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Questioning The Collection: Cast Courts

March 5, 2017

The Cast Courts at the V&A were established under an agreement by Henry Cole that sought to create an international exchange of copies that displayed ‘the finest works of art which each country possesses’. Amongst these reproductions stands a plaster cast of a sculpture by Michelangelo titled ‘The Crouching Boy’. It seems simple and understated in its appearance and is almost lost amongst the maze of carvings, reliefs and statues. I was deeply intrigued by the purpose of showcasing casts in a museum as it disrupts the idea that all the museum artefacts and pieces must be authentic. Authenticity is a powerful title and one that is used as a form of advertisement to draw the general public into the museum itself. A copy of something simply does not create the feeling that the piece once lived in a different time and place. A copy does not attract the same attention. Therefore we must ask the question- what is the role of the museum when it is displaying reproductions instead of originals?

When the V&A opened in 1852 it was seen as a place designed to educate, and casts were thought to be essential in the ‘application of fine art to objects of utility’. The art and design they displayed would no longer be there for the sole purpose of being admired and revered.These artefacts would be put to use as tools that could educate and inform the general public. At the time that these reproductions were being made, many people would have had little or no opportunity to travel abroad. Often the casts were used by students, allowing them to draw and learn from the great masters without having to leave the city.

I decided to see whether I could learn anything from this cast and I began to sketch ‘The Crouching Boy, slowly studying and appreciating Michelangelo’s work in greater depth. What struck me most when sitting and sketching the sculpture is how the cast is a reproduction of an unfinished piece of work.The features on the face are soft, and the right-hand blends into the surrounding base. The museum is not only displaying Michelangelo’s work, they are also preserving the process. By casting an unfinished piece of work the museum has suspended it in time. The sculpture is also marked with thin lines, reminding the public that it has been cut from plaster. This is no longer a cast representing a marble statue.The plaster cast itself has become an artefact. It is a combination of the original piece with the new plaster casting process- the museum is displaying both simultaneously.

Museums are often thought of as places of preservation. However, the sole purpose of casting work that is unfinished reveals that the V&A is not just a building to house artefacts from the past. It was, and continues to be, an environment for learning filled with objects that illuminate fields of knowledge we may never encounter due to place or time.

Olivia Mackrill

References: Online Sources

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-cast-courts/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304627785_University_museum_spaces_soft_power_and_cross-cultural_communication

http://www.columbus.k12.nc.us/echsart/SCULPTURE%20TERMS.pdf

https://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=954916

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