ARTS AND HUMANITIES
Art historian strives to rescue historic plaster cast collection
Stroll through Goldwin Smith Hall and you will see the remnants of a once-proud plaster cast collection on the walls, in the halls and tucked away in classrooms. But while the Charioteer of Delphi graces a niche at the building's entrance and statues from Olympia's Temple of Zeus loom over visitors to advising, most of the collection has been haphazardly stored in a cramped warehouse near the Ithaca airport, relatively unknown and neglected for 30 years.
Now art historian Annetta Alexandridis is working to restore the cast collection, with help from a team of graduate and undergraduate students, the Department of Classics, community volunteers and the Cornell University Library.
"It is high time to return to this precious resource the attention and care it deserves," said Alexandridis, assistant professor of art history, during a March colloquium. "The primary goal of our project is to document the remains and to collect all relevant information into a database. We want to rescue what can be saved and put on display as much as possible."
The collection of 19th-century casts of ancient Grecian, Roman, Egyptian and medieval pieces was compiled in the 1890s with funds from trustee Henry Sage. Originally displayed as the Museum of Casts in McGraw Hall, the pieces were moved into Goldwin Smith's basement in 1906. In 1953 the collection was squeezed into the A.D. White House, and when the Johnson Museum opened, only a single cast – Selene's horse from the Parthenon pediment – was put on display.
Yet this collection had once been trumpeted by The New York Times as unparalleled in university museums, excelled only by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
But times and attitudes changed. Instead of being viewed as accessible models of classical sculpture and the human form, by the middle of the 20th century the casts were considered "fakes," secondhand copies of first-rate originals. However, unlike Harvard, Yale and Princeton's collections, all of which were destroyed or given away, about half of Cornell's 613 casts remain.
The pieces have once again become valuable, explained Alexandridis, because in the 120 years since the casts were created, many of the originals have been lost or substantially altered due to pollution, weather and sometimes misguided efforts at renovation. As a result, some of the casts now bear more information than the original, making the cast collection an invaluable tool for researchers.
The plaster cast restoration is part of a larger project that aims to re-evaluate several of Cornell's collections that "reproduce" antiquity, such as paper impressions of inscriptions, old photographs, lantern slides and casts of gems. Alexandridis will hold a workshop about classics collections during Homecoming Weekend, Sept. 24-25, called "Destroy the Copy." Funded by Cornell's Institute for European Studies, the conference will include participants from the United States, Japan, Australia and Europe.
And this year, students in Alexandridis' seminar "Reproducing Antiquity" will do more than study reproductions – they'll have hands-on opportunities to restore the plaster casts, and they'll help to develop an online guide to the casts on display. Conservator Kasia Maroney, who began restoration of the Delphi charioteer this past summer, will work with the students. They have been given space in the archaeology building on University Avenue for their work with the collection.
Alexandridis' efforts with the collection will be partially supported this year by the Grants Program for Digital Collections in Arts and Sciences, which has provided more than $12,000 in funding for digital collection development services and systems from the Cornell University Library.
Catalina Lupu '10, who attended the March colloquium, said she was shocked to hear about the underutilized potential of the casts. "Discovering that [the collection] was so underused made me incensed," Lupu said. "It would be nice if the cast collection could be restored and displayed somewhere."
Jennifer Wholey '10 is a former writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle; Linda Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.