Replicas in the context of sustainable tourism (by Stuart Jeffrey)

This short post is intended to raise a question rather than to offer specific solutions. It poses a question about the operation of replicas in the context of a world where environmental sustainability is an existential issue and where mass tourism, at least pre-pandemic, is a major contributor to environmental degradation at both the local and the global scale. This post focuses on digital replicas and acknowledges, but does not discuss, the materials of some physical reproduction, e.g. the plastic used in much 3D printing of digital content, or the non-trivial power usage associated with digital content storage and delivery, each of which also raise issues of sustainability.

With tourist traffic comes the tourist economy and the beneficial contribution this makes to the livelihoods of many individuals and communities globally; tourism is, after all, the largest industry in the world. However, mass tourism, especially that involving long-distance travel and travel by air, has also been identified as a key source of pollutants, notably carbon dioxide and the subsequent environmental impact these entail. Yet, tourism sustains many cultural heritage organisations and institutions that would otherwise need to find other funding streams. Even organisations that otherwise champion sustainability in their own internal operations, and promote it through policy, may ultimately rely on tourist revenue.

What impact does the status of a replica have on these broader global issues? This single question can be broken down into multiple other intriguing questions, but I will focus on one. Does the status of a replica as an auratic object encourage or discourage people to seek out the original? More specifically, does an auratic replica, one that extends from the original, but can be conceived of as something more than and distinct form the original, increase or decrease tourist traffic to the physical location of the object that is the source of the replica?

does an auratic replica … increase or decrease tourist traffic to the physical location of the object that is the source of the replica?

The replica on tour

Many replicas in the past were generated with the express purpose of allowing people access to a version of a thing when physical access to the original was difficult. Think about plaster casts of classical statuary and how elite and exclusive the Grand Tour was in the 18th and 19th centuries. The only way many people could appreciate these objects in three dimensions was through replicas, which were distributed globally. So, in this case it is a version of the object that travels, not its audience, and this was the common arrangement until the advent of mass tourism in the late 20th century. 

Touring to visit the replica

The impact of mass tourism was seismic in social, cultural, economic and, sadly, environmental terms. It also changed our relationship with some forms of replica.  Somehow their (arguable) status as surrogates becomes accentuated now the original is within the grasp of many, many more people (bearing in mind that in global terms mass tourism remains the domain of the economically advantaged). Some replicas, such as the concrete St John’s Cross on the Isle of Iona, clearly have a significance distinct from their original and their own complex and compelling genesis stories (see Foster and Jones 2020). However, these operate in the opposite way to transportable and shareable replicas such as plaster casts. In the case of the St John’s Cross, the replica is explicitly intended to act as a substitute for the original in geospatial terms; it is very specifically tied to an exact location, i.e. you have to go to the site of the original to see the replica.  (A co-produced digital replica of the concrete replica is available via Sketchfab.)

The St John’s Cross replica via Sketchfab.

Do digital replicas encourage visiting a physical original?

How does the relationship between physical location and replication work with digital replicas though? Some of us with long memories, and who were around when the World Wide Web broke the military and academic stranglehold on the internet, may well remember the concern that the immediate proliferation of digital cultural heritage content caused in certain quarters. There was a brief moment of anxiety in the 1990s when the curators of sites and objects believed that digital records and representations would inhibit footfall, and thus income, at the sites of the original (including where that site was an institution such as a museum or gallery). The concern was that potential audiences would have their curiosity about an object or a past culture sated by the ubiquity of online information and imagery. Visitors would no longer feel the need to travel to see in person what they could apprehend online.

The truth turned out to be almost the exact opposite, with almost any representation of a cultural site or object reinforcing its significance and driving visitors to the original. Now the debate is around how too much visibility online, acting essentially as advertising for the original, increases footfall and ultimately raises issues of sustainability – either in terms of direct damage where sites suffer over-crowding or erosion, or indirectly, where long distance visitors to an object generate urgent environmental consequences through the use of fossil fuels and other commodities.

Can digital replicas offer an alternative?

Is this issue of digital representations of cultural heritage sites and objects acting as drivers to the original a consequence of the quality or nature of the representations being presented?

There is more than one way of judging the quality of a replica or a replication process, but for the purposes of this argument, high quality would mean a replica that has grown beyond its status as a copy and one that has accrued value in its own right. Does a high-quality replica act in the same way as multiple lower-quality representations (i.e. driving tourism) or can they have an environmental benefit by reducing travel footprint by dint of being accessible digitally? Would this even be a desirable outcome in all circumstances?

Replicas and replication is a very exciting field of study at the moment. New ideas concerning the value of replicas as important cultural artefacts in their own right are being reified and increasingly acknowledged and adopted by managers and curators. My own research has focussed strongly on what happens to the aura of an object, people’s attachment to it and its affect when it is replicated, especially when the replica is translated into the digital realm. Questions of aura touch on important aspects of a replica’s context and its mode of production. Intentionality, authorship, ownership and longevity, as well as other contextual aspects of the replica all play a role in how a replica is subsequently received. I have looked at the value of creative response in digital representations and focussed too on sites that are difficult to access for many audiences. What facilitates the migration of an auratic quality from an original to a replica or the creation of new forms of aura around a replica seems contingent on a number of interconnected factors. However, I and others have argued that despite this complexity, replicas, including digital replicas, do indeed accrue forms of aura to themselves.

One example of the kind of digital replica I am referring to here are the Digital Laocoön. This project, a collaboration between SimVis and ISO Design, created a digital replica of a plaster-cast replica of a classical marble statue that is itself likely a replica of an even earlier bronze original (Jeffrey et al 2021). This replica forms part of a much richer package of creative and contextual information, presented in ways that exploit the affordances of immersive VR. Crucially, it tells the story of the cast, its long history at the art school, its damage during a fire at the Macintosh Building of the GSA, its subsequent conservation and, sadly, its destruction in a further fire in 2018. There is a First Person POV walk-through video of users engaging with digital replica available online. The Digital Laocoön is not just a digital replica, it is a new thing, that binds together multiple stores and layers of context and presents them in a way that goes beyond the possibilities offered by the original.

Historic and archive images of the Laocoön in use showing the integration of contextual data with the digital model.
Rich additional AV content discoverable via gaze activation, showing the processes of conservation around the plaster cast and the network of people involved.

The further example is GSA/NTS/BBC/Aaron May VR immersive of Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa, where the digital representation of this famous site is enriched and transformed by newly commissioned music to create an output that relates to (rather than simply tries to replicate) but extends the experience of the original (see BBC Sounds 2019 ‘The Virtually Melodic Cave’, Jeffrey 2021).

Immersive Seascape created for the HARPS project (Fingal’s Cave, Isle of Staffa – GSA, National Trust for Scotland and Glasgow University)

COVID restrictions and the rush online

Clearly the academic discourse around the value of replicas is not going to square the circle of balancing economic benefit with the environmental impact of cultural tourism, but can it play some small part in this debate?

One of the near-universally acknowledged effects of the COVID lock-down and travel restrictions around the world has been to highlight how much we value freedom of movement, social contact and the ability to seek out new experiences. People have responded to the restrictions on these aspects of their life in resourceful and imaginative ways, and indeed many have discovered new pleasures in small and local things. However, living with a partner, friend or in a happy family group, near green space and with security of income allows these positive responses to emerge more readily. It is easy to imagine that living alone in poverty without outside access would make it harder. Importantly, in making these restrictions tolerable for everyone, is the understanding that one day they will end.  What has not become more appealing to the most people, I would argue, is a long-term existence where access to cultural heritage is restricted to online consumption from within our own isolated physical bubbles. This seems like a grim vision of a dystopian future, and one that would only further distance us from the colourful, physical and social lives of the people who created the content being represented. However, our recent experience of being restricted in physical travel may in fact be repeated in the future because of political and social responses to climate change. While this may be a gradual process, by what means, how far and how frequently we travel for non-essential purposes may change. Can the current restrictions give us some insight into how replicas and representation will affect us in the future?

Can the current restrictions give us some insight into how replicas and representation will affect us in the future?

There has been much work undertaken on the last few decades to try and understand the nature of digital replicas and how people respond to them. Fundamental to that work is an unpicking of the complex web of factors that allow them to operate as more than ‘re-mediations of the authentic stuff’ (Geismar 2012). The corollary of this is an acknowledgement that simply recording an object in three dimensions and somehow making this data available online may undermine the value of both the original and the replica. Without consideration and explicit referencing to the multiple factors around in its production, particularly the network of relations involved and the status of the makers, it can be a sterile representation operating only to signpost the original. Is it the unsatisfying nature of this type of record that engenders a desire or a curiosity to see the original?  

I worry that in the institutional rush to provide content online as an alternative for lack of physical access during COVID restrictions, a lot of thought and effort that has previously gone into finding the ways that digital replicas can operate as things in themselves may fall by the wayside and a lot of valuable lessons will be unlearned.

in the institutional rush to provide content online as an alternative for lack of physical access during COVID restrictions, a lot of thought and effort that has previously gone into finding the ways that digital replicas can operate as things in themselves may fall by the wayside and a lot of valuable lessons will be unlearned

In concluding, it is obvious that issues surrounding the relationship between authentic and auratic replicas, and questions of sustainability, are complex and are not going to be resolved in a short discussion. However, it might be possible to begin to argue that representations or replicas that are not intended to be things in themselves, to bring something new to an audience that cannot be experienced via the original, will simply act as drivers of attention towards that original wherever it is located, exacerbating environmental concerns. If we focus on creating ‘extended objects’ that connect with but extend outwards beyond an original, whether this be through their mode of production, their network of relationships, through creative response or dense contextualisation,  might these digital objects somehow allow us to connect with an original through them and also mitigate the excesses of mass tourism?  Pessimistically, perhaps the lessons from cinema suggest not; a film is obviously a creative work in its own right, but these too seem to drive tourism to their original locations (see Chacon’s 2017 Blog Post: World Heritage in the Movies: Petra and Indiana Jones). More work clearly needs to be done. The issues in question and the lack of research to support conclusions both represent an opportunity for further meaningful work on digital replicas and an avenue through which this work might ultimately inform our response to more pressing social issues.

Dr Stuart Jeffrey  | Reader in Heritage Visualisation | School of Simulation and Visualisation | Glasgow School of Art.


  • BBC Sounds 2019. ‘Virtually Melodic Cave’, produced by Kate Bissel for BBC Radio Three, Sun 16 Jun 2019 18:45 BBC Radio 3. BBC Sounds:
  • Foster, S. with Jones, S. 2020. My Life as a Replica, Windgather Press, Oxford.
  • Geismar, H. (2012). Museums + Digital=? In D. Miller, H. Horst (eds.), Digital Anthropology. London, UK: Berg, pp. 266-87.
  • Jeffrey, S., Love, S. and Poyade, P. 2021 (in press: July 2021). The Digital Laocoön: replication, narrative and authenticity. Museum & Society, University of Leicester.
  • Jeffrey, S. 2021 (in press: March 2021) Digital Technologies in Heritage Practice in Brown, S. and Goetcheus, C., (eds.) Routledge Handbook of Cultural Landscapes, Routledge.

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