The Cast Courts, Victoria & Albert Museum

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The ethics of museum collecting have often been murky; situations such as that of the Parthenon Sculptures, taken from their original space in the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s and now housed in the British Museum, have created debate about ownership, restoration and collection throughout the years. Visiting the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum is an interesting experience - whilst it's often hard to tell, the pieces in these galleries are not the originals, but in fact casts made from them. The casts served an educational purpose: for design students to learn from three dimensional objects rather than secondary drawings, and for the general public to see objects they'd otherwise never be able to, and very importantly without removing the originals from their contexts. For a while, the fact that these items were copies seemed to count against them in the eyes of many, but now they're beginning to be fully appreciated once more. When I met Kristian Volsing (the assistant curator of the exhibition All of This Belongs to You currently running at the museum) at a CreateVoice event last month, he made the point that whilst the casts are copies of the originals, some are now so old that they've become antique objects in their own right. Another benefit of this collection is that since casting, many of the originals have been damaged by time, pollution and over enthusiastic restorers - and so the V&A's casts are now of prime importance.

Probably the most impressive piece in the gallery is the enormous Trajan's Column, so large that even in the twenty four metre high gallery (the tallest in the museum), it sits in two pieces. The original, over thirty six metres tall, still sits in Rome, telling the story of Trajan's victory over the Dacians in a spiralling carved stone relief. There's also the incredibly beautiful Portico de la Gloria from the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Spain Michaelangelo's David, the Gates of Paradise from Florence Cathedral and a host of other casts from all around the world. I highly recommend a visit (even if it's just to be awed at the sheer size of Trajan's Column).

FIND THE CAST COURTS AT: Galleries 46a & 46b, The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL

1 Michaelangelo's David  2 electrotype of the 11th century bronze doors of the Augsburg Cathedral, Germany  3 electrotype of 11th century bronze doors made for St Michael's Church in Hildesheim, Germany  4 detail of stone inscription  5 shadows cast over a painting hanging in the Weston Cast Court  6 the recently restored walls  7 patterned floor tiles in the Weston Cast Court  8 Jorge Otero-Pailos' installation 'The Ethics of Dust' for the All of This Belongs to You exhibition  9 a detail of Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise for Florence Cathedral, Italy  10 a section of paint showing part of one of the original 1873 ornamental inscriptions featuring great artists, painted by General Henry Scott for architect William Chambers

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