All the way at the back of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum lies the Cast Gallery. It houses an impressive collection of ‘Classical‘ sculpture works, collected from 1884 onwards. There are few places, especially in the UK, where you can experience such a density of statues in so small a space, and it’s a great experience for those interested in ‘Classical’ archaeology and history. It’s a genuinely impressive experience weaving between the towering statues of deities and political figures. The room is often empty and silent, as it’s tucked away round the back of the museum, which adds to its weirdly peaceful and enchanting quality.
There is, however, one notable quirk to this room: everything inside it is fake.
Instead of actual genuine marble statues, the room is populated with casts and replicas. They’re extremely good copies – some of the older examples suffer from a few mould marks etc – but they are, fundamentally, ‘fake’. No Roman has ever lent against this specific piece of material, no Greek has ever looked up in awe at that specific lump of rock.
This raises some really interesting points and is, I think, an important lesson for Museumcraft. The Ashmolean is a wonderful museum, with some great resources, but it suffers from the same negative that most Western museums suffer from – it’s full of stolen stuff. One of the most extreme examples is the entire Egyptian tomb (pictured below) that has just been uprooted from its original context, along with human remains.
Now, I’m in favour of returning cultural artefacts that were looted under Empire to their country of origin. However, a consistent criticism of that process is that museum provide a system of education for the world. If we were simply to return every foreign artefact to its country of origin, would that hinder our ability to educate ourselves about the world, and the similarity between all peoples? Would a museum that only harboured ‘English’ artefacts not be open to troubling political manipulation?
Well, surely what the Cast Gallery at the Ashmolean is illustrating is a positive third path – a returning of items without a loss of education. The Cast Gallery proves that the experience of learning and awe taken from observing ‘fakes’ is, essentially, no less. We still learn about the craft and culture of the past, we still experience a glimpse into what their lives might have been like. Indeed, I think the difference is psychological – if there wasn’t a big sign up on the door saying that the room was filled with casts, most visitors would come away happy and content. In the age of 3D scans and prints, might this not be the perfect solution? Artefacts can be accurately, quickly and cheaply reproduced – education and enjoyment is maintained, but the imperialist context and past of many of these items also addressed.
The plaster-cast form of the statues also allows for a greater experience for the museum-goer. For one, genuine marble statues tend to be tucked away in protected positions – the reconstruction form of the statues here lets a large number of them be on open accessible display, without the fear of grubby hands ruining the artefacts. That’s an important point – impressive and imposing statues would have made up part of the ‘Classical’ built environment, and getting the experience walk around and up to these statues is a valuable attempt to explore the power they have.
The casting of statues also allows a research advantage. The room includes a repainted statue, in an attempt to emulate how the Romans and Greeks might actually have experienced the statues themselves. The final result is somewhat garish, but in itself an important experience.
The Cast Gallery is the Ashmolean Museum’s hidden gem, and one of my favourite places in the world. It teaches us some incredibly valuable lessons about how we treat artefacts and the past, and about how museums choose to display them. It’s a must-visit if you’re ever in Oxford.