For almost a century, plaster copies were deemed distasteful and soulless, sometimes stored in leaky storehouses, left to rot in boiler rooms, and “vandalized.” With the exception of dinosaur casts and architectural replicas, many European and North American museums had been reluctant to exhibit copies. In 2007, the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg closed their exhibit when it became known that the terracotta soldiers loaned from China were not the actual 2,000-year-old artifacts, but their copies. (Byung Chul Han explains that these were exact reproductions of the original, which, for the Chinese, are of equal value to the original.)
But copies may be having a comeback. The Gipsformerei (plaster workshop) of the Berlin State Museums celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2019 with an entire exhibition of plaster casts and 3D models. In March 2021, the British Academy hosted an international conference on plaster casting. Recently, the Chicago University’s Oriental Institute Museum posted about the history of their plaster casts on their Instagram account.
What can historical copies teach us about responsible digital reproductions?
In the 19th century, plaster casts and copies were essential in building collections for the newly established museums, especially in North America. In 1883, a New York businessman bequeathed $100,000 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to acquire architectural casts. The goal with such acquisitions was to create collections that would reflect the history of art and architecture, a museum version of a “survey of art history” for the public. But as art history departments in North American universities have recently realized, such surveys have favored certain cultures and artists (White, Western, industrial, male). They contributed to a biased picture of what a “masterpiece” or “great artist” is considered to be.
Thomas Eakins, ”Two male students in Grecian costume before a plaster cast of Aphrodite in the cast room of the Pennsylvania Academy” (about 1883), albumen silver print (4 11/16 × 3 3/4 inches (no copyright, image courtesy the J. Paul Getty Museum Open Content program)
What was copied contributed to such biases. European cast making and exchange of plaster copies have played an essential role in the worship of Classical art in European and North American aesthetics, higher education, and architecture. Reproduced Greek and Roman white plaster statues — replicating the underlying marble rather than their original colored versions, have reinforced the idea of white supremacy. Historically, these plaster statues were exhibited as the predecessors to European art (and for Renaissance they were), and positioned as continuing the classical artistic and aesthetic lineage.
In contrast to the Classical copies, copies made during colonial explorations and exploitations, such as those from Sanchi and Angkor Wat, were often grouped together and displayed as “Oriental” or “primitive” art. These copies helped preserve some of the originals in situ, yet the documentation attached to these monuments (photos, drawings, molds) are now often stored in western museums and archives (or in the case of Sanchi’s casts, lost).
Similarly, what we 3D scan and print now, and how we display and document these copies will have long-term consequences. Museums and scholars have embraced digital 3D technologies as soon as they came out, sometimes in the name of cultural heritage protection, science, and digital humanities, but without much consideration for ethics. Today, it is possible to download a museum object’s model on Sketchfab and reproduce it anywhere regardless of whether the museum has acquired the object through colonial extraction, imperial exploitation, or from the art market. One can even create a copy of a head of a deity statue and turn it into chocolate without the permission of those whose heritage is being reproduced. This may perpetuate a new kind of colonialism, a digital one.
What can museums do?
In terms of the effort to democratize knowledge, copies do have potential. Once a model is created digitally, anyone (who has access to the internet) can view it online. Last year, when museums were still closed due to the pandemic, digital reproductions came to the rescue of educators teaching remotely. Before the closures, museums have used 3D prints for visually impaired learners and visitors.
In the 19th century, plaster copies in museums and university collections enabled students and artists to practice drawing. It can be argued that plaster copies have allowed people who aren’t able to travel abroad to approximate the experience of seeing original Greek and Roman sculptures. Similarly, 3D printed copies of objects and places such as the Lascaux Cave and Tutankhamun’s tomb allow more people to see and experience them without deteriorating the originals.
Dining room from Lansdowne House filled with plaster copies, after a design by Robert Adam (image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
But who decides what should be preserved, what to copy? Who gets to see and enjoy them? Who owns these copies, the rights to reproduce the originals, and the copyright to their images?
No matter the legal answer to these questions, ethically, reproductions need to benefit the people whose heritage is being reproduced. The collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and the Tlingit community of southeast Alaska to 3D digitize important cultural objects for preservation and educational purposes shows the possibility of responsible reproductions. Copies, plaster or digital, can help with such repatriation and decolonization efforts. Even profits of chocolate replicas can be used to support communities.
The information that comes from cultural objects, including digital images, must also be made accessible to the source communities. Many 3D reproductions today live on museum websites, with no explanation in the local or indigenous languages. Educational materials and historical information connected to copied objects need to be made available in different languages, especially in languages of the object’s origin culture. In addition, the technology and training for 3D scanning, modeling, and printing should be shared with museums in places where the objects originate.
Reproductions are not innocent or unbiased, even when made with the best intentions such as education or preservation. Plaster casts have a much longer history than 3D models and prints and therefore can provide us with examples of the ethical pitfalls of reproductions. Rather than dismissing plaster copies entirely, we can use them as tools to learn from the mistakes of the past, so that we don’t replicate these mistakes in using new technologies.