Authenticity of 3D Objects

Media forms are constantly calling into question each other’s ability to represent the authentic, and these remediations raise the possibility of the decay of aura, the loss of authenticity of experience.

Bolter et al.


With advancing technology come many opportunities, but also challenges. In order to keep the visitors (whether physical or virtual) engaged, an increasing number of cultural heritage sites chooses to digitally expand their traditional activities, while still fulfilling their main goals of collection, preservation and display (Younan & Treadaway, 2015). International Standards Organisation (ISO) pinpoints three elements of good record keeping practice: content, context and structure (physical aspects) (in Patrick-Burns, 2015). Maintaining a balance of these in an object helps institutions, such as museums, to reach their goals. Digital 3D models seem to be a tempting solution for a modern museum or a gallery to display their collection in a modern and interesting way, accessible to a bigger public. However, not only are 3D models copies, but they also exist on the verge of reality and imagination (Younan & Treadaway, 2015). Because they are digital reproductions, the ambiguity of authenticity and Benjamin’s (1936) aura is widely questioned. Original objects have their presence in time and space – while this makes it possible to inspect their authenticity, it also indicates the existence of aura. How authentic and auratic are their digital copies? As 3D models and their method, photogrammetry, have grown in popularity for use in cultural heritage institutions, given the opportunity to act as a co-creator of a digital, 3D collection, it is necessary to explore issues around authenticity and aura of 3D-modelled objects to correctly present them.

The Project what is it about?

Other Media Studies master students and I were given a task to digitise objects from the collection of the Nederlands Mijnmuseum. Each group consisted of four members and their aim was to present their theme, first through 3D models and in the next period interactively on a website. The choice of objects was made after a tour of the museum with two volunteer guides, previous miners, who brought us closer to understanding the mining culture and their daily chores. Motivated by this and limited by technical aspects of 3D rendering, each group picked eight items and then worked on creating 3D models from photographs. Playing as archivists or curators, we were responsible for creating an authentic experience for virtual visitors. In order to achieve the aim, this essay analyses the theoretical background behind creating 3D models, authenticity and aura.

why do people trust objects in museums?


Institutions and their power over cultural heritage create authority, which in turn supports trust in the provided information being correct and reliable (Dewdney et al., 2013).


An intangible trait of the original object, created by its history, context, atmosphere, place in space and time (Benjamin, 1936).

Institutions and their power over cultural heritage create authority, which in turn supports trust in the provided information being correct and reliable (Dewdney et al., 2013). Also the authenticity of 3D models posted on an official museum’s page is supported by this authority. However, the models are usually not given as much trust as physical objects. A manuscript sewn together, a cracked vase, visible brush strokes on a painting – all these tell a story. Visitors often have a chance to see all the indicators of an object’s history. This creates an aura, an intangible trait of the original object, created by its history, context, atmosphere, place in space and time (Benjamin, 1936). Therefore, the aura reassures the viewer of the object’s authenticity. Benjamin, who claims aura is only present in the original object, argues “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” (1936, p. 218). Latour and Lowe (2011), however, support the theory of aura’s ability to migrate. They present an example of the original Mona Lisa in The Louvre and compare its surroundings to a digital reproduction in Venice – even though the visitor knows which one is the original, she prefers the reproduction and struggles to explain the experience summing it up with “come here to see it for yourself” (Jones et al., 2017). Therefore, this suggests aura can migrate onto reproductions, such as 3D models. Benjamin (1936), however, insisted the mechanical age brings the decay of aura, meaning the more copies are made, the less aura the original has. However, many have argued, as copies popularise the object and create a certain atmosphere around it (Jones et al., 2017). Latour and Lowe (2011) also notice the obsession of the world to always trace the original. They link it to the fact, that more reproductions can be created more easily and by a broader public, which makes the original more valued, supporting its aura. Importantly, each of the reproductions also have their story of creation. Jones et al. (2017) conducted a study at the end of their project to render cultural heritage sites in Scotland in 3D, which pointed to migration of aura “through both attention to the aesthetics of digital visualisations and active community participation in their production” (p.3). Cameron (in Jones et al., 2017) suggests, a digital object can even gain its own aura, as the process of its creation is an important task, which makes a story. Especially for the people involved in the project, the 3D objects gain a certain significance, while becoming anchored as important cultural items, implying the creation of aura.


Furthermore, aura is associated with the authenticity of an object (Benjamin, 1936). Cultural heritage items are often valued for being authentic: original and credible, as it magnifies their significance and credibility (Jones, et al., 2017). This comes from a materialist approach, that authenticity is innate for material cultural heritage objects, which is popular in heritage conservation (Jones, 2010). It has even been linked to institutions and authorities, who bear the power to constitute objects culturally. Recently, however, many academic researchers and critics took a constructivist stance, claiming authenticity is rather socially constructed (Jones, 2010). Authenticity is about proving the object is what it appears to be, therefore, visual and contextual information need to confirm it (Patrick-Burns, 2015). Jones (2010) describes authenticity as an experience, which is influenced by relationships between objects, people and places. As creating 3D models for institutions is a team task, the digitised items gain special meaning to their authors and the group. Therefore, developed links to objects and places grant authenticity to the model and can even prompt the creation of an auratic experience. 

Moreover, Patrick-Burns (2015) shows authenticity is a fluid idea, which is dependant on the context and purpose. This means, if the use of 3D models is motivated by the reliability of the medium, it supports preservation of heritage. As long as the object is not altered, but translated into the digital, it can visually serve as a good and reliable representation. However, the outcomes depend on the software, which is not always reliable and presented with lack of information from photographs can easily create a false model. This highlights the importance of photography skills in the early stages of 3D modelling. Moreover, as the role of the archivist is to pick items worth preserving, it can bias the context and surroundings of the object, even change its meaning for the cultural memory. Therefore, the quality of the model depends on the person’s skills and the software, deeming authenticity very case-dependant.

Interestingly, 3D models are a special case of reproductions, as they exist on the verge of reality and imagination (Younan & Treadaway, 2015). Such ambiguity is common to new technologies, which is why the authors compare 3D models and the objects they represent to a performance and sheets of music. The music is translated into notation, which can be decoded and used to play the music, hence, proving its authenticity. Similarly, 3D models are binary representations of objects. Therefore, even though the model and the object are not the same, 3D model offers a virtual entry to a readable representation of an object. From this point of view, therefore, 3D models can be considered authentic as long as they correctly represent the object, its visual features, the context. Moreover, a 3D model can also become embedded in the culture and become authentic.

authenticity in the project

During the process, the creator takes important choices, which all affect the end result. Therefore, it is necessary to support the decisions with knowledge and information. 

 According to McLuhan, technologies are not neutral, even though they might appear to be (1964). Despite requiring a human to operate them, their affordances always carry something with them. Therefore, decisions made to represent any object needs to acknowledge its history and importance for the cultural memory, as well as the medium itself. Failing to do so can yield falsified results and change the narrative of the object. 

Furthermore, choosing an item to digitise is most often biased due to personal experiences and preferences. Perhaps discussing in a group can help to eliminate some personal preferences and to make an informed, collective decision. Our group picked all of the objects together based on their potential fit with the website’s content and our theme – introduction to mining. The decision was taken after a tour with a volunteer guide, who had worked as a miner, aiding to ground our choices on knowledge, not just the looks of the object. 

Ensuring authenticity of the object in a 3D model is very dependant on taking photos. It is immensely important to correctly adjust the camera settings and the set up, so the object appears as “real” as possible. The colours, textures, scratches, shapes need to be correctly photographed

Although digital 3D models can correctly present the object, as in being true to its detail in structure or shape, they are still reproductions. Therefore, even though the content remains intact, structure is diminished to visuals and context disappears. In order to ensure higher authenticity, 3D models created for the National Mining Museum in Heerlen were contextualised by creating annotations and short descriptions. In the future, the objects used on the website will be further explained and put into context. By being transparent and sharing metadata, viewers can easily check the photographs have not been altered. At a later stage, viewers will be also able to read an about page, depicting the authors of the collection and the story around the project.


Digitisation of museums’ collections becomes increasingly popular. To protect the cultural heritage and memory, it is necessary curators and creates of the models take steps to ensure authenticity of objects available online. Only by providing the audience with trustworthy and genuine information, including the shape of the object as well as its context and surroundings, can these collections be viewed as authentic and reliable. Authenticity of an object is a social construct, which was thought to only be present in the original. As the leading theory behind authenticity has changed, 3D models were granted a chance at authenticity, given the information provided digitally correspond to the physical. Well-rendered 3D models can aid in serving the purposes of cultural institutions, if both their visual and contextual information are provided.


Benjamin, W.  (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Arendt (Eds). Illuminalions (219-226). Cape.

Bolter, J., MacIntyre, B., Gandy, M., & Schweitzer, P. (2006). New Media and the Permanent Crisis of Aura. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 12(1), 21-39.

Dewdney, A., Dibosa, D., & Walsh,V. (2013). Post Critical Museology: Theory and Practice in the Art Museum. New York: Routledge.

Jones, S. (2010). Negotiating Authentic Objects and Authentic Selves. Beyond the Deconstruction of Authenticity. Journal of Material Culture, 15(2), 181-203.

Jones, S., Jeffrey, S., Maxwell, M., Hale, A., & Jones, C. (2017). 3D Heritage Visualisation and the Negotiation of Authenticity: The ACCORD Project. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 24(4), 333-353.

Latour, B., & Lowe, A. (2011). The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through Its Facsimiles. In T.Bartscherer & R. Coover (Eds). Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Mentor/Penguin.

Patrick-Burns, J. A. (2015). Archives as Artifacts: Authenticity, Preservation and Significant Properties in Microfilm and Digital Surrogates. Journal of the Society of Georgia Archivists, 33(1), 49-61.

Younan, S., & Treadaway, C. (2015). Digital 3D Models of Heritage Artefacts: Towards a Digital Dream Space. Digital Applications in Archeology and Cultural Heritage, 2(4), 240-247.

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