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Even better than the real thing? The value of replicas at heritage sites

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Iona Abbey and St John's Cross on Iona

Two University of Stirling academics have co-authored a book looking at the value of replicas at heritage sites and in museums.

Dr Sally Foster and Professor Sian Jones, of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, have written ‘My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona’ – a book looking at the influence of perhaps Scotland’s best-known historic replica. This year marks the 50th anniversary of a concrete replica being erected on the site of an 8th-century carved stone cross on the Inner Hebridean island.

The replica is now recognised as having taken on such significance of its own that it was recently listed by Historic Environment Scotland as a Category A historic building of special architectural or historic interest. It is the first post-World War Two replica of any kind in Scotland to be listed in its own right – and is the only designation of any sort that places the focus on the replica, not the original.

St John's Cross on Iona

St John's Cross on Iona

St John’s Cross is a symbol of Iona, and is believed to have been the world’s first Celtic ringed high cross. The original monument was erected outside the entrance to a shrine chapel containing St Columba’s grave, where it was central to the daily lives of the monks. The cross was one of the highest artistic and technological achievements of the monastery that Columba founded in AD 563.

Dr Foster said: “Replicas of historic objects are widely used in heritage sites and museums, often in response to challenges around the original, such as damage, destruction, or restitution. In heritage contexts, these replicas are usually considered insignificant – the St John’s Cross replica was specifically excluded from a review of the designation of Iona Abbey in 2015 – but our research shows how replicas can acquire authenticity. 

“It unravels the part that social relations, craft practices, creativity, place, and materials play in the production and negotiation of their authenticity. We also look at how the underlying stories of human creativity, skill, and craftsmanship which go into replicas are often ignored because they are often viewed as mere surrogates for the missing ‘original’.

“Our research and this book demonstrate how replicas are important in their own right – acquiring aura, authenticity, and value. They can generate networks of relationships between people, places, and things, and St John’s Cross at Iona Abbey is the perfect case study of this.”

Dr Sally Foster and Professor Sian Jones

The book's authors, Dr Sally Foster and Professor Sian Jones

The book is one of the first qualitative social studies of historic replicas and the first in-depth cultural biography to give primacy to the life of a replica. It also tells new stories about the world-renowned island of Iona, and its internationally significant collection of carved stones.

‘My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona’ is available to order from Oxbow Books as either a hardback or e-book.

Elizabeth McCrone, Head of Designations at HES, said “Listing the St John’s Cross at category A has been a really interesting case. Can a replica really be important in its own right? This was the sort of philosophical point that we had to think about and the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.

“The Cross shows how something created not that long ago has quickly become a part of our cultural life and is already a valued part of our history.”

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