University of Leicester
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Original Copies? Readdressing the Value of Classical Cast Collections in Contemporary Museum Practices

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posted on 2022-07-19, 11:02 authored by Chiara Marabelli

The thesis explores the contemporary museological significance of classical cast collections. Since the 16th century, classical plasters populated private and public spaces, art academies, museums and universities,  fulfilling aesthetic and educational needs. Today, too, casts are still essential in archaeological scholarship, because they provide a better understanding of the originals they embody. Their curation in museums mirrors such a use: although accessioned museum objects, casts are presented as if they were antiquities and the stories they can offer as modern creations are usually dismissed. This qualitative research thus aims to understand whether possibilities for such stories to emerge exist. It achieves this by considering people’s multiple views and ideas around the objects.

Methodological approaches include a case study (the Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), grounded theory and ethnography. Past and present attitudes towards casts are examined through the review of archival documents, the museological analysis of the display space and interviews collected amongst the gallery curators, the Ashmolean staff and visitors.

Results confirm that objects’ meanings are not fixed, rather they are constantly shaped and negotiated by the subject(s) engaging with them. The interpretation of casts as antiquities reflects specific interests in art and archaeology. However, interviews showed that casts’ stories are equally important and enrich the museum visit. Their unique features, pointing to different times, places and human associations, can open up discussions about historical and contemporary reproductive techniques and media, craftsmanship, modes of experiencing copies in classical times and how these are valued in other cultures.

The inclusion of both ancient and modern realities in the museum narrative is necessary to express casts’ full possibilities. Moreover, by demonstrating that casts are objects in their own right, the thesis contributes to scholarly debate on cast collections and to more creative rethinking around copies, academically and in museums.



Sandra Dudley; Ross Parry

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Museum Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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