Inside the Collection

Copies and collections

Close up relief sculpture of Lorenzo Ghiberti's doors
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Erika recently wrote about ‘real vs. fake’ museum objects, using the example of repro fossils as an example. It’s an interesting issue: that museums continue to thrive in the digital age is largely due to their role as repositories of the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’.

But there’s a few interesting qualifications to this claim. One is that the Powerhouse’ ancestor, the Technological Museum, was founded as a museum of applied arts and manufactures – the latter by definition not unique. Another is the long history of copies and reproductions in museum collections. Reproductions of architectural elements and decoration were part of the collection of some the first public museums. As well as artefacts of classical antiquity, both the Altes Museum, Berlin and the John Soane Museum, London, featured casts and copies of classical sculpture and architectural decoration.

These museums were highly influential on the neoclassical architecture of the 1800s. The Powerhouse collection holds many examples of the 1800s fashion for architectural reproductions. Perhaps the outstanding work is the 1870s plaster casts of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors for the Baptistry of the Duomo, Florence.

Cast of Lorenzo Ghiberti's doors at the Powerhouse Museum
Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Close up relief sculpture of Lorenzo Ghiberti's doors
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

As classicism formed a set of principles and models for architecture and design, there was a sense that all the elements of architecture were copies, embodiments of timeless aesthetic principles. Hence reproductions could be of similar value to the originals, especially for educational purposes. However as twentieth century design placed greater value on originality and individual vision, copies and reproductions began to inhabit the same moral and economic territory as fakes and forgeries.

The decline of classicism as an architectural authority has changed the reasons for this museological practice, but it remains common in various forms. Recently I acquired a reproduction of a mural designed by Douglas Annand in 1948 for a milk bar at Wynyard called Patricia’s. The repro mural was produced for the exhibition Modern Times. We have in the collection Annand’s design for the mural plus a photo of the completed milk bar – hence our model maker Iain Scott-Stevenson was able to create what seems an accurate reproduction of the original mural.

Image of Max Dupains photograph of Patricias Milk Bar
Photography by Max Dupain. Collection: Powerhouse Museum
Powerhouse Museums replica of modern milkbar
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Not everyone agrees that contemporary reproductions are worthy of acquisition. I commissioned another architectural repro for the exhibition Visions of a republic: The work of Lucien Henry. Given that almost nothing that Henry designed is still extant, it seemed worth recreating part of the pressed zinc ceiling he designed in 1890 for the Hotel Australia. We had Henry’s designs in the collection and after weeks of searching I managed to find a photo of the ceiling. Finally I was able to borrow some parts of the only other ceiling produced to the same design, at the former George Patterson House, now the Establishment bar on George Street. These parts were used to create moulds for new ceiling panels.

Reproduced pressed zinc ceiling, with museum objects underneath
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The repro ceiling was commissioned and catalogued as an object in the Museum’s collection, but it was not treated as such during dismantling at the conclusion of the exhibition. There’s no doubt that reproductions – even those created at considerable expense – divide opinion within museums. Perhaps a visit to the John Soane Museum should be prescribed for the doubters.

3 responses to “Copies and collections

  • Yes The ‘real vs. fake’ blog post and what you have written here also brings to mind the Architectural Courts – now named the Cast Courts – of the Victoria and Albert Museum.


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    I well remember the magnificence of seeing the reproduction grand columns and other architectural elements for the first time, many years ago. Very impressive and worthwhile. Diminished because they were not genuine? Perhaps. But to this day I have had neither the time nor the money to see all of the original wonders of design in other museums or their original place – for this was the intention of the 1867 International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art.

    To exchange reproductions of such wonders and bring them to a place where many more people could see them, especially in a age where world travel was exceptional.

    Without irony, a reproduction of the 1867 convention was also on display showing the signatures of the princes who agreed to the deal.

  • This really brings up a couple of interesting points. The authority of museums as being the holder of the “real thing” and the evolving value society has on both the museum role (as an authority of the “real thing”) as well as the value held on objects- in your example, a value shifting from appreciating reproductions to classifying them as “fakes.” Rather than looking at them as “fakes” the appreciation of the craft, design, and concept seems to be lost. I think much more could be said on this point.

  • Bob,

    Thanks for your positive response, and especially for the link re the V&A’s collection – an excellent history of the subject.

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