Abbey Ellis


Abbey graduated from Merton College, Oxford in 2016 with a first class BA in Classical Archaeology and Ancient History. In 2017, Abbey achieved a distinction in her Masters degree in Classical Archaeology, also at Merton. Abbey’s current AHRC-funded collaborative PhD project is split between the University of Leicester, where she is supervised by Sandra Dudley, and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, where she is supervised by Bert Smith and Milena Melfi. Her work is set in the museum’s Cast Gallery and focuses on archaeological plaster casts, namely the exact replicas of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures made from Plaster of Paris. Her project seeks to redefine how the authenticity and value of these objects can be understood through an investigation into the use and status of plaster and the technique of casting in the ancient world. In addition, as part of a visitor studies focused project, she seeks to examine the perceptions that museum visitors currently have of casts. She will be exploring to what extent the average visitor views casts as authentic and worthy of display in the museum and whether current museum displays are doing enough to present these casts as important objects in their own right, as opposed to merely being stand-ins for ancient original sculptures.


Modern Questions, Ancient Answers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Authenticity in the Museum

What makes an object worthy of display in a museum? One major criterion is authenticity. Authenticity, or our perception of it, has sealed the fate of very many museum objects, including archaeological plaster casts. These casts, namely exact copies in Plaster of Paris of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, have been smashed up or left to crumble in damp warehouses. In many accounts from the late nineteenth / early twentieth centuries, decrying the display of plaster casts in museums, plaster is presented as an inauthentic sculptural material. This is despite the fact that museums have no qualms about displaying Roman copies of Greek originals. These Roman copies are also made from an “inauthentic” material, marble instead of the original bronze, and are copied to a far lesser degree of accuracy than plaster casts. Like the Roman copy, the plaster cast has value beyond that which it represents, they are historical objects in their own right, yet plasters are nevertheless neglected in ways that Roman copies are not. I suggest that plaster casts are rejected due to their material not being perceived as an authentic ancient one. Marble was used for original works in the ancient world and is therefore acceptable in copy form, yet little evidence is regularly cited for sculptures in plaster. However, my research has revealed a wealth of plaster use in the ancient world. By showing the prevalence for plaster in antiquity, I hope to negotiate a new authentic position for the material. This research employs the techniques of the archaeologist and ancient historian to address a question in the field of museum studies, an innovative, interdisciplinary approach brought about by the collaborative nature of my PhD. Only by using such interdisciplinary techniques, facilitated by CDP projects, can objects such as plaster casts be saved from the scrapheap.