November 22, 2010

When replicas are as convincing as the real thing, do museums still need to keep the originals?

Posted at 2:01 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

In the past, the British Museum has suggested to Greece that as a solution to the dispute over the Elgin Marbles, they will send the Greeks high quality copies. In the mind of the British Museum, this seems to solve the situation & anyone who rejects this offer is ungrateful. At the same time though it raises a new question of why the British Museum isn’t happy to keep the copies & return the originals.

The National

Tutankhamun’s replica treasures in Manchester
Ben East
Last Updated: Nov 3, 2010

It’s quite a sight. The golden treasures of King Tutankhamun’s tomb look as arresting as they may have been on the day archaeologists happened across his virtually intact resting place in 1922. There are statues, chests and the pièce de résistance , the glittering death mask that caused the man who first discovered the tomb, Howard Carter, to remark breathlessly: “We were astonished by the beauty and refinement of the art… the impression was overwhelming.”

Except they’re not the originals. The Tutankhamun – His Tomb And His Treasures touring exhibition, just opened in an unlovely corner of a Manchester shopping complex, is instead stocked with costly reproductions of some of the most famous archaeological artefacts of all time.

The expense involved in perfectly recreating Tutankhamun’s tomb is presumably why it costs £14 (Dh82.5) to see what are essentially authorised copies. Yes, they’re dazzlingly impressive, lending an insight into a culture that’s enthralled us for centuries. But does the fact that they’re not real dim the effect of exhibitions such as this?

It depends on the art in question, of course. This month, I went to the New Acropolis Museum in Greece. The top floor is quite an incredible space, replicating the shape of the Parthenon which towers above it on the hill outside. The much-discussed “marbles”, and most famously the friezes taken down from the temple by Lord Elgin from 1801 and removed to England (where they still controversially remain) are in situ as plaster cast replicas. But unlike Tutankhamun in Manchester, this isn’t so much a celebration of the originals as a political statement. The few yellowing friezes not taken by Elgin sit, in a deliberately uncomfortable (and rather poignant) fashion, next to the alabaster white of the copies. The subtext is clear – the Parthenon marbles belong here. We are not invited to think we are seeing the real thing.

Of course, it’s very unlikely that if Greece did somehow secure the repatriation of the friezes, they would return whence they came: the Parthenon itself. In fact, a trip to the Acropolis is very confusing if authenticity is important to the visitor: the weathered female statues on the Erechtheum – called Caryatids – are in fact copies from 1979, made to look old. The originals are in the New Acropolis Museum, save for one, also removed by Elgin and in the British Museum. Does this mean I and other tourists were deceived when we marvelled at the temple? Perhaps, but it was telling that people crowded around the originals in the museum in a way that they couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) at the Acropolis itself.

Seeing the original work isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. Famous art brings out the worst in tourists: we know what the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City and the Mona Lisa in Paris look like but still we flock to make sure we tick off seeing them. And when we get there, in the case of the Mona Lisa, it’s almost impossible to see the real thing for the crowds of people and security guards preventing photographs. Sometimes, replicas are in fact just fine: one of the most famous museum exhibits in the world is without doubt the huge diplodocus skeleton that towers over visitors to London’s Natural History Museum. But not one part of this skeleton once roamed the Jurassic world – the entire exhibit is a cast of the original at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Yet prior knowledge of this doesn’t diminish its sheer size and power.

Replicas do, however, run the risk of making the originals seem humdrum. Michelangelo’s David, one of the classics of Renaissance sculpture, stands triumphant at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Except that’s not the original, but a copy. The original has sat in the Galleria Dell’Accademia in Florence since 1873 – perhaps wisely, since even in the safe confines of a museum, someone struck its foot with a hammer. At least the repairers weren’t short of source material to refer to – there are replicas in London, Antwerp, Copenhagen and a whole host of American cities, including, rather dishearteningly, a shopping arcade at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

But you can’t really say you’ve seen and appreciated David if you passed it on the way to buy a T-shirt in the American mall’s Harley Davidson shop. All great work has a narrative bound up in its history, its context and its surroundings. As for Manchester’s Tutanhkhamun exhibition, it made me want to see the real thing. Which, you’d like to hope, is the intention.

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* Ben East

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