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What am I?

Do you know what this is? Do you think it’s real? Here’s a clue: it’s a relic of an iconic event in early 21st-century North America.

On the last visit to the National Marine Corps Museum, I watched the tourists circle objects at the end of the traditional galleries and displays, and overheard a woman ask her companions:

What’s this a replica of?

Reader, I cringed– and not for the sentence construction.

What's this a replica of?

What’s this a replica of?

And then I stepped back. I thought that for someone my age it would be obvious. Here, have some additional museum context.

In a museum where everything is real, how does a visitor come to ask not only if that World Trade Center steel beam is a replica, but what is it replicating? I’m not sure semiotics can save us here. My first, New York Times-reading, media-soaked, Northeast Corridor response was, How can you miss that? How can you not recognize that, let alone mistake the steel and concrete relic for a replica?


Ah, hubris. There is a label, though I have seen better. Would it be more helpful in a larger font, turned perpendicularly to the I-beam? Possibly. But the lesson that’s deeper than label formatting and placement is recognizing how much we take for granted. Our visitors, even those we assume to be educated consumers of media and information, may not share our knowledge base. They may not read objects or images as readily as we think they do; we certainly cannot assume they’re all taking away the same information– and that has nothing to do with education or background.

Everyone truly sees the world differently. How, and what, we choose to put on a label should always be grounded in remembering that we do not all share the same information. Context is critical, and probably would have made these relics more real, and less replica.