Facsimile and Originality

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The use of plaster casts of Classical sculptures as models for the edification of art students is attested to as early as the Academy of Design in Florence. In the early United States, plaster cast collections of art and design schools constituted not only educational assets for artists-in-training, but important collections of plastic arts in America’s burgeoning cities. This paper follows the trajectory of the plaster cast collection at one such institution: the Maryland Institute College of Art, formerly the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanical Arts. One of America’s oldest colleges of art and design, the status of plaster casts here is demonstrative of changes in arts education in the US: from favored models to increasingly ignored remnants of defunct teaching methods and styles, to decaying artifacts of the college’s past in need of care and preservation. Ideas of cast and “copy” are examined in light of critical theory, beginning with modernist notions of originality and “aura,” and postmodern concepts surrounding authenticity and “migration.”