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Reproducing the ancient world

Volume 7 Number 4 April 11 - May 8 2011

Plaster reproduction of a gypsum votive statue of a woman, Mesopotamia (southern Iraq), Early Dynastic period, c. 2200 BCE, The University of Melbourne Art Collection. Eastern Studies Collection, height: 22.1 cm (Original resides in the British Museum, London)
Plaster reproduction of a gypsum votive statue of a woman, Mesopotamia (southern Iraq), Early Dynastic period, c. 2200 BCE, The University of Melbourne Art Collection. Eastern Studies Collection, height: 22.1 cm (Original resides in the British Museum, London)

A new exhibition of reproduction antiquities on show at the Potter features items historically interesting in their own right. By Katrina Raymond.

Casts and Copies is an exhibition of ancient and classical reproductions from the University of Melbourne’s Classics and Archaeology Collection.

The exhibition features significant plaster casts of original Near-Eastern, Egyptian, Greek and Roman works that date from the 4th millennium BCE to the 2nd century CE.

Acquired largely by the University’s Classics and Middle Eastern Studies departments in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s to enhance teaching and research, many of these certified casts were obtained from the prestigious international institutions that housed the originals, including the Louvre, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the University Museum in Philadelphia, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and the Heraklion Museum in Crete.

The plaster reproductions featured in Casts and Copies reflect the exactness and versatility of casting techniques. The exhibition also demonstrates the variety of roles that plaster casts can play within museums, investigating their use for the study and interpretation of languages, literary sources, cultural and religious practices, government and administrative systems, as well as artistic styles and techniques.

Key works in the exhibition include several Egyptian early dynastic ceremonial cosmetic palettes, Sumerian figurines, the Black Obelisk of Shalmanser, a painted Acropolis kore, and two bronze-like metal portraits of Hadrian and Nero, dating from the Roman period.

Exhibition curator Dr Andrew Jamieson, the Spencer-Pappas Grant Lecturer, says Casts and Copies invites us to explore a range of questions on the relevance of facsimiles in the digital age.

“In a high-tech era we are accustomed to duplication as common practice, whether it’s images or information. This exhibition requires us to think about and question what ‘value’ should we ascribe to these casts and copies.

“A useful function beyond just teaching and research is that these reproductions allow antiquities to be appreciated in multiple places around the world. But one wonders if these replicas can evoke the same power and response as the genuine article.

“Given the sensitivity surrounding the debate on the repatriation of some high profile antiquities we must ask ourselves: Is there a place and a role for the cast or copy of the original in the modern world? Can we look at these casts and copies as worthwhile substitutes for the real thing?”

As an archaeologist and museum curator Dr Jamieson is particularly interested in how the exhibition contributes to the debate on originality and authenticity versus fakes and forgery.

Casts and Copies: ancient and classical reproductions. Ian Potter Museum of Art at the University of Melbourne, 16 April to 16 October 2011
http://www.art-museum.unimelb.edu.au/