What is the merit of a room full of plaster-cast reproductions in a museum full of genuine artefacts and antiques? Guest blogger ALICE PARKIN, who runs tours of the Cast Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, discusses the value of the Cast Gallery in the modern museum.
The majority of museum-goers aren’t familiar with the concept of a Cast Gallery; chances are that you may never have visited one. But while casts are often disposed of by museums – they’re bulky, fragile, and not considered as valuable as “originals” – the few galleries which remain provide unique access to a multitude of eras and forms of sculptural art. Such galleries pull together a huge number of famous pieces and collect them under one roof, giving an experience to the visitor that even the best museums in the world can’t boast of.
Plaster casts are direct replicas of famous statues, made in plaster of Paris. Crafting them is no mean feat; it can take six years to train to become a cast-maker. The first stage is to take a complex mould of the original statue, traditionally in plaster of Paris, but more recently the technique has developed to using silicon. This mould can then be stored and reused multiple times, sometimes many years after. When a new coloured cast of Augustus was commissioned by the Ashmolean for its reopening in 2010, the same mould was used as for the uncoloured cast donated to the collection a century earlier. Once the mould has been taken, it is reassembled around a metal frame, and more plaster of Paris is poured inside to make the cast (either as a whole or in pieces later joined together). Complicated casts can need hundreds of tiny pieces to create. Sometimes the lines where these pieces join (known as “flash lines”) are still visible; they are left on to demonstrate the skill of the craftsman in creating a cast out of such small and intricate piece-moulds.
Casts, therefore, aren’t as ancient or unique as the pieces they’re copying, but they come with their own history and their own important role in a museum’s collection. This sadly hasn’t always been acknowledged, and during the 20th century many museums destroyed their cast collections outright to make space for other artifacts. The few we have remaining are lucky survivors of this period. Some of the pieces we have left, however, are really extraordinary; the Queen’s College Boar cast in Oxford, for instance, is nearly 250 years old.
What can casts tell us?
Casts firstly provide an important insight into the culture responsible for collecting them. The majority were acquired by Victorian gentlemen on the Grand Tour in the 19th century, keen to show their interest in and knowledge of famous art through collecting copies of the pieces they saw on their journey round Europe. This is actually remarkably similar to a practice by the Romans, who themselves had sculpture gardens full of copies of famous Greek statues to demonstrate their high-brow education. These casts collected by the Victorians either served to decorate their homes, or they were given as generous benefactions to museums. This is where the vast majority of museum collections originate from, but plaster casts are still being commissioned and acquired in the modern day.
Cast galleries are also invaluable to museum-goers and academics today, as they are the only place where a wide variety of famous pieces can be appreciated and studied together. Even the most outstanding museums only have a limited number of original works of art; cast galleries allow museums to create a dream collection, uniting pieces which could never otherwise all be brought together. A visit to the V&A’s cast courts allows you to see Michaelangelo’s David and Trajan’s Column in almost the same room. This is wonderful for students and scholars, who can directly notice themes and techniques across time and space in a way that’s much more natural than reading a book; but it’s also a fantastic opportunity for anyone interested in art who may never be able to travel and see all of the originals themselves.
Occasionally casts can hold a critical conservation role, preserving original pieces either before modern restorations, or in some cases before modern-day damage. The cast of Trajan’s Column at the V&A is now a vital resource for reconstruction, as pollution and weathering have damaged details on the original in Rome. Similarly, as many original pieces have been bought by museums all around the world, cast galleries can provide an opportunity to view pieces in their original context. The statues of Athena and Marsyas were originally one composition by Myron, but are now housed separately in Frankfurt and the Vatican; they are brought together again in the Ashmolean.
As well as accurately preserving the originals, casts also allow us to create detailed reconstructions of ancient works as they would have looked centuries ago. The features, hair, and clothes of the Peplos Kore cast in Cambridge have all been carefully restored in glorious, bright colours to reflect how the statue would have been decorated in antiquity. The touring exhibition “Gods in Colour” contains a wonderful series of colourful casts, all painted to replicate how they would have looked in antiquity (if you missed it, a catalogue of this exhibition is still available from the Ashmolean’s website).
Which museums have a cast gallery?
Anyone with an interest in ancient, mediaeval, or Renaissance art should definitely therefore look and see whether their local museum has a cast gallery. These galleries may in the modern day be few and far between, but they are an essential visit for art lovers, providing a truly unique opportunity to view a range of famous pieces across thousands of years of sculptural art.
Information about Cast Galleries in the UK is available here:
- The V&A, London
- The Ashmolean, Oxford (Please note that the upper cast gallery is always open but the lower gallery is closed to visitors, with twice-weekly volunteer-led tours on Thursdays and Saturdays at 2pm.)
- The Museum of Archaeology, Cambridge
ALICE PARKIN is a PhD student at Lincoln College, Oxford. She studies art and iconography in the Ancient Greek world, and is a regular behind-the-scenes volunteer at the Oxford University Museums, with an interest in digital accessibility and public outreach.
COVER IMAGE: JIM LINWOOD/FLICKR/CC BY 2.0
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