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Fake (f)or Real: A History of Forgery and Falsification

Fake (f)or Real presents examples of falsification throughout history.

The exhibition is divided into six thematic sections: the predominant role of religion, the development of knowledge and modern science, nation-building, fighting total war, the era of consumerism and the development of mass media and social media. It illustrates that forgers prove to be experts who have their fingers on the pulse of their times, responding with pinpoint precision to the needs and expectations of their age.

The exhibition starts with a family portrait from antiquity where one family member has been erased next to a torn wedding photo from the 50s in Romania. Why are those two objects next to each other?

The erased family member is probably Geta who was a Roman emperor (209-211) known to have received an official sanction to be condemned to oblivion (damnatio memoriae). This term describes the attempted erasure of people from history, most often through the destruction of public images and the erasure of names from inscriptions. Geta was the brother and co-emperor of Caracalla and was murdered after being accused of conspiring against his brother. After his death, his images and inscriptions were destroyed and speaking or writing his name became an offence. However, historians such as Cassius Dio, Herodian and Philostratus provided accounts of Geta’s murder, and later historical research has uncovered the lengths to which Caracalla went to distort the historical record.

In a more contemporary context, totalitarian regimes attempted to erase the memory of certain people. The exhibition presents Ioan Pop’s torn wedding photograph, showing that physical violence against real or potential opponents of the system was followed by the destruction of memorabilia. Ioan Pop, a member of the Romanian anti-communist resistance, was erased from this personal photograph in the early 1950s by a Romanian secret police officer. The families of members of the resistance were persecuted and were forbidden to talk about their lost loved ones throughout the Communist period in Romania. This attempted erasure of memory was not successful and old stories were retold after 1989 and the fall of the Communist regime.

This raises a question: is it possible to ‘force’ a process of forgetting on the collective consciousness through a falsification of the historical record and the destruction of pieces of historical evidence? The case made clear that damnatio memoriae could only repress representation but not memory, especially since it is almost impossible to enforce forgetting without the adverse effect of bringing to mind the exact thing that was meant to be forgotten.

The last section of the exhibition, The era of post-truth?, allows visitors to discover the mechanics of disinformation in the mass media, on the Internet and on social media in an interactive way. The fact that there has never been such ease of access to information and opinions, and that their distribution has never been so rapid is leading to the growth of a post-truth culture, i.e., a political culture in which debate is driven by emotions and is disconnected from the truth, and in which catchy statements become viral while facts and clarifications are ignored.

Social media seem to bring people closer to one another but also allow them to live in a filter bubble, which means filtering out information that does not correspond to the opinions they already hold. This exacerbates the polarisation between people holding different opinions. Moreover, we live under the illusion that we are receiving more and more evidence supporting our point of view. The result is that understanding the other becomes difficult and the support of likeminded people makes us unlikely to change our minds. Filter bubbles may not produce fakes, but they do incubate them and help them spread: fabricated stories tap into the existing political prejudices of different groups of social media users.

Are you curious to discover the untold truths and stories behind the exhibition? Listen to the Fake For Real podcast series.

Laurence Bragard, Museum Educator