University of Leicester
2021_ellis_alr_PhD.pdf (7.91 MB)

“The Castness of the Things”: A Visitor’s-Eye View of Value in the Cast Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

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posted on 2022-02-16, 22:04 authored by Abbey L. R. Ellis
Archaeological plaster casts, namely highly precise reproductions of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, have had a tumultuous history. Once considered an essential feature of nineteenth-century country homes and art schools, casts suffered a dramatic twentieth-century downturn in popularity. Nonetheless, some collections, particularly those held within university museums, weathered this era. The recent “replication turn” in modern scholarship has directed new attention to these objects, generating more knowledge than ever before about casts’ own histories, their unique materialities, and contexts of display. Such scholarship has outlined the many values that casts possess as objects in their own right. However, less research has been directed toward understanding how the objects “work in practice” within the museums that display them today. My thesis aims to shed light on this significant issue. Through visitor studies research conducted at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, I analyse the diverse value(s) that contemporary museum audiences attach to casts. While many of the value(s) identified by the Ashmolean’s users align with those discussed in scholarship, I note that there are many important nuances. I also consider the special influence that the setting of a university museum such as the Ashmolean has on perceptions of casts. I argue that it is not only the educationally focused setting but the particular disciplinary value system of the Museum’s interpretive community of Classical Archaeologists that impacts on the values associated with the casts. Furthermore, I tackle the thorny issue of authenticity, which also influences how the casts are interpreted. I demonstrate that their status as copies of ancient sculptures, works of art that are highly embedded within Western culture, results in their value being inevitably somewhat dependent upon their ancient referents. Finally, I explore how recognising the “castness” inherent in all things can inform wider debates over contemporary museum and heritage practice.



Sandra Dudley; Ross Parry; Milena Melfi; Bert Smith

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of Museum Studies

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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