For nearly a century, plaster copies were deemed unpleasant and soulless, sometimes stored in broken warehouses, left to rot in boiler rooms and “vandalized”. With the exception of dinosaur casts and architectural replicas, many European and North American museums were reluctant to exhibit copies. In 2007, the Hamburg Museum of Ethnology closed its exhibition when it became known that the terracotta soldiers on loan to 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 to the Chinese have the same value as the original.)
But the copies may be back. The Gipsformerei (plaster workshop) at Berlin State Museums celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2019 with a comprehensive exhibition of plaster casts and 3D models. In March 2021, the British Academy hosted an international plaster casting conference. Recently, the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago posted the story 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 the collections of 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 aim of these acquisitions was to create collections that would reflect the history of art and architecture, a museum version of an “investigation of the history of art” for the public. But as the art history departments of North American universities have recently realized, such surveys have favored certain cultures and certain artists (white, Western, industrial, male). They have contributed to a biased image of what a “masterpiece” or “great artist” is.
What has been copied has contributed to such biases. European casting and the exchange of plaster copies played a vital role in the cult of classical art in European and North American aesthetics, higher education, and architecture. The reproduced Greek and Roman white plaster statues – replicating the underlying marble rather than their original colored versions, reinforced the idea of white supremacy. Historically, these plaster statues were exhibited like the predecessors of European art (and they were for the Renaissance) and positioned themselves as a continuation of the classical artistic and aesthetic lineage.
Unlike classic copies, copies made during colonial exploration and exploitation, such as those at Sanchi and Angkor Wat, were often grouped together and presented as “oriental” or “primitive” art. These copies have allowed some of the originals to be preserved in situ, but the documentation attached to these monuments (photos, drawings, molds) is now often kept in Western museums and archives (or in the case of Sanchi’s casts, lost).
Likewise, what we digitize and 3D print now, and the way we display and document those copies will have long-term consequences. Museums and academics have embraced digital 3D technologies from the outset, sometimes in the name of protecting cultural heritage, science and digital humanities, but with little regard for ethics. Today it is possible to upload a model of a museum object to Sketchfab and reproduce it anywhere, whether the museum acquired the object through colonial extraction, imperial exploitation or on the art market. . One can even create a copy of a deity statue head and turn it into chocolate without the permission of those whose heritage is reproduced. It could perpetuate a new kind of colonialism, digital colonialism.
What can museums do?
In terms of efforts to democratize knowledge, copies have potential. Once a model is created digitally, anyone (with internet access) can view it online. Last year, when museums were still closed due to the pandemic, digital reproductions came to the rescue of educators teaching at a distance. Before the closures, museums used 3D prints for learners and visually impaired visitors.
In the 19th century, plaster copies in museums and university collections enabled students and artists to practice drawing. It can be argued that the plaster copies made it possible for people who cannot travel abroad to come close to the experience of seeing original Greek and Roman sculptures. Likewise, 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 damaging the originals.
But who decides what to keep, what to copy? Who can see and appreciate them? Who owns these copies, the reproduction rights of the originals and the copyright to their images?
Regardless of the legal answer to these questions, ethically reproductions must benefit the people whose heritage is reproduced. The collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and the Tlingit community of Southeast Alaska to 3D digitize important cultural objects for preservation and education shows the possibility of responsible reproductions. Copies, in plaster or digital, can aid in these repatriation and decolonization efforts. Even the profits from chocolate replicas can be used to support communities.
Information that comes from cultural objects, including digital images, must also be made accessible to the source communities. Many 3D reproductions live on museum websites today, without explanation in local or indigenous languages. Educational material and historical information related to the copied objects should be available in different languages, especially in the languages of the object’s culture of origin. In addition, technology and training for scanning, modeling and 3D printing should be shared with museums of the places of origin of the objects.
Reproductions are not innocent or unbiased, even when made with the best of intentions such as education or preservation. Plaster casts have a much longer history than 3D models and prints and can therefore provide us with examples of the ethical pitfalls of reproductions. Rather than rejecting plaster copies altogether, we can use them as tools to learn from the mistakes of the past, so as not to reproduce those mistakes using new technology.
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