About the research project

Abbey Ellis at the Ashmolean Museum

Abbey Ellis, Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student at the Ashmolean Museum

Archaeological plaster casts, namely the exact replicas of ancient Greco-Roman statuary made from Plaster of Paris, have had a tumultuous history. Casts have long been viewed as inauthentic mechanical reproductions in a material that pales in comparison to the original bronze and marble. Critics of plaster casts hold the ancient original sculpture to be the consummate museum object; the ancient authentic material is the ideal. Casts are consequently relegated to the back rooms and basements of museums, with many collections having been dumped and destroyed in the past century. Since the problem of authenticity has sealed the fate of very many cast collections, it is this subject that this project seeks to address.

Research aims

This project will contribute new ways of thinking about the life and significance of replicas and copies in museums, and of cast collections in particular. The research is very timely: the last international conference devoted to the topic, Destroy the Copy II, organised by the Freie Universität Berlin (8-10 October 2015), expressed the urgency of sharing views, knowledge and practice over the value of casts and their future. This project will contribute to addressing this need for impactful work in this area in general, and in the Ashmolean’s cast collection in particular. Research questions include but are not limited to:

  • How was plaster used in antiquity and what status did it have in the ancient world? How can such an ancient historical and archaeological investigation inform current perceptions and museum practice surrounding casts?
  • To what extent does the focus on the ancient derivative in museum displays, instead of on the plaster cast as an object in its own right, impact upon visitor perceptions of cast value and authenticity?
  • Are there alternative means of enabling visitors to engage with casts? And how might such an investigation inform current scholarship and practice around authenticity, object potentiality and visitor experience in museums?

This research project will involve field research conducted in the Ashmolean Museum’s Cast Gallery. The Ashmolean, with its collection of around 900 plaster casts, provides the ideal context for this research.

CDP Student

Abbey Ellis, University of Leicester

CDP Supervisors

Professor Sandra Dudley, University of Leicester
Dr Milena Melfi, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Professor Bert Smith, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford