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January 14, 2013



I'm distantly familiar with the phenomenon of originality/authenticity, but I think I should delve more deeply. I absolutely love "historical cooties" as a term. I'm wondering how I can make this into some kind of program! What an interesting idea.

Phil Katz

This is closely related to the notion of "charisma," the uncanny power that emanates from holy people and their relics -- and reminds us that museums had their origins, in part, in the collections of relics maintained by the Church. The term "dark charisma" has been used to describe Hitler, so it might be another synonym for "historical cooties" in the example you give here (http://www.warrelics.eu/forum/history-research-3-reich-ww2/the-dark-charisma-of-adolf-hitler-234999/).


Fun to read... beautifully written and very interesting. I need to do further research. Marilyn

Matthew Wright

I love this. I think historical cooties will have to start being used around here!

Catherine Gilbert

This reminds me of Kiersten Latham's thinking on the Numinous Experiences with Museum Objects http://www.academia.edu/187458/Numinous_Experiences_with_Museum_Objects

Bill Farmer

Here at Fort Boonesborough, we see the positive effect of "Historical Cooties" when we hand someone a clay brick and ask them to look closely at it, feel the surfaces, etc. The Cooties reveal themselves when we explain that they are holding a brick made by slaves during the last quarter of the 18th century for what is likely the first brick house built in Kentucky. To watch the reactions is truly amazing.
"Historical Cooties" - I love it!
Bill Farmer, Fort Manager, January 15

Katie Bowell, Museums Askew

The idea of magical contagion (and historical cooties!) seems quite complementary to discussions I've had around the idea of "emotional safety" in museums - the steps taken to help people feel comfortable around objects heavy with emotional baggage. It can be a very real feeling, and it can definitely make it difficult at times to work with certain objects or content arcs. But it can also be amazing - I remember feeling extra sassy after working with some vintage showgirl outfits.

I wrote about my own process of "avoiding the risk of contagion," as it were, here: http://museumsaskew.com/2011/12/03/emotional-safety-in-museums/


What a wonderful read and spot on with the emotional catch. I work in an historical house museum and visitors comment on the power of physically experiencing real history of the object. Historical Cooties - great concept.


Really quite inspiring! Thank you Susie. We too, will try to work on your thoughts for our visitor programs here at the science museum in Milan.

Susie Wilkening

Thanks to all of you for your comments. This is a complex topic, and I'm glad I was able to present it clearly enough to connect with you and provoke your thoughts. And special thanks to Phil, Catherine, and Katie for providing links to complementary posts . . . as we push deeper, this is helpful.

KF Latham

Good stuff, Susie! I was just going to suggest some publications/research, including my own, and I saw Catherine already posted it! Thanks, Catherine! And the good news, come April, you don't have the read the whole darn dissertation bc its coming out in an article. I'm also working now on another study--since 2011--on "the real thing" in museums which should wrap up perhaps this summer. You should also look at Elee Wood's work on objects as well as papers we've done together, especially this one on Phenomenological (Imaginative) Touch, Wood, E. & Latham, K.F (2011). The Thickness of the Things: Exploring the Museum Curriculum through Phenomenological Touch. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 27(2): 51-65.

Tricia WR

Thank you for your article. The phrase, "The Aura of the Original", was derived from Walter Benjamin's 1936 Marxist essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Benjamin, W. (1968). Hannah Arendt. ed. At that time Hitler was the Chancellor of Germany. It is interesting that you chose 'Hitler's Tea Cup'.
Benjamin intended to describe a theory of art that would be "useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art." Though the essay is specifically about art within a Capitalist context, his insights on authenticity, particularly in regards to reproduction are applicable.
Benjamin also explores the affects and effects of exhibition. Comparing historic and religious works, meant for private and limited viewing, to modern art and its intentional publicity.
A bit cerebral and dense but interesting within this context.

Susie Wilkening

Thanks for your comment, Kiersten! I've been curious about your work, so I am glad you reached out and hope we can discuss our (complementary, I suspect) work in more detail.

And I did not expect to be referred to a Marxist essay, Tricia, but I'll take a look. Insights can often be found in unexpected places. Thank you.


I am a young museum professional who dreams of helping visitors learn through experiences with those historical cooties. I saw it in the Smithsonian's American History museum at the touch carts and I got more than one case of the chills (and an overwhelming sadness) when visiting the Natural History Museum's Written in Bone. It was the exhibit that I have been the most emotionally tied to ever. I suggest looking up the Boy from Leavy Neck facial reconstruction to see what I mean.

Also, the television show Warehouse 13 does a fabulous job of showing a popular culture idea of historical cooties. I highly recommend it for the interesting perspective on objects in museums from a popular culture perspective.


Rachel P. Maines and James J. Glynn wrote an article called "Numinous Objects" that was published in The Public Historian, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter 1993). They discuss relics, memorabilia, or icons that have psychological rather than material significance. Their term is "numinous" object or place. This is a fascinating subject that goes to the heart of why museums exist. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/227859009_Numinous_Objects


Do you think this will play a role in the way people experience exhibits that contain 3D replica's?

For instance, the Smithsonian Institure replicated a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson using a 3D printer and placed it in the National Museum of African-American History.

I have read articles stating that some curators are contempleting the benefits of creating more of these replicas and safely archiving the originals.

For me persoannly, that would kind of devalue the entire experience.


Thanks so much Susie! The comments everyone has made are interesting as well. Beyond the historical cooties within the object is the person's use of their imagination to visualize Hitler using the tea cup. They would also need to know the story of Hitler, because if they didn't have the history knowledge the impact would not be as strong, of course. I used to share many different museum objects with students in classrooms during outreach lessons. While one child would exclaim "yum" when learning an object was made of deerskin, another refused to touch it and cried out "poor Bambie!"

As we all know our experience and knowledge base impacts our interaction with the object before us. When the original energy remains within an object, it is as if we are time travelers and immediately get swept away to another time and place. I remember viewing a 'soul-catcher' on display within the NY Museum of Natural History's collection of Northwest Coast objects. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I attempted to imagine how it was used by a shaman. Historical Cooties for sure!

There 'ain't nothin' like the real thing baby! So Bob, I agree, while its practical to have 3-D printers to duplicate and help conserve the real objects, it is clearly not the same experience.

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