Virtual Museum Collections, 19th Century Style

Our digital age is not the discoverer of scanning technology, though it is in the process of discovering how to do mass scanning, at least of flat objects. On a recent visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (one of our Partners), Jennifer Schaffner and I discussed the museum’s digitisation plans with Doug Dodds, Head of Central Services. These are ambitious: they intend to digitise all 750k objects from their Prints and Drawings Study Room collection over the next few years. They have already digitised the first 2,500, and are working systematically, with an intention not simply to ‘cherry-pick’ the obvious items for digitisation.

Doug was however keen to show us that the V&A has been in the virtual collection business for a long time – and a particular heyday occurred in the late 19th century. The V&A’s Cast Courts represent the world’s largest collection of plaster cast reproductions of works of art and architecture, assembled to suit Victorian tastes and to allow visitors to experience as closely as possible the effect of being in the presence of the originals, at the cost merely of travelling to South Kensington. Cherry-picking from the entire collection of the world’s sculpture and architecture was evidently a necessity, but it did permit astonishingly ambitious choices. Among the grandest copies in the collection is the Puerta de la Gloria in Santiago de Compostela. The original dates from the late 12th century, and – as the V&A website tells us – ‘The casting of this immense structure was an operation involving a sea voyage beset by numerous hazards – storms and fumigation against cholera included – as well as protracted and delicate negotiations with the ecclesiastical authorities.’ Perhaps even more extraordinary is the plaster copy of Trajan’s Column, which is so large that it has always been exhibited in two pieces. 17236-medium.jpg

Casts were made by taking plaster moulds from the original – a form of scanning – and were usually done in several pieces which would be skilfully reassembled so that the joins did not show. Trajan’s Column, remarked Doug Dodds, is an early forerunner of our use of FTP to transfer files so large that they cannot easily be reassembled. The cost involved in assembling virtual collections made from plaster was of course enormous, and the Victorians are an inspiration to us as we set about the task of digitising materials from museums and libraries to form virtual collections for the world. We may also learn a lesson or two about preservation. Students of sculpture and architecture are returning to some of the casts in the V&A, and other museums, either because the originals have been destroyed, or because the damage done by environmental pollution means that the detail on the casts now provides a record for scholars, and the copies offer greater perfection than do the originals.

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