The Mystery of the 28 Casts…

The Victoria and Albert Museum Archive has been a crucial source of information on the plaster casts in the collection of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, particularly those produced by D. Brucciani & Co. in the second half of the nineteenth century. With the invaluable help of the archivists, another intriguing connection between these two museums has emerged. The Boards of Survey files for the Departments of Architecture and Sculpture document the process of deaccession, dispersal and as a last resort, the destruction of objects in the collections.


In November 1956 Hugh Plommer of the Museum of Classical Archaeology wrote to John Pope-Hennessy, acting on information from the British Museum that the V&A were about to sell their casts of Greek and Roman architectural ornament. Plommer asked to see the objects with a view to accommodating them in Cambridge and a meeting was arranged in December 1956. Plommer ‘expressed [his] willingness to house a large part of the collection’, which numbered approximately 180 individual casts and it was felt to be important that they ‘should be preserved as a unity’. There was already a precedent for the transfer of classical casts from the V&A, with ‘a number […] presented to the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia and other similar bodies’. The casts in question were reported to be in poor condition, stored in the tower crypt in the basement of the museum. They had not been displayed ‘in living memory’ and their relevance to the rest of the collection was under question.

A year passed without movement, despite the principle of transfer having been agreed. The V&A had installed a new heating system in the basement which resulted in the dispersal of the casts into different storage areas, making it difficult to complete the necessary paperwork. Plommer was asked to wait ‘a few months’. This short delay turned into a very much longer one, a note in the file simply stating ‘suspend till June 1, 1969’, with no reason recorded. In September 1969 Pope-Hennessy’s successor, Terence Hodgkinson, wrote to Plommer again inviting him to visit the V&A and set the transfer back in motion. Plommer replied, ‘All this is a very long time ago. Much has happened since, & we are now rather uncertain of our own future’. Despite his understandably cool response to a process that should have been completed some 13 years previously, Plommer arranged to visit the following week.

The Museum of Classical Archaeology could no longer accept the majority of the casts, even though the V&A exerted gentle pressure: ‘it is possible that they might have to be destroyed, if we cannot find a good home for them’. To complete the transfer, a Board of Survey consisting of Hodgkinson, Charles Avery and Claus Michael Kauffmann inspected the casts on 2 January 1970. In total 28 casts were offered as a gift (no single object was thought to be worth more than £5, with the whole collection valued at £100), having been judged ‘not required for exhibition’. The casts were delivered to the Museum of Classical Archaeology on 26 February 1970.

Returning to Cambridge, the task of locating these 28 objects has begun. Minutes of MCA committee meetings revealed that in 2006 three examples of architectural ornament were deaccessioned from the collection and transferred to the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. They were recorded as the following:

Capital from Portico of Pantheon, Rome [corresponds to Ant. 157 or Ant. 207]

Capital from Temple of Mars Ultor, Rome [corresponds to Ant. 235]

Capital from Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome

Capitals to Oxford

Into the van

So we can be reasonably certain that at least two of the three objects transferred to the Ashmolean had been part of the collection transferred from the V&A. As for the other 25, watch this space!



The Fitzwilliam Museum

2-3pm, Saturday 15 June 2013

Free and open to all, but advanced booking recommended.

Please email to book a place.

Connecting with Collections Symposium

For more information about the Connecting with Collections Symposium and details of the Eventbrite booking link, please click on the Symposium tab above right.

You can view and print a larger version of this poster by clicking on the downward arrow symbol at the bottom of the poster (above).

In the midst: going to the source(s)

The Changing Perspectives: a garden through time project at Cambridge University Botanic Garden is just over half way and research is revealing some of the fascinating stories, ideas and philosophies behind the making and shaping the garden since the 1950s.  For this project, a variety of written and living sources are being consulted. These include the Botanic Garden’s annual reports, specialist botanical publications such as the esteemed Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, and significantly some of key people who have been involved with the Garden, botany or plant science from the mid-twentieth century to the early twenty-first century.

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In May, Emeritus Professor John Parker (pictured above), Director of the Botanic Garden for fifteen years (between 1996 and 2010) was interviewed for the Changing Perspective project on a visit to the Garden.  Professor Parker’s directorship coincided with a major new chapter in the Garden’s history – the construction of the Sainsbury Laboratory of Plant Science.  Since its inception, learning and research have been integral to the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.  As a champion of public engagement and of the appreciation of plants through knowledge, Professor Parker promoted an active agenda for eduction to all ages during his years in the Garden.   Today, the Botanic Garden’s educational programme includes primary and secondary school children, as well as children and adults of all ages wishing to learn about plants, nature and the environment on a more creative or informal basis.

During his visit, Professor John Parker gave a talk on behalf of The Galapagos Conservation Trust in the John Gilmour suite.  Entitled ‘The Five Weeks that Changed the World’, his talk linked the Galapagos Islands and Charles Darwin with his mentor, Cambridge professor of Botany and founder of the new Botanic Garden, John Henslow.  The plant specimens collected by Darwin on the Beagle’s voyage to the Galapagos are now part of the historic Cambridge Herbarium collection.  These are held in the Herbarium’s new home within the Sainsbury Laboratory of Plant Science.

The Changing Perspectives project continues the approach of the University of Cambridge Museum to make its incredible collections more accessible to wider audiences.  The results of this research will be presented in an online digital exhibition of the contemporary history of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden from the 1950s. The Changing Perspectives: a garden through time exhibition website will be launched in September 2013.  Watch this space.

Pippa Lacey

King Arthur’s Table

You are cordially invited to attend an informal talk about the eventful life of King Arthur’s Table.
Come and find out all about my research!  The event should last about 40 minutes.

The Whipple Museum is located on Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH.  Click here for a map.

University of Cambridge Museums

Archive of projects, events and news from 2012 to May 2017