Plaster Replicas of Monumental Sculptures in Nineteenth Century Museums by Rebecca Goozee
The focus of my research in the first term of my first year on the History of Design programme has been centred around a cast found in the cast court in the V&A. The piece is of a depiction of the Deposition of Christ from the cross. The original is dated to the mid 12th Century and is found in the Cathedral San Martino in Lucca. The replica drew my interest as it is part of a large collection of plaster casts of monumental sculptures that were used as educational pieces. I wanted to explore the potential issues of using replicas for educational purposes as part of the exhibition.
How replicas are seen in the museum
The importance of the casting of monumental objects can not be understated. The South Kensington Museum (later renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum) was founded for the purpose of Design Education. Originally drawings, photographs and plaster casts made up a large proportion of the collection. Many of the pieces that the curators and founders believed to be of important for study could not be removed from the original settings. This required the use of reproductions and replicas. Casts were the preferred medium as the gave student a sense of scale and allowed the item to be viewed in the round.
In spite of this the Deposition, although still on display, is not a well loved or a well documented artefact. In fact the cast courts have often faced the threat of being dismantled, destroyed or sold off. This is mainly due to the artefacts being replicas. In many ways the treatment of the casts is a result of the lack of historical provenance and cultural memory. The museum treated the casts with little respect, often not creating object files for them, loaning them out to provincial schools and allowing casts to be taken of them.
The display of the casts has also not been sympathetic. They have been grouped together, not based on region, chronology, style or iconographical theme. This has affected the narrative of the pieces and the interaction of the audience. This seems at odds with the purpose of a museum and even with the original purpose of the cast courts. Its clear that the curator; JC Robinson, was intentionally building a canon of European art, based on the Italian renaissance, in the cast courts. However the audience would find this a hard narrative to follow.
The unsympathetic display of the Deposition is primarily linked to the intended use of the casts. The casts were bought into the the museum as part of the Educational program established by the Government School of Design, that would later become the Royal College of Art. The student body was supposed to be made up of skilled artisans who, through exposure to high art, were to learn how to produce design work that could be considered tasteful. This in turn would lead to a greater amount of exported goods and economic prosperity. The casts did not need to be displayed based on understanding or theme, just in good light.
The casts however were not only displayed to allow for study of their aesthetic value. It was believed that the morality of the audience could be improved by exposure to high art. This is an interesting idea as it was believed that morality could be reflected in the personal tastes of the individual. Also the subject matter of many of the casts was religious however the process took the images out of the religious context and became quite iconoclastic.
The replicas and casts may have been introduced to the South Kensington Museum to aid artistic education however the change in agency of the object rendered it almost of no value. Casting is often seen as a low skill craft and the materials used are cheap and disposable. The more you replicate the less important the object becomes and represents less of its original ideals.