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Casts and casting

The British Museum has a number of nineteenth century plaster casts of ancient sculptures. These were all made specially for display and as a permanent record of sculptures which were considered at risk from weathering but which were too large to remove from the sites where they were found.

The process of making these copies involved making a mould from the original, either using papier machê for the flat sections or interlocked plaster piece moulds for the higher relief carvings. These moulds were then brought back to England and re-assembled to form the negative impression of the whole sculpture. Wet plaster was mixed and carefully poured into the moulds in stages and allowed to dry before the moulds were disassembled to expose the completed cast.

This technique was widely used in Europe to make copies of Classical statues for different collections, but it was not until the nineteenth century that explorers began to apply the same technique to recording new discoveries.

Some of the earliest plaster casts are from Iran and were made in the 1820s by an employee of the British East India Company called Ephraim Stannus. They are displayed in the Museum's Enlightenment gallery (Room 1). Casts were made of Egyptian sculptures at the same time by Joseph Bonomi and Robert Hay, and as the original colours survived these copies give a vivid impression of their original intended appearance.

During the later nineteenth century the British Museum employed Italian plasterers called formatore who made commercial copies of the Museum’s sculptures and worked on the refurbishment of the galleries. One such man was called Lorenzo Giuntini, and during the 1880s and 1890s he joined independent expeditions led by Alfred Maudslay and Herbert Weld to make the Mesoamerican and Iranian casts displayed here. In both cases the originals had lost their bright painted colours but they were coloured to imitate the appearance of the worked stone.