Preserving Monumental Plaster Casts in a Historic Building: A Conservation Approach at the Victoria & Albert Museum London

Sarah Healey-Dilkes and Mariam Sonntag


The V&A has two historic galleries built in 1873 to display the Museum’s large scale works of art and architecture. These spaces were known as the Architectural Court and showed original works alongside plaster casts. The galleries were extensively decorated and were furbished with improved and effective environmental controls that were innovative and modern at that time. Protective coatings were variously applied over the last 150 years to the casts to manage atmospheric pollutants and changes in humidity and temperature. Whilst archival records suggest interventions in the gallery which reflect changes in viewpoints of original art works to casts and the shifts in the casts’ significance over time. This has influenced the approach to their preservation.   Now known as the Cast Courts, their spectacular displays comprising more than 300 casts include full scale plaster copies of Trajan’s Column (h: 20 m) and the Cornelis Floris’ tabernacle (h: 18 m) displayed in natural daylight and built around elaborate support structures making it impossible for the museum to easily dispose of them when they were no longer fashionable. The survival of this exclusive cast collection has recently been celebrated and re-instated as three dedicated galleries following an 8-year refurbishment programme. The Cast Collection is displayed often in a better condition than the original art work in situ which has suffered from deterioration. Some of the originals do not exist anymore.   Despite being displayed indoors, our monumental plaster casts show visible signs of damage due to the environment and to being housed in an historic building. Plaster is a hygroscopic material; dust that settles on the plaster surfaces can form a damaging “cement”, humidity is taken through the material to corroding iron armatures, salts are being mobilized etc. The appearance of coatings and paint layers changes due to pollutants and UV light. This paper will consider the impact of the historic and current environment as well as their management measures on the plaster cast collection investigating the surfaces of the casts as a point of Reactivity. We will explore the various deterioration patterns of salt activity, heavy and preferential soiling, inconsistent surface coatings and corrosion of armatures. We will use information gathered from archival research, preliminary condition surveys, material analysis, observations and hands on working experience generated from the recent conservation programme. We will refer to risk assessment frameworks to interpret the information to further understand the interactions and help focus proposals for sustainable maintenance and long-term care of the cast collection.

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2020 | Online | Volume 27