Sculpture Journal

Sanchi, in and out of the museum

Sculpture Journal (2019), 28, (3), 345–364.

Abstract

In 1874 the South Kensington Museum opened two Architectural Courts that displayed plaster casts of important sculptures and monuments. While the European-origin casts of the Western Court are still on show, the mostly Indian plaster casts of the Eastern Court have vanished without a trace. This article follows the triumphal entry and unceremonious exit of this collection by focusing on the most celebrated of the ‘Eastern’ plaster casts, a 33-foot-tall reproduction of the sculpted gateway of the second-century Sanchi stupa. Following Henry Cole’s 1867 ‘International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art’, his son Henry Hardy Cole was commissioned to produce more than a hundred casts of Indian monuments. With copies of the Sanchi gateway distributed to Paris and Berlin as well, the casts brought attention to Indian art in Europe and quelled competition between European nations to acquire ancient artefacts for their museums. The dispersal of reproductions allowed Sanchi’s original sculptures to remain on-site, allowing for their eventual in situ conservation. I contrast Henry Hardy Cole’s views on collection and conservation at the time with those of the influential archaeologist Alexander Cunningham and the Begum of Bhopal, on whose territory Sanchi stood. Ironically, while the plaster cast ensured that Sanchi’s original was conserved, the cast itself was not saved. A contraction of the Indian Section’s gallery space in the 1950s coincided with changing attitudes towards reproductions that devalued plaster casts. W. G. Archer, new keeper of the Indian Section, was allowed to dispose of all of the Indian casts, even as the museum endlessly deferred decisions about its European casts, revealing different standards applied to reproductions of European and of Indian origin.

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Author details

Singh, Kavita