CBI Senior Research Fellows Aspray and Cortada’s Authenticity

A bit over three decades ago, as a history major at Macalester College, I was assigned and read the just released book, Miles Orvell’s The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880-1940 (University of North Carolina Press, 1989). I thought it was a wonderful study and it helped solidify my interest in technology, labor, consumption, design, and culture in history. Along with reading history of technology works by John Kasson, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, and Carroll Pursell in college, it was influential to me in deciding to pursue a Ph.D., and an academic career, in the history and sociology of science, technology, and medicine.

CBI Senior Research Fellows William Aspray and James W. Cortada (Bill and Jim) teamed up to author what I feel is the most important work on the history of authenticity since Orvell’s book, now long considered a classic. Orvell’s focus was on objects, while Aspray and Cortada’s is on time, place, people, and acts as they explore authenticity, and inauthenticity and misinformation, in heritage tourism.

The book’s subjects on the top of the back cover are “Tourism Studies” and “Information Studies.” It is not a common pairing. Rather, it is indicative of the new, uncharted road this pioneering boundary work takes. It is a road and multi-destination trip yielding many intellectual roadside attractions for readers, in essence, a wondrous, illuminating journey.

Cortada and Aspray also teamed up for Fake News Nation (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), a stellar case history-based survey of two centuries of misinformation and lies in American culture—from the Presidential Election of 1828 to the recognition of, and misinformation campaigns with, the climate crisis in recent decades. This insightful book, and others on misinformation, often focus on mass media, including newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the internet. While such forms of media make meaningful appearances in Authenticity, they are not center stage. This is a plus, as it is the connection to place and geography that adds most to the book’s richness.

Though academics in cultural studies and folklore studies have studied and written on heritage tourism, historians of science and technology have given far more attention to world’s fairs or international expositions. Such studies on these global expositions, and these fairs’ contents, tilt heavily toward visions of the present and future with the highest technology of the time, including far ranging science fiction type presentations. Importantly, they also offered panoramas of the past, some of the latter involving “pseudo-scientific” racism. Historians of science and technology have generally neglected ongoing, long-lived heritage sites until now with this path breaking book, and I am so glad that Aspray and Cortada tackled it.

Dala horse
The Dala Horse became the iconic image of Lindsborg's campaign to brand itself as "Little Sweden." Starting in the 17th century these carved wooden, painted horses were sold in central Sweden Image taken and provided by James W. Cortada.

Aspray and Cortada’s book is particularly well designed in providing three major case studies of heritage tourism using locales of differing types. First, they take us to a small site, Lindsborg, Kansas, known as Little Sweden. Next, we go to a large private site, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. And finally, readers are transported to a large public site, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The presentations and analyses with all three are intriguing and you get a real sense of the meaning, contexts, and impact of these sites in the larger sense of misinformation with heritage, public history, and underlying cultural, social, and political contexts.

Importantly, they emphasize authenticity might truly exist in a more micro sense, with a particular battle geography, its guns, its dress, or even its food. Meanwhile the larger consumer/tourist experience and overall message taken can nonetheless be quite inauthentic or limiting in its sense of American history, seeing trees rather than understanding forests.

So, in the end, it might be a distortion of the past—experience is subjective, contextual, and often more of an emotional response. At times the “product” (personage, locational, factual, and object authenticity) can be true, but simultaneously reinforce harmful stereotypes, including racist ones.

Another aspect of this book I really like is how it examines the ways in which things change with the Internet. The ubiquity of the Web made it an important tool of marketing heritage sites, of presenting information and misinformation, and for tourists, other sites on the Web offered potential tools for fact checking on mobile devices.

Finally, and perhaps most consequentially for other scholars, Aspray and Cortada draw lessons for information studies from the domain of heritage tourism studies. To briefly paraphrase, these lessons are:

  • Over time, there is a changing focus of tourism scholars from “being authentic” to the “process of authentication”
  • There is a fluidity of information over time, recognition of information not as true or false necessarily but consistent with contemporary mindsets
  • There is much value in ethnography
  • The importance of lessons from cases around the world
  • And finally, work drawn on in information studies tends to be sociological or psychological, while tourism scholars also draw on geography, economics, folklore studies, and other disciplinary approaches. Information studies scholars likely can benefit from taking a wide interdisciplinary lens in seeking to capture the true essence of heritage tourism.

I do wonder whether heritage sites create virtual reality tourism in the years and decades ahead, in a way I hope they do not. I am not a fan of the metaverse and think it likely overhyped. Will the frameworks of cultural critique and assessments of authenticity exhibited in this book remain for virtual spaces? Or will they be divorced and require wholly new modes and mechanism of analytical study?

Aspray and Cortada’s Authenticity is a very evocative and compelling book that breaks much new theoretical and narrative ground. It will be useful to historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and information and cultural studies scholars for years and decades to come. I highly recommend the book and congratulate Bill and Jim on this creative, insightful, and exquisite book and all it achieves.

Jeffrey R. Yost

Twtr: @JustCodeCulture




Back to Bits & Bytes