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Exhibits at University of Missouri Libraries

Plaster Casts of Greek and Roman Sculptures

For 19th- and early 20th-century students, studying ancient Greek and Roman culture in the Midwest meant learning Latin and Greek, reading classical literature and history, and studying plaster reproductions of famous sculptures. Professor John Pickard, who founded the study of classical archaeology and art history at MU, built Mizzou’s collection not only to support the study of ancient culture but also to raise the cultural profile of Missouri’s flagship university. Pickard’s Cast Collection, which has been displayed at Mizzou North for the past several years, is now back on central campus in Ellis Library. The new installation brings the older tradition into the 21st century, and enables students to consider not just famous artworks from antiquity, but also how the study of classical sculpture has shaped the development of our own institutions and concepts of ancient culture.


Plaster casts have been important in the production, study, and reproduction of art objects for thousands of years, and European institutions built large collections in connection with art academies and libraries. But casts gained a special cachet in the US as institutions of higher learning spread across the north American continent. These institutions brought with them the conviction that Greco-Roman antiquity was the basis for all “high civilization”; cast collections thus were seen as essential educational resources across the US. Their surfaces, normally painted white, echoed the whiteness of the marble sculptures that had been excavated and “cleaned up”, a practice common from the 16th century until recently.

Changing archaeological practices and enhanced techniques for investigating the ancient surfaces now show that many of those ancient sculptures – often themselves copies of even earlier works – were painted, with different skin tones and brightly-colored clothing and ornaments. We also now understand that Greek and Roman culture was culturally and racially heterogenous, with long-lasting ties to cultural traditions from all over the eastern Mediterranean. As archaeologists now argue, the white surfaces of these cleaned, polished ancient sculptures is foundational to modern misconceptions about the appearance of ancient art – and the whiteness of ancient Greco-Roman culture.

Most cast collections have disappeared since the 1960s, their objects disposed of, disbursed, or stored away. In recent decades, however, scholarly re-evaluation of the value and role of art reproductions in art creation and in the formation of our contemporary culture have brought the historical role of plaster cast collections back into the light. The University of Missouri is fortunate indeed to have retained its plaster cast collection.

MU’s historic casts were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by professional cast makers from the original works. Some museums, like the Louvre Museum in Paris, had their own casting shops; MU’s cast of the Venus de Milo, for example, was likely made from a cast of the original at the Louvre. Other casts were purchased from some of the most prominent casting companies of the 19th century, including Domenico Brucciani – these may include our casts of the Laocoön and his Sons and the Apollo Belvedere, made from casts of the original works in Rome. The chalky white of the paster material was inexpensive, relatively lightweight, and could be painted – like our Charioteer of Delphi cast, which was painted to look like the original Greek bronze object. Whether painted or left white, however, the effect of these often monumental objects in their fully three-dimensional aspects provides a viewing experience that is the closest analogue to visiting the originals.

As Lauren Kellogg DiSalvo (PhD, Art History and Archaeology, 2018) noted in a 2013 article in MUSE, the pedagogical role of casts was the very reason MU’s collection was begun in the late 19th century. In 1892, President Richard Henry Jesse hired John Pickard, a classical archaeologist with a recent PhD from the University of Munich, to develop a department of classical archaeology. After he arrived in Columbia, Pickard convinced the Board of Curators that a collection of plaster casts of ancient works of sculpture would be an essential research laboratory for his new department and would, indeed, be a key pillar in building the reputation of the University of Missouri. Pickard, using funds the Board approved from student fees, purchased casts in Europe in 1895, and again in 1902.

Pickard’s request to the Board survives, along with his wish-list of casts; in addition to books and photographs, he wrote that the selection would provide “a canonical Classical history of art representative of all periods.” [DiSalvo, 33]. The list included over 130 statues, busts, and architectural fragments, representing Greek and Roman works from the 6th century BCE through the 4th century CE. In the end, Pickard was unable to acquire casts of all the works on his list, but he did collect about 100 casts, to which a few additions were made later.

By 1896, the first group of casts was installed on the third floor of Academic Hall, now Jesse Hall. In 1902 Pickard’s new purchases nearly doubled the number of casts in the collection. This collection would form the core of what is now the Museum of Art and Archaeology. The casts remained in Jesse for many decades. In 1970, the Department of Art History and Archaeology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology moved into the newly renovated chemistry building on the quadrangle, which had been renamed after John Pickard – who not only began the study of art history and archaeology in Missouri but also was one of the founders and early presidents of the College Art Association, now the primary professional organization for the study and production of the visual arts in the US.

In Pickard Hall, the casts were brought together into a gallery on the first floor of the building. Here, the collection was explored by generations of local K-12 students and by MU students studying drawing, classical mythology and literature, art history, and ancient history. Owned by the Department of Art History and Archaeology, the space framed by these casts became a favored venue for campus receptions. When Pickard Hall was vacated in 2013, the Cast Gallery moved to Mizzou North with the Museum, where it remained a favorite spot for museum-related receptions. It was, however, less frequented by MU classes because of its distance from campus.

When plans to move the Museum of Art and Archaeology into spaces on the first floor of Ellis Library developed in 2021, it was clear that there was not enough room for the Cast Collection as well. An ad hoc committee including faculty and staff from the School of Visual Studies, the Department of Classics, Archaeology, and Religion, and Ellis Library collaborated to create a new space in the library’s West Reading Room (Room 202). Funding from Tootie and Richard Burns enabled construction and renovation of the space, which is expected to open later in the fall 2022 semester. Prof. Anne Rudloff Stanton curated the installation, and current and retired museum staff, including Jeff Wilcox, David Gold, and Matt Smith, donated their time and expertise.

MU’s casts have remained on display and in pedagogical use for most of their 120 years on campus, and their new location will again be easily accessible to the campus community – a gift to our 21st-century community from the 19th-century students whose fees funded the original purchase. The new space is larger and more open than the galleries in Pickard or Mizzou North, and its setting in the library – as part of an archive of history – highlights the important legacy of not only the original works of ancient art, but also the effect that such copies have had on the histories of institutions like the University of Missouri.

Mizzou football fans will be interested to know that Alexander Wilcox, the founder of the Classical Museum at the University of Kansas, was concerned by the late 19th century that they only had six casts, while MU had several times that number [Disalvo, 54, note 24].

We still have more casts than KU does.

*The Cast Collection is owned by the School of Visual Studies, and in late fall 2022 will be open during library hours unless a class is visiting. To schedule a class visit, email mucassvscastgall1@missouri.edu

*Link forthcoming to catalogue of plaster casts in Ellis and in Swallow, with expanded label information by Prof. Stanton, Jacob Wills (BA, Art History, 2022), and students of Katherine Iselin’s Curating the Arts course, Fall 2022