Michael Wenye Li / Assistant Photography Editor

March 28, 2017

Prof Explores History Behind Plaster Casts in Karman Atrium

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As students hunt for tables, stare intently at their computer screens or wait in the endless, winding lines for a between-class snack, they often unwittingly ignore the plaster casts of the Venus de Milo and Victory of Paeonius that gaze at them from across Klarman Atrium.

In a Classical Society tour of the plaster casts in Goldwin Smith and Klarman Halls, Prof. Verity Platt, classics, curator of the Cornell Cast Collection, emphasized the importance of the continued preservation and appreciation of this plaster cast collection.

With the construction of Klarman Hall, Platt said she was approached in 2015 to create a proposal for Klarman Atrium that would display select casts.

“When I was asked to come up with a proposal for Klarman, I really didn’t want to just impose a kind of outdated model of canonical classicism on this space, because that’s not what the humanities is about anymore,” Platt said.

One example of Platt’s curation is the casts of friezes on the Nereid Tomb that now hang in Klarman. These friezes come from a fourth century tomb excavated in southwest Turkey that incorporates both Greek and Persian elements.

According to Platt, those casts “tell us something different about the ancient world that isn’t the story that you get in all the textbooks,” countering a “whitewashed, western, origins of civilization story,” she said.

Likewise, Platt called for the “rethinking of what casts are and what they can mean now.”

The value of the cast— a plaster copy of a work of art — stems from its “dynamic engagement” with students who can access a three-dimensional replica of valuable ancient artifacts in an educational setting that they might otherwise only see in photographs or on visiting Athens or Rome, according to Platt.

“The cast collection [is] basically a laboratory for classical exploration,” Platt said.

Beginning in the 1890s, the Cornell collection of plaster casts was established and expanded with the financial support of trustee Henry Sage and the encouragement of Andrew Dickson White and University Archaeologist Alfred Emerson.

More than 500 plaster casts of statues and reliefs from the Near East and Ancient Greece and Rome to Medieval and Renaissance Europe were displayed first in McGraw Hall and, by 1906, in Goldwin Smith.

By the twentieth century, the advent of photography and the increasing ease of travel rendered the plaster cast obsolete, Platt said. Casts, although initially integral to the study of art and archaeology, were soon relegated to warehouses and the trash heap.

“The interesting thing about casts is that what they give us is a[n] impression of what they thought classical sculpture looked like in the 18th and 19th centuries, this neoclassical idea of bleached white marble,” Platt said.

“But then over time that came to be seen as a kind of deadness, [with these] ghostlike, dead objects,” she added.

Nevertheless, in the 1970s, the Cornell plaster casts were rediscovered, adorning the walls of the Temple of Zeus cafe — which takes its name from casts relating to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, according to Platt.

It was only in the first decade of the twenty-first century that restoration of the casts began.

She cited the creation of a database of casts at Cornell and a New Humanities Initiative proposal for the creation of a Center for Media, Material Culture and the Senses to display the preserved casts as ways in which these casts — antiques in their own right — can serve as educational and artistic resources.

“The idea of the laboratory in the humanities is very current,” she said. “[The study of plaster casts] would be a new way of thinking about [preservation and arts education] in relation to this medium of replication and tool for hands-on teaching and learning.”