Damien Hirst’s exhibition in Venice this summer is part of a long tradition of counterfeiting history—but the UK artist has added a contemporary twist.

Damien Hirst’s monumental show, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, looks and feels utterly gorgeous. It is an extraordinary assemblage of more than 2,000 objects, carefully raised from the seabed from the wreck of the Apistos and convincingly displayed in the Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi, two of Venice’s heavyweight museums.

Here is a statue of Laocoön writhing in agony, there a coral-encrusted sphinx. There are shields from ancient Greece, swords and scabbards, a cabinet filled with ancient artefacts that would not be out of place in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. But none of it is real. It is all an illusion. In a world growing used to fake news, we now have fake heritage.

This is nothing new. History is littered with examples of counterfeit history. I visited the Horniman Museum in south London recently. It opened its doors in 1890 to “bring the world to Forest Hill”, and is a treasure trove of fossils, musical instruments and stuffed animals. In a case of its own is a “merman”. Blackened, twisted and grotesque, it glares out with unmistakable fish tail and grotesque human[ish] head. It isn’t alone. Numerous other museums across the world proudly display their own mermen. All made by Frankensteinian hands combining everything from monkey heads and fish bodies to chicken claws, papier-mâché and wire.

The circus showman P.T. Barnum famously exhibited one in 1842 named the FeeJee Merman, which sparked yet more “discoveries”. All fake, and part of a long trend that can be traced back to a centuries-old Shinto tradition in Japan.

In 1912, the amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson and British Museum geologist Arthur Woodward announced the discovery of Piltdown Man—the missing evolutionary connection between humans and apes. It was not until 40 years later that the hoax was revealed—the jawbone came from an orangutan and the skull from a human. read more