cited is a station wagon in a display about the suburban Chicago community of Park Forest. “Some visitors seeing the station wagon might think it was used in Chicago,” Liebhold explained, “but this particular car was owned and driven by a family that lived in Pasadena, California.” That fact is not noted on the label that accompanies the car — which now has Illinois license plates.

One would expect that a history museum would be the most likely to insist on displaying only original objects. But some curators actually give those institutions more leeway than others when it comes to relying on reproductions. Lubar, the former curator with the American History Museum, contends: “There is sometimes a higher truth that you get not from authentic objects, but from the curatorial understanding of what the truth was that you’re trying to explain.” A historical home, for instance, might have to choose which is more “real”: showing a beaten-up chair upon which a historical figure sat, a modern reproduction that better approximates the chair in its heyday, or a photograph of the chair. “Is it about authenticity of artifact, or authenticity of story?” Lubar says.

Sometimes the authenticity of story is inseparable from that of the object. Liebhold notes that Holocaust museums in particular prioritize real objects; the goal is to combat Holocaust deniers by demonstrating that “this really happened, and this wasn’t a fabrication.” Yet even these institutions can’t manage entirely without reproductions. At the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, viewers can smell the shoes confiscated from the Majdanek concentration camp, but both the gate to Auschwitz’s main camp and ovens from a crematorium elsewhere in the museum are casts (albeit ones that are clearly labeled). Still, the vast majority of its exhibits are real, and the experience of the Holocaust museum would probably not be the same if they were copies. (“We exhibit original items whenever possible. However, in some instances, exhibiting an original artifact can damage it, so reproductions or replicas may be used, and they are marked as such in the exhibition,” said Ramee Gentry, a content manager for the museum.)

At the Natural History Museum, the question of whether objects are real is often front and center and the level of disclosure is greater compared with some of the other institutions I visited. During my time there, I stopped at the dramatic perch on the second floor, where in one direction you can look down upon an enormous taxidermied elephant in the rotunda and in the other, you can survey the Sant Ocean Hall. None of the hall’s largest objects that are visible from this height are real, but visitors who read the labels below will see that each is identified as a “model.” An object that catches the light beautifully, a Lamarck’s carinaria, is also clearly labeled as a model, and two large whale skulls hanging from the ceiling are labeled “casts.”

On the second floor is an exhibit of dinosaur fossils. A label for a triceratops skeleton reads, “accurate replica of the actual fossil, made by museum staff,” and adds that the museum stores important, real specimens for safekeeping and scholarly study. “Real fossil or cast?” asks another label, which calls a skull “an actual fossil with a reconstructed horn,” while explaining that the triceratops skeleton next to it is a cast. “Museum-quality casts and scanned replicas aren’t fakes. They’re exact copies of real fossils that capture even minute details of structure,” it reads.

The permanent Fossil Hall downstairs is being renovated and is scheduled to reopen in June. I talked to Siobhan Starrs, exhibit developer for the Fossil Hall, who told me that the museum can’t force visitors to read labels, but her impression is that some read a substantive amount. The museum is developing a new labeling system for the hall, which will have texts in strategic places, including in front of the Tyrannosaurus rex; these will include skeletal diagrams that color-code which parts of a specimen are real and which are casts. “That’s a specific cue to help you know bone by bone,” she said, “and sometimes even a tiny section of an individual bone will be cast or filled in with plaster, so we will fill in and identify that square.”

Some of our aversion to viewing copies may be cultural. Fakes are seen differently, and even appreciated, in China and other countries, noted Vikan in the catalogue for the American University Museum’s recent exhibit on sculptor Jim Sanborn. The exhibit featured copies of ancient sculptures, which Sanborn commissioned from Cambodian artists and forgers. Sanborn presented the objects as forgeries, but also as beautiful objects.

Vikan noted that copies have been valued for their imitative skill throughout history. “What does fakery mean in a world where we typically know ancient Greek masterpieces only by way of their Roman copies, and where the Chinese have been creating astoundingly good copies of revered originals for many centuries?” he wrote in the catalogue.

But there remains the question of whether viewing copies somehow lessens the experience of going to a museum. One concern is that digital museums already exist online. As virtual reality improves and becomes more affordable, we may eventually be able to “visit” museums from home. If museums are filled with reproductions anyway, what will be the point of getting off the couch to see something that Lincoln didn’t actually touch? Or that Rembrandt didn’t paint?

For me, the question is like deciding whether to watch a baseball game at home or at the park. On my couch, I can pause and take a break as I like, and I can watch camera angles and replays that I would lack at the park; also, the beer in my fridge comes cheaper than ballpark prices. But rooting for the Red Sox at Fenway Park is a qualitatively different experience from watching on TV. The same goes for seeing art. A copy of “Mona Lisa” won’t motivate me to leave my apartment, because I can see the same thing on my computer, and even zoom in and see details that escape the naked eye. Yet the real thing, which Leonardo da Vinci touched in the early 16th century, is worth the trek for me. A copy won’t make me feel small and cause my mouth to drop in the presence of a masterpiece that is more than 500 years old.

Whatever you think about the value of seeing copies, the most important thing may be transparency. Brita Brenna, a University of Oslo professor who has studied copies, argues it’s wrong to categorically malign them. But she still thinks museums ought to label them clearly and treat them as worthy of scrutiny. “They could also do a much better job saying, why do we have this copy, is it a good copy, who made the copy, what did it cost?” Brenna says. In other words, we need to know what we’re looking at.

Back at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, standing in front of the copy of Lawrence’s Panel No. 1, Claire Schwadron of Takoma Park said she finds the whole “Migration Series” incredible. Schwadron was particularly drawn to the white background forms, which she said makes it look like the figures are “walking into clouds and the unknown.”

When told the work at the Smithsonian is a copy, Schwadron said she once saw the entire (real) series when it was on exhibit in New York. Here at the NMAAHC, she said she found the label and its reference to Bridgeman Images unclear. But she noted that she minded a copy less in a history museum than an art museum.She considered the African American Museum closer to the former.

The panel’s colors and its depiction of African Americans seeking better opportunities attracted Renita Miller, visiting from New Jersey. “It’s really compelling,” she said. “It feels like they are just crowded in trying to get to a better place in the North.”

I drew her attention to the reference in italics, at the end of the label, to the Phillips Collection and to Bridgeman Images. Miller speculated that the Smithsonian probably acquired the work from the Phillips. When I told her she was looking at a copy and not the original, Miller said, “That didn’t say all of that to me. I wouldn’t have known that unless you told me.”

Nevertheless, she saw value in the version at the African American Museum. “I still feel drawn to it regardless of whether it’s the real thing or not,” she said — with one caveat: “If it was an art museum, I would want to see the strokes.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Planet Word, a language arts museum, would be opening in December. It is slated to open in the spring of 2020. This story has been updated.

Menachem Wecker is a writer in Washington.

Credits: Story by Menachem Wecker. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.