Research shows that the public wants to feel that they are participating in authentic activities. Choose a topic that maintains "content integrity" (fits your mission, collections, displays, and content), so that participants feel it is authentic to your institution. Then, whenever possible, use authentic materials in authentic environments.
Tips & Takeaways
- Try to include as much of the "real thing" and quality materials as possible. How could you make a program about your topic as authentic as possible?
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- Pick a program. What is one activity or object you could alter to make it more authentic? Is there a way to incorporate more authentic materials, be they real tools, the actual art supplies an artist used, or reproduction historical objects?
Young children often comment about how special it was to see the 'real thing.' When asked to talk about what they liked best, they often talked about places in the museum where they could see things up close, and if they could touch the objects and artifacts and have a multisensory interaction, the experience was even more memorable"
Mary Ellen Munley, Early Learning in Museums: A Review of Literature, 8.
Try to get an authentic object into people's hands to touch, examine, discuss, and reflect upon. For example, add a copy of an actual historic document when using a quill pen or use the authentic materials a real artist would use in an art project.
"The Real Thing"
It's not just about artifacts. People want authentic content, materials, environments, and activities from our institutions. Even reproductions can be authentic or inauthentic. So can the words you use, e.g. frigate instead of boat. Visitors can sense when they see or do something inauthentic, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly what is incorrect. 
- of undisputed origin, genuine.
- made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.
- based on facts; accurate or reliable
In the video below, Heather Nielsen reminds us not to "underestimate the attention you pay to the authentic, detail-oriented materials and program elements." Beverly Sheppard, drawing on a personal story, reiterates the importance of authenticity especially in this age of electronics:
You can add authentic elements to your programs by using reproduction items, methods, language, or materials. Use copies of scanned documents from your institution's archives or the special collections in your local library. Perhaps you have or can develop a teaching collection (an organized collection of expendable items set aside for hands-on, educational purposes) that you can let people touch and explore. Find out what artists and craftsmen really used - how much of those authentic materials can you incorporate into your program? How might you incorporate traditional methods of artisanship and craftsmanship into your program?
Here are two examples of applying authentic practices, materials, and ideas to programmatic elements in ways that complement the programmatic themes and aid in the dissemination of content:
"Tools of the Trade: Caulking" at the USS Constitution Museum
Caulking, or waterproofing, is an age-old trade practiced by shipwrights and still done today on USS Constitution (left and left center). In the program's first iteration, visitors used authentic tools but an inauthentic reproduction of planking made from modern 2 by 4s with a seam between them (center). It took time and creativity on the part of the facilitator to make visitors understand that those pieces of wood represented the planking of a ship. Now, participants use those same tools to bang actual wickum and oakum into a reproduced piece of bulwark, thus adding context and authenticity (right center and right). Click here to learn more about the development and refinement of this program.
Quill Pens, School Lessons, and Stagecoach Bills at Old Sturbridge Village
Old Sturbridge Village, an 1830s living history museum in New England, frequently uses quill pen activities with adults and children during their programs. For each program, though, participants use the quills to fill out an authentic, reproduction document appropriate to the program. In some cases it is a stagecoach bill, other times families try their hand at completing an 1830s school assignment. Each time, visitors use of the quill pen furthers the program topic.
Courtesy of broweboston.wordpress.com.
1. Wilkening, Susie and Donnis, Erica. “Authenticity? It Means Everything.” History News. Autumn 2008: 18-23. The results of a visitor survey at 13 outdoor history museums about how visitors to historic