Years of carbon dioxide damage from the collective heavy breathing of tourists has meant that in a very few years, the tomb of Tutankhamun – which survived a miraculous 3000 years before discovery – will have to be replaced with a 3D-scanned facsimile. Then you’ve got Islamic State’s deliberate bombing of swathes of historic ruins in Iraq and Syria, in particular in Palmyra where tombs and temples of huge historical importance were demolished. What would we do if everything disappeared?

Now that we have robots who can sculpt and printers that can replicate in 3D, should we be creating a back-up archive of all that is precious and historically important, just in case? It’s an idea explored in the V&A Museum’s exhibition A World Of Fragile Parts, which opens at the Venice Biennale this weekend. I spoke to the curator, Brendan Cormier about art under attack. 

PB: We don’t usually think of museums as being at the forefront of technology, more as monuments to the past, but this exhibition would suggest that assumption is wrong? 

BC: Well, yes. Even in the 19th Century the V&A were very involved in embracing new technologies available at the time. Plaster casting had undergone some innovations which allowed for larger, more monumental plaster casts, and at the same time electrotyping was a new technology whereby you could create molecularly faithful metal versions of objects. And the V&A was one of the first museums to have a proper photography department.

Construction of the V&A Cast Courts, 1871-2 © V&A Images. Image Courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum

Construction of the V&A Cast Courts, 1871-2 © V&A Images. Image Courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum

And these Cast Courts at the museum, filled with copies of Greek and Roman works, presented all the greatest hits of classical sculpture to the people.

It was a very simple and practical idea. The British public couldn’t afford to go on grand tours of Italy and Europe to see these great works of art so the director Henry Cole decided to bring these works back to the museum.

In the 20th Century, though, all of a sudden these great casts became viewed differently. A lot of them across Europe were destroyed simply because they were such a spatial burden, a burden of care for these institutions. There are written records of past directors at the V&A looking at ways of how they could get rid of these beasts.

What is the status of the remaining plaster casts that survived that cull? 

They are widely regarded as treasure now. These casts have now sort of out- performed the originals, in that the originals have been exposed to acid rain, pollution, urbanisation and tourism and started to degrade, whereas the copies are now almost more of a true representation of what they were. What interested me was that they have become newly valued as a tool for preservation, there is a renewed interest in the potential of copies.

I was watching film of the Dutch 3D printer developed by Tim Zaman which is producing 3D scans of old masters in such an insanely, microscopically detailed rendering that even the texture of the paint texture is accurate, reproducing the dense clumps of oil paint on, say, a Van Gogh. The possibilities allowed by 3D printing and robots is exciting and unsettling at once. The Manus x Machina exhibit at the Met, relating to hand vs machine in the specialised world of couture, raises questions about tradition working alongside technological advances. Obviously, the title also brings to mind Alex Garland’s film, Ex Machina, where the robot creation turns on her maker. The man vs machine topic is quite hot right now…. 

It’s really interesting. In the world of art, it really becomes a philosophical debate. It’s all about the aura of the art object. Also, there is debate around any kind of reconstruction where, if you want to have something faithful to the original, do you follow the same construction methods? If the original was carved by hand, do you hand-carve it too, or use a highly skilled robot? The skilled labourer would be more true to the process but would be much less faithful to the original object. The robot can have molecular precision in carrying out the production of the copy.

How do you feel about it? 

For me personally, I’m ambivalent, to me it’s all fascinating. There was a study done recently where people were asked to imagine that the Mona Lisa had been completely destroyed and burnt and was just a pile of ashes. Would they want to see the pile of ashes or an exact reproduction of the Mona Lisa? They chose the pile of ashes. To me, that’s fascinating about the power of the aura of an art object. There are philosophical issues raised but also a lot of possibility. For conservation it’s an amazing opportunity to archive our cultural heritage.

Photo by Andrea Avezzu. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

Photo by Andrea Avezzu. Image Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

There have been many times in history – from the Nazis burning ‘degenerate art’ in WW2 to the destruction of Medieval and Renaissance religious art in the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s – where historically important art and artefacts suffered a kind of violent cultural cleansing. Would you say that art and artefacts are more or less ‘under attack’ than they have been in the past? 

My original interest in this project came from my interest in the recent destruction of Palmyra

My original interest in this project came from my interest in the recent destruction of Palmyra, and the project to digitally record the historical site and its artefacts. The museum was originally born out of iconoclasm, as a safe haven for works of art from iconoclastic acts. But you have to contextualise how small the threat of these kinds of attacks are compared to other factors – acid rain, pollution, urbanisation and tourism are actually much more of a threat.

How will you present your findings in Venice? 

There will be objects from the 19th Century on display so we can talk about the tradition, and there will be an imagining of what a 21st Century cast court could look like in the future. We will be profiling twelve different architects, designers and artists who are all interested in the power of the copy and what one can do with the copy, for example a 3D print of the controversial Nefertiti bust by artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles (2015).

Plaster hands of Count Camillo Cavour ca. 1858 - ca. 1859 (made) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Image Courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum

Plaster hands of Count Camillo Cavour ca. 1858 – ca. 1859 (made) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Image Courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum

It’s a strange thought to imagine the future of the art copies given the inevitable fact that making these kinds of copies will become cheaper as the technology develops and becomes more available. Is there a danger of cheapening the art object? 

Times are changing so quickly. Technology is becoming democratised. It is an interesting time to think about our own position at the V & A. Should we make 3D scans publicly available to everybody? Should we collect new copies now that new technologies are available? The V & A hasn’t collected a new cast piece in over a hundred years, so it’s now time to think about that. Henry Cole who was the director in 1867 wrote a convention, a document to promote the open sharing of copies and works of art. Next year is the 150th anniversary of that document and we’re very keen to think about how to update that convention for 2017.

We experience so much art virtually, digitally on our computer screens and tablets. You’re ultimately talking about making art more accessible to more people, which must be a good thing? 

Absolutely, that’s one of the main remits of the museum. When you release 3D models people start to do all sorts of things with them. You get people who never physically experience these object turning them into gifs for example. They are good source material to explore more ways to disseminate the art works. I think it is important to say that what I’ve discovered doing the show is that there is a huge amount of craft involved in doing this kind of 3D production. You wouldn’t stick a chunk of marble under a robot and come out with a Henry Moore just by pushing a button. I would stress again and again that there is an incredible amount of craft in this reproduction. C


A World of Fragile Parts is a special project for the Applied Arts Pavilion that has been jointly developed as part of a collaboration between La Biennale di Venezia 2016 and the Victoria and Albert Museum London. Exhibition runs until 27th November 2016.

Original article Civilian Global