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Fakes and Originals

Our collection is vast and over the years we've collected some items that are 'fake' or replicas. But what does that really mean and how important is it that objects are considered 'real' or authentic?

It's always a challenge to research the history and origins of objects from our collection, a process that every museum undergoes. All objects have lived a life and they all have a story to tell. Some replicas have become part of a museum's collection intentionally for use as handling items within the learning team, allowing school visits to get hands-on. Others may have been acquired to use as props to set a scene in a new exhibition.

But what is 'authenticity'? Are some replicas now an authentic historical object in their own right?

In our collection, we have some very good Sheffield Fire Office armbands, all of which are actually handmade replicas created for use by the Sheffield Fire Brigade to showcase insurance fire brigade uniforms for their centenary Parade around 60 years ago. Whilst these objects aren't original 18th century armbands they are now, arguably, historical originals in their own right. They tell a story of the Sheffield Fire Brigade's history, their appreciation of their own early origins and tell a story of the notable historical occasion which is the Brigade's centenary celebration event.

Staying with the theme of the Sheffield Fire Office we care for a horse-drawn fire engine which has been painted in Sheffield Fire Office livery. Now to most people this might be taken on face value. But to us and other museums we look to see if this might be a potential disguise...

Was this fire engine originally Sheffield Fire Office, might it have started with another brigade and moved to Sheffield in its operational lifetime or has it been repainted in contemporary times? How do we find this out and most importantly, why on earth does it matter?

Museum Detectives

So how might we go about working out the history of something like this? Now to the lay person red is red but to our professional team (or fire engine nerds) the key is in the shade of red. When attempting to establish if a horse-drawn fire engine has been refurbished you can examine the colour red that has been used. The pigment in the paint to make a bright red (fire engine red or even post office red) was not possible until around the 1920s. So just simply down to the colour, you can see if it's been refurbished or not. But again, it can be tricky to work out exactly when and for what reason.

If you then want to take the detective work a step further you can strip back a small part of the paintwork to see if anything still survives underneath. This is a task that is only undertaken by specialists and it's a decision that is not taken lightly. Once you begin to strip away paint work there's no going back, whilst you can always employ the specialised hand of a conservator to repair that paint work, it's never going to be the original that you've taken away.

Going back to our fire engine...

So, with this particular fire engine we're able to track down the sale history from it leaving the Sheffield Fire Office to form part of the new Sheffield Fire Brigade. We then find information which lists it as being moved into a large factory to have a life as a works fire engine. The paper trail then shows us that it eventually wound up in a transport museum before joining our collection back in Sheffield.

P.S. See! That's why you should always keep a receipt; you never know when you'll need to remember where your purchase has come from. Plus it helps us historians later down the line, so be kind.

Ghostly shadows

Now onto a ghostly object in our collection... have you ever seen the very large painting of Victorian Chief Constable John Jackson in the museum's entrance? If you stand to the side of the painting, as you look up, it looks like there's a ghostly figure just to the left of his head and when you look very closely you will start to spot eyes, nose and hair. Once you've spotted it you'll never miss it again, so apologies for ruining that one.

Behind every good man is a great woman...

Behind stately-looking John Jackson is actually a woman! But why is she there? Well she's not supposed to be! In the 19th century canvases were very expensive, particular ones of this size so it was not uncommon for some artists to save a bob or two and simply paint over another painting, giving them a (sort of) brand new canvas to create something entirely new. Whilst we probably won't ever know who the lady is and why she was painted to start with she is as much a part of the object's history as John Jackson himself.

Art on helmets

Is it a helmet or is it a piece of artwork? We have several old fire helmets in our collection that have been repurposed and painted. Some were decoratively painted at the time; others were painted years or decades later. Are these now art in their own right? Was this Edinburgh helmet pictured painted to simply celebrate the fire brigade's centenary or another special occasion? Or was it painted by a private collector, contemporary artist or other heritage collection? Whilst we can't truly know we believe this was originally a 1970s helmet which has been painted to resemble a much older fire helmet. Whilst it's a convincing disguise where the paint has worn around the helmet's edge you can see glimpses of the original colour peeking out. But does this mean the object is less important or tells less of a story? No. Whilst it's not a beautiful original 19th century helmet it tells its own story.

So what makes an object special? Is it how old it is? The stories behind it? Its original use or its changes over time? The answer to that is probably unique to every individual. But like individuals our objects are unique. They tell us and our visitors so much, from the reason it was made to how it was used. Who owned it, the events it went through and the changes that may have been made to it are all intricacies that make the ordinary extra-ordinary. A helmet may be just a helmet, but once we know who wore it, what incidents it might have been to and where it ended up brings that simple, ordinary object to life.

Whilst museums will always agree that the provenance of an object is vital the more challenging task is determining what of an object is 'original'. Going back to our original quandary, if a fire engine was repainted in the 1940s is that just an interesting part of its story? If so, what about if it was repainted in the 1990s? Is that still a valuable part of the object's history and life? Should we try and retain that or do we revert back to the 1940s colours? But if we do that, should we not revert back to the original factory colours? Which is most significant can change depending on who you speak to, the purpose behind the question and the institution that object might be in. But I suppose it all boils down to is a car still original once you've changed the oil and fit a new tyre?

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