Authenticity, and bears

The scene: Roger Williams Natural History Museum, Providence, Rhode Island. A group of twenty third-graders has just arrived. The docent settles them down, tells them to use their inside voices and their walking shoes. But one boy can’t wait. His hand shoots up as soon as the docent asks for questions. Is it real?

He’s been staring at a taxidermied bear. It hasn’t moved, as far as he knows. But it’s in a cage, sort of, surrounded by Plexiglas, and it’s pretty scary. The docent reassures him. It’s real, but it’s not alive. And then she goes on to explain in more detail: its skin is real, but it’s filled with stuffing. I think she says, like a stuffed teddie bear.

The kids go on to ask other questions, but I keep thinking about the bear. Is it real? Is it half-real? Real on the surface? Was it once real, and so retains some aura of realness? Would it be more real if it were, say, a mummified bear? How about a bear skin in a collection drawer, without the fake stuffing inside? That somehow seems more real, but less bear-like, less authentic. How about a bear skin rug? That’s real, but it’s no longer a bear.

One might imagine a chart of realness:

Bear in wilderness

Bear in zoo

Bear in wilderness, seen on a bear-cam

Bear in wilderness, seen on an edited tv show

Taxidermied bear in zoo

Photo of bear

Video cartoon of bear

Drawing of bear

And for each of these, one might imagine a further level of authenticity based on what we know about them – the story-telling we do around them. For some of those who saw the movie Grizzly Man there are no bears more real than the bears in that movie. The movie documents the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, using video he shot of the bears he lived with. We know their story.

And no moment is more real, in that movie, than when we don’t see them, don’t even hear them, but just see Werner Herzog’s face react to the sounds of the bear killing Treadwell. It’s at least three steps removed from a real bear – an image of a person listening to a recording of a real bear – but its story, and our knowledge of the bears based on the rest of the movie, compounded by Herzog’s expressiveness, makes it real.

More real than the stuffed bear at the Roger Willams Natural History Museum.

Probably.

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