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Collecting in Early America

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter analyzes the history of institutional collecting of classical sculpture in the United States, with a focus on the collecting behavior of universities, art academies, galleries, libraries, and for-profit and nonprofit museums. As demonstrated, the motivations surrounding the collection of classical sculpture and casts often varied in these institutions, but the acquisition of this material offered the possibility of significant exposure to classical art and ideology for American citizenry. Toward the end of the chapter, the change from the collecting of casts to the acquisition of original artifacts in nonprofit museums is explored. Here, the chapter argues that collecting ancient objects rather than casts was often a result of changing theoretical and financial concerns that affected the conception and purpose of American museums.

Keywords: casts, Henry Frieze, University of Michigan, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, universities, libraries, nonprofit museums, for-profit museums, art academies, Italian laws, tariffs (American), connoisseurship, authenticity/originality, nationalism/national iden


Discussing the importance of ancient art, C. C. Perkins, a founder of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, wrote that both a scholar and the “man of general culture” could learn from the “masterpieces of ancient art, which are exponents of national thought and development, guides to historical knowledge, and verifiers of history” (1871, 51). The acquisition of these “masterpieces of ancient art,” specifically sculpture, has a long and varied history in America, and responses to these objects reveal much about the historical identity and ideological concerns of Americans. This essay considers collecting of classical sculpture from the mid-eighteenth century until 1917, the date of the War Revenue Act, which permitted income tax deductions for donations to nonprofits, thereby significantly altering patterns of acquisition in America.

The focus here is primarily on institutional collecting of sculpture rather than on personal collecting, with the understanding that the behavior of individual collectors often shaped institutional practices. Indeed, classical art collections owned by individuals in early America have received far less scholarly attention than those in Europe perhaps because of their smaller scale and, arguably, their differences in quality. American individual collecting activity, however, mirrored that of institutions. In the colonial period, there were a few small collections, though some, like those of Joseph Allen Smith of South Carolina, were more ambitious. During the post-Revolutionary War period, a heightened classicism emerged in the new country, which began to assert its political and cultural connections to the democratic traditions of Athens and republican Rome. Other periods of avid collecting of classical objects took place immediately following the Civil War, when the country struggled with adopting a new national identity, and during the Gilded Age with its greater emphasis on artistic genius. As Elizabeth Bartman (p. 45) discusses in this volume (see essay 1.1), individual collecting in Europe was often associated with promoting one’s noble status and lineage, but in early America, the motivations for collecting (both by individuals and institutions) were less to assert genealogical connections among elites and more to affirm educational, political, and cultural ties to the classical past.

American institutional collectors often concentrated on the acquisition of casts of classical sculpture rather than original objects, but the rationale for why these objects were acquired and how they were displayed altered during the late eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Even with these changes, however, institutional acquisitions of both casts and ancient sculpture were ways to create and reframe narratives of the past and also to solidify new narratives of the cultural and political connection between contemporary American society and ancient traditions. In certain venues, especially those that were publicly accessible, these classical images were thought to serve as powerful transformative mechanisms for reshaping how Americans conceived of beauty, understood the power of technology, and applied methods of innovation.

Unlike in the United States, Roman sculpture was part of the material fabric of contemporary life in European countries because of its presence in extant architectural structures and on archaeological sites. This absence of the archaeological record from the American landscape undercut Americans’ physical and, in turn, cultural connections to the classical past, but this lack of immediate access to the ancient world could be willfully ignored thanks to the prominent presence of classical objects within American institutions. As will be discussed in further detail, America’s geographical conditions affected the import and the physical movement of statuary but also influenced the types, scale, and medium of sculpture brought to the United States. Furthermore, sociopolitical considerations, finances, reliance on private rather than governmental aid, concepts of education, and legal restrictions all played varying roles in how institutional collectors acquired classical material.

This essay begins with a brief discussion of the collecting of classical sculpture in mid-eighteenth century America followed by a lengthier analysis of the collection of casts in post-Revolutionary America until the 1870s. In this later section, I examine collecting in art academies, for-profit museums, universities, and libraries and use specific examples, such as the collection of the University of Michigan and the Athenaeum in Boston, in order to provide more details of collecting ventures. The subsequent section considers collecting strategies at large-scale nonprofit museums, with a particular focus on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the 1870s until 1917. Here, I explore how Italian export and ownership laws, American tariffs, authenticity, and changing opinions on the role of museums spurred on the collection of ancient artifacts rather than casts of statuary. The essay concludes with a discussion about the multiple purposes and uses of casts and ancient statuary in early American society.

(p. 46) Collecting in Colonial America and “Cast Culture”

From 1734, Boston was home to one of the earliest publicly accessible displays of casts of classical statuary in the British American colonies. The painter John Smibert opened a studio there with an array of engravings, reproductions of European paintings, and classical casts, some of which he had acquired in the hopes of educating students in painting courses for a failed college in Bermuda (McNutt 1990, 159; Saunders 1995, 100). Casts, which were generally made of plaster of Paris, but sometimes terracotta or bronze, were fabricated by cast-makers from molds of ancient statuary or from other casts. Collectors could acquire casts from various European cast-making workshops that sold canonical images of classical art, some of which were run by European museums; only much later were casts available from cast-makers in America (Frieze 1876a, 443–4; Connor 1989, 214; Haskell and Penny [1981] 2006).

As the casts in Smibert’s studio illustrate, from early in American history some collectors used imagery of classical statuary as sources of artistic inspiration, to foster aesthetic appreciation, and to train artists. Casts were valuable in instructing artists and tradespeople because of the uniformity in their color, which was free from the incrustations and soil deposits found on ancient statuary, and because casts highlighted the objects’ form over other considerations (Bury 1991, 123). For example, later painters, including Charles Willson Peale and John Singleton Copley, sketched the casts in Smibert’s studio, which his heirs maintained and kept open to the public even after Smibert’s death in 1752 (Wittlin 1970, 116). Nonartists could also visit the studio, which was in the same building as Smibert’s painting shop. The lifelike qualities of the casts impressed audiences with one visitor describing a cast of the Venus de Medici as “the breathing Statue” and a bust of Homer as “the living Bust” (quoted in McNutt 1990, 159). In early colonial America, however, most cast collections were not on public display but maintained behind closed doors. As discussed below, the explosive growth of cast collecting in institutional venues occurred following the Revolutionary War.

Post-Revolutionary America: 1790–1870s

In post-revolutionary America until the decade following the Civil War, art academies, libraries, and universities often acquired classical statuary to broaden awareness of European cultural heritage, to encourage interest in and study of classical civilization, to advance civic pride, to refine taste, to inspire technological innovation or improvement, (p. 47) and to train young artists. Although there were multiple purposes for classical imagery, two main trends stood out in this period, namely the use of ancient statuary and casts to educate the viewing public and to train new artists and designers. These two distinct purposes both relied on visual inspection and access to a variety of specimens for analysis. Casts afforded audiences the opportunity to perambulate, measure, and touch replicas of ancient statuary, a practice not possible with other types of classical imagery found in engravings, prints, or (later) lantern slides. In this period, casts became important sources of visual data and permitted contact with ancient statuary in foreign museums and still in situ on monuments; when displayed together, they also offered a visual presentation or compendium of classical statuary. The multiple benefits provided by casts made them prevalent among various types of institutions.

Classical Statuary in Art Academies

Art academies were popular early venues to showcase classical imagery in the United States. In 1795, one of the visitors to Smibert’s studio, Charles Willson Peale, opened his own short-lived art school in Philadelphia with a borrowed plaster cast of the Venus de Medici, which he showed only upon request (McNutt 1990, 161; Kurtz 2000, 126). Nine years later, Peale displayed Joseph Allen Smith’s collection of classical casts in his American Museum in Philadelphia (McNutt 1990, 162). By 1805, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which Peale and others had helped to establish, showcased Smith’s collection. When a fire destroyed much of the academy’s cast collection in 1845, its trustees replaced these objects with other casts, which the institution continued to acquire throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century (Stone 1987, 26).

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, other cities also established fine arts academies that formed cast collections for their members. At New York’s American Academy of Fine Arts, portions of a subscription service of fifty dollars received from seventy-nine New Yorkers were used to acquire casts of the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoön, and the Dying Gaul from the cast-making workshop at the Louvre (Miller 1969, 92). Some members of New York’s Academy and local artists soon became disenchanted with the purchase of casts. In 1831, some of the local artists criticized the academy director’s attempt to raise a subscription to acquire copies of the Parthenon Marbles and urged the institution to buy contemporary American artwork, create a building fund, or promote another educational endeavor (Miller 1969, 100). As evidenced in this example, the tension between using funds for purchasing casts and for other purposes recurs throughout the nineteenth century and was a controversial issue for later museums.

During the early nineteenth century, many art academies, confronted by the problematic aspects of exhibiting nude statuary in their institutions, addressed whether women should be permitted access to this imagery, and if so, whether gendered segregation of viewing this material was a viable method for adhering to social customs. (p. 48) In some institutions, special viewing times were set aside for female audiences (Burt 1977, 42; Haskell and Penny [1981] 2006, 91). Describing her visit to the cast gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1830, Frances Trollope, an English entrepreneur and author of the Domestic Manners of Americans, commented on the academy’s defaced casts, scarred by crude graffiti, and suggested that individuals were less likely to touch and vandalize statuary in the presence of the other gender. Commenting on the fingerprints and fig leaves, Trollope wrote, “I never felt my delicacy shocked at the Louvre, but I was strongly tempted to resent as an affront the hint I received that I might steal a glance at what was deemed indecent” (quoted in McNutt 1990, 164). According to Trollope, segregated viewing perpetuated the notion that nude classical imagery was lewd and pornographic. Until 1820, concerns about affronting public sensibilities were the primary reason why New York’s Academy rarely exhibited its casts of nude figures (male or female) and stored these objects in crates (Swan 1940, 138). The subsequent wider-scale display of casts and the public’s exposure to classical imagery in a number of institutional settings altered public mores regarding how and to whom classical sculpture would be shown.

Classical Statuary in For-Profit Museums

The growth and popularity of for-profit museums during the early through mid-nineteenth century, including Peale’s American Museum and later P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City and Moses Kimball’s Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts, fostered increased public contact with classical imagery. These “dime museums,” which charged a dime or a quarter for access, exposed people from a wide array of professions and socioeconomic backgrounds to classical civilization. A guidebook to Barnum’s American Museum described the entrepreneur’s Roman urns as especially appealing to the “lovers of antiquity and those who are curious in the Customs of other countries” (1850, 21). In Boston, Moses Kimball’s collection contained a display of Greek statuary, and at least one of these statues was subsequently deposited in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Cummings 1902, 336). The collection of this material by for-profit institutions, which relied heavily on visitor attendance rates for their survival, suggests that classical material appealed to their audiences.

Classical Statuary in University Museums

Particularly from the mid-nineteenth until the early twentieth centuries, universities and colleges became large consumers of classical casts, which were acquired by funds from faculty members, administrators, local members of the community, alumni, and even graduating students (Mallampati 2010, 95–121). During this period, Cornell University, the University of Missouri, the University of Illinois, Brown University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Mount Holyoke College, (p. 49) Ohio State University, Princeton University, Yale University, and the University of Michigan all amassed sizable cast collections (Dyson 1998, 140; Wallach 1998, 46; Dyson 2010, 561–3). Faculty relied on casts for lectures, for their function as powerful, tangible links between classical languages taught in the classroom and modern understandings of classical culture, and for reinforcing the study and appreciation of the artistic and literary achievements of ancient communities. Indeed, some professors collected classical statuary and replicas in response to educational reforms that sought to limit the influence of classical education within the university.

At the University of Michigan, Professor Henry Frieze of the Latin Department spearheaded the opening of the Museum of Art and Antiquities in 1856 with a collection of plaster casts, terracotta statuary, and architectural fragments, intending to create a “classical museum in the University” that could display “specimens of Ancient art illustrative of the classics” (Proceedings of the Board of Regents, March 29, 1855, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan). Frieze argued that the display of ancient art was fundamental to the development of cultural unity, economic growth, and industrial trade, and to the education of university students and (more broadly) the entire citizenry. Particularly by the 1870s, such nationalist commentary on the importance of collecting and displaying classical artifacts probably reflected efforts to assert a united national identity following the Civil War. Frieze argued that “the improvement of the national taste” was an incentive to create museums with classical collections (Frieze 1876a, 436). According to Frieze, the creation of a national taste would also promote industrial advancement by encouraging the growth of “national industries” and new technologies inspired by classical imagery (Frieze 1876a, 435–6). Today, we are skeptical that a singular national taste is even possible, and we see many problematic biases in the canon Frieze sought to perpetuate, based as it was upon earlier European precedents (Haskell and Penny [1981] 2006).

Cost was an important consideration for many university museums, and the reasonable price of casts allowed even those institutions with limited financial resources the opportunity to acquire and showcase classical objects (Frieze 1876a, 443–4). Advocating for the collection of casts of statuary because of their large scale, wide availability, inexpensive price, and status as facsimiles of the most famous ancient statuary, Frieze wrote that “even more perfect than copies in marble could be made, and for all the purposes of art quite as valuable as the originals, can readily be obtained at an average cost of $25” (Frieze 1876b, 3).

Collecting in Early AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 1.3.1 Cast Gallery in the Old Library at the University of Michigan, c. 1900.

Like his contemporaries, Frieze believed that how and where casts were exhibited was of crucial importance for educating viewers. From 1883 until 1910, many of the classical casts at Michigan were displayed alongside modern artworks, such as Randolph Rogers’s Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, reinforcing the notion that classical material was not to be viewed in isolation but rather as a significant source of inspiration for modern artistic creations (figure 1.3.1). Many other cast collections, however, were arranged in chronological sequence, enabling the study of the stylistic development of classical artwork and providing a context for the ancient authors that faculty taught in their language classes. Whether casts were showcased alongside modern artwork or in a (p. 50) chronological framework, their display in universities became a unifying and emblematic visual symbol for the educated.

Classical Statuary in Libraries

The significant role of casts in education was a prominent reason for their display in libraries. For example, the Boston Athenaeum, a member-supported private library founded in 1807, began to acquire casts of classical statuary in the early nineteenth century. In the Memoir of the Boston Athenaeum, published in 1807, the library’s officers wrote that a display of artwork would aid in the “correction and refinement of taste” (quoted in Swan 1940, 3). By 1823, however, the Athenaeum’s trustees were asserting that a public display of art would also enhance Boston’s reputation, increase visitors’ personal enjoyment, encourage financial growth, and raise visitor attendance to the Athenaeum (Athenaeum Committee Appointed to Solicit Subscriptions, March 6, 1823, quoted in Swan 1940, 8). Initially, the Athenaeum’s classical casts were not exhibited in the public gallery (accessible to women), but displayed in the Library alongside the stacks of books and in other private rooms open only to men. The display of classical casts alongside books reinforced the notion that educational inspiration could be derived from the objects of the classical past and also that classical imagery was directly associated with educational aims. By 1839, the cast collection had outgrown the space available in the (p. 51) Athenaeum Library complex and some casts were put on display in the public gallery (Swan 1940, 139–40).

Collecting in Early AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 1.3.2 Court of Classical Casts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, c. 1910.

The classical casts offered different learning opportunities for viewers than the Athenaeum’s painting collection. “The study of the antique,” observed Franklin Dexter, a trustee of the Athenaeum, “is the very alphabet of art” (letter to the trustees of the Athenaeum, 1833, quoted in Swan 1940, 139). This “alphabet of art” and its comprehensive nature fit well with the letters and other books in the library. Franklin continued that the casts were the preferred method of study because they offered “the only practicable method of learning the perfect proportion for the human figure; for those proportions cannot be elsewhere found without opportunities for that study.” The Athenaeum’s collection included not only famous works, such as the Laocoön, the Apollo Belvedere, the Venus de Medici, the Capitoline Venus, the Discobolus, the Barberini Faun, and Demosthenes, but also a few original classical sculptures including a marble bas-relief of a horse from Herculaneum (Swan 1940, 134–5, 137, 157–8). By 1866, the Athenaeum’s trustees, overwhelmed by the large number of casts and the limited space at the Athenaeum, had decided to establish a “separate Institution, for the Fine Arts” to house many of the casts (C. Storrow, Standing Committee of the Athenaeum Report, March 1866, quoted in Swan 1940, 173). This institution became the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston (figure 1.3.2).

The Emergence of Nonprofit Museums: 1870s to 1917

From the late 1860s and early 1870s to 1917, the growth of large-scale nonprofit museums, such as the MFA, Boston, drastically altered the type, scope, and scale of classical statuary that was acquired and displayed in the United States. From the mid-1870s on, these institutions, which relied much more heavily than the smaller-scale for-profit institutions on private monetary and in-kind donations, slowly began to turn away from collecting casts and began to acquire more ancient classical statuary. Reasons for this change included developing legal restrictions on both sides of the Atlantic, America’s changing educational needs, and the increased sale of existing collections.

Italian Export and Ownership Laws

The changes to Italian laws over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the complex nature of these laws, and American interest in Italian classical artifacts all provoked great discussion and debate in the American press. In fact, some of the best primary sources on this topic are newspaper articles from the period. The New York Times, for example, has a wealth of information on American collecting activity (p. 52) especially at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the course of the nineteenth century, a number of Italian states enacted legal restrictions to ensure that antiquities would remain within state borders (“Art Treasures for Sale,” New York Times, May 28, 1879, 2). For example, the Pacca Edict of April 7, 1820, attempted to stem the sale of ancient artifacts in Rome after the Napoleonic plunder and prohibited the export of art and antiquities without the approval of the papal government (see essay 1.2, Podany). In 1902, a new nationwide antiquities legislation vested ownership in newly found artifacts with the Italian state but permitted private ownership of objects that had been owned prior to the law’s implementation (“Italy’s New Law on Antiquities,” New York Times, June 28, 1903, 6). The motivations for these export and ownership laws were numerous and included a desire to protect ancient artifacts from looting, to preserve the current architectural landscape by restricting the recycling of ancient materials for new buildings, and to uphold the interests and needs of specific social classes. Moreover, a renewed interest in classical studies invested ancient artifacts with educational and financial value (Guerzoni 1997, 112, 115).

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American journalists wrote extensively about the effects of Italian cultural patrimony laws on American collecting activity and presented arguments resonant of contemporary debates about the (p. 53) collection of classical artifacts. Opponents of these foreign laws, including the art critic and collector James Jackson Jarves, argued that Italy was squandering its economic opportunities with burdensome legal restrictions that hindered American collecting, because sales of classical material could generate incredible revenue for Italy (Jarves 1879, 3; “Impeding Progress in Art,” New York Times, November 8, 1879, 2). Likewise, others asserted that Italian museums were already filled with duplicates of materials that “have no value to Italy, but will be bought abroad for round prices” (“Italy’s New Law on Antiquities,” New York Times, June 28, 1903, 6). Yet, others recognized that these laws were enacted to preserve cultural materials for Italian citizens, but that ancient objects could have profound consequences for the development of American museums (“The Tariff on Works of Art,” New York Times, February 28, 1902, 9).

Dealers’ letters showcase their efforts to secure statuary for museums and fret about the effect of Italian legislation on American interests. Edward P. Warren, a dealer for the MFA, Boston, wrote that acquiring complete sculptures was challenging, because they appeared more rarely on the market and thus were much more difficult to “extract from Rome” (E. P. Warren, letter to Fairbanks, June 20, 1917, Edward P. Warren Box, E. P. Warren 1914–1917 file, MFA Archives). To evade various legal restrictions, Warren occasionally asked officials at the MFA not to display a recent acquisition until a set period of time had elapsed, and in other instances he noted that if an object were displayed, he would refrain from informing the MFA of its provenience for a predetermined period of time (E. P. Warren: letter to General Loring, November 11, 1895; letter to Brimmer, January 8, 1896, Edward P. Warren Box, E. P. Warren 1894–1898 file, MFA Archives; letter to E. Robinson, June 26, 1903, Warren folders, Art of the Ancient World Department, E. P. Warren 1903–1904 file, MFA Archives). In at least one instance concerning a bronze statuette, Warren concedes, “bronzes were just what we had to smuggle in, disguising their cost by covering them with other things which cost less” (E. P. Warren, letter to Fairbanks, April 12, 1912, Edward P. Warren Box, E. P. Warren 1899–1913 file, MFA Archives). Although Warren does not discuss to which locations these bronzes were smuggled or even where they originated, his admission regarding obscuring the monetary value of objects indicates his role in subverting export restrictions or customs’ duties and tariffs in his acquisitions.

American Tariffs

Tariffs affected the prices of objects and the size of museum collections, but public discussions about tariffs also played an important role in debates about casts, the purpose of museum education, and the public’s reconsideration of the value of original objects. The American tariff imposed specific fees on private collectors for importing objects based on the material, age, size, and whether the object was part of a collection (In Re Marquand, 55 F. 642 [2nd Cir. 1893], Goodwin et al. v. US, 66 F 739 [SDNY 1895], and U.S. v. Sixty-Five Terracotta Vases, 18 F. 508 [SDNY 1883]). From 1816 on, however, educational institutions, such as universities and nonprofit museums, did not pay tariffs (p. 54) on antiquities or casts of materials under the rationale that objects imported to further community interests provided by these organizations should not be subject to taxation (Benziger v. United States, 192 U.S. 38 [1904]). Critics of the tariffs, including some museum officials and collectors, however, argued that these duties restricted the number of artifacts entering the country through private hands, thereby reducing the number of in-kind donations to museums (Jarves 1880, 2; Marquand 1883, 5; Lane 1908). This argument assumed that greater personal collecting of objects would lead to increased donations to American museums.

Public debates regarding tariffs took place concurrently with American museums’ shift toward acquiring original materials rather than casts. Responding to public criticism about the application of the tariff on artwork and its negative consequences for museum donations, Congress passed a new tariff act (the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act) in 1909, later amended in 1913. The Payne-Aldrich Act freely admitted paintings over twenty years old and all antiquities over one hundred years old. Furthermore, changes to the tax laws in 1917 under the War Revenue Act permitted individuals to deduct the fair market value of donations of artwork to museums from their federal income tax. With fewer financial impediments via tariffs to acquiring artifacts and, following the War Revenue Act of 1917, increased incentives to donate material to collections, private collecting of original material swelled and in turn the donation of ancient objects to museums blossomed. There were exceptions to this trend, however. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for example, these American laws had a negligible effect on the museum’s activities, because a significant percentage of the MFA’s classical statuary had been acquired before the implementation of these two American laws (Mallampati 2010, 161–225).

Authenticity in Museums

In addition to changing laws that encouraged the importation of ancient artworks and their subsequent donation to museums, changing theoretical attitudes about the educational and societal value of ancient materials, the related changes to the art market, and shifting views on the function of museums and their displays resulted in increased acquisition of ancient objects by museums and universities. Emerging ideals of originality and authenticity played a significant role in the abandonment of casts in favor of ancient sculpture (Beard 1993, 22). For example, in 1912, the Director of the MFA, Boston, A. Fairbanks, a historian of Greek art, wrote that “casts became mere plaster without a soul and we recognized the magic of the craftsman’s hands, the beauty of texture and the nobility of form” of ancient objects (“The Museum of Fine Arts,” Boston Sun, September 14, 1912, quoted in Harris 1962, 559–60). Fairbanks stressed the importance of artistic creativity and believed that the ancient material object housed a touch of artistic genius that could not be found in casts.

(p. 55) The uniformity of “national taste” promised by the familiar canon of the most famous works became a disadvantage. Now, the exclusive display of original artifacts offered benefits to museums. Exhibiting casts alongside original artifacts could distract visitors and compromise the properties of original material (where the emphasis on artistic creativity and uniqueness are paramount) and diminish any value based on the aura of original material (M. Prichard, letter to S. Warren and trustees, November 1, 1904, quoted in Whitehill 1970, 202; Benjamin [1936] 1968). Moreover, a museum’s possession of an original artifact triggered personalized and unique experiences with specific ancient objects not found in any other institution (Handler 1986, 4; Hein 2000, 71). Encouraging such experiences with original objects permitted museums to distinguish themselves and their collections from other institutions and enabled museums to foster a distinct relationship with their visitors. Finally, a unique collection conferred status upon a museum and permitted institutions desperate for funding to define their roles and clarify their distinguishing attributes, while competing with other charities for philanthropic aid.

Museums and Education

Early commentators, such C. C. Perkins, a founder of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, remarked that the intent behind institutions such as the MFA was not to cultivate the education of a few but rather to benefit “all classes of the community” (Perkins 1871, 50). In particular, sculpture, rather than other forms of classical art such as coins and vases, was viewed by some museum officials, such as M. Brimmer, the president of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as having the most public appeal and in turn the ability to capture public interest in the museum (M. Brimmer, letter to E. Warren, July 24, 1895, Edward P. Warren Box, E. P. Warren 1894–1898 file, MFA Archives). The emphasis, however, on how classical sculpture could serve in education, what education meant, and how this education could assist the community changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In nonprofit museums, education could serve many functions, including elevating public taste (thereby functioning as a method of social engineering), teaching about the history and processes of artistic creation, entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring creativity (Smolensky 1986, 764). Where the emphasis of the museum would lie on this educational spectrum and which objects could best be used to accomplish museums’ purposes were discussed at length by a number of museum staff members. For the larger museums that sought to educate the masses, classical images, both casts and ancient artifacts, were efficacious tools in fostering aesthetic appreciation and informing the public about material creation and ancient history.

In the late nineteenth century, the rationales for acquiring casts rather than ancient artifacts in the large museums were similar to those offered by Frieze, namely casts’ low cost, high availability, comprehensive representation of subjects and artists, educational value, and freedom from export restrictions and legal burdens (Comfort 1870, 507–8; (p. 56) Report of the Committee on the Museum, Fall 1883, quoted in Whitehill 1970, 61; J. Elliot Cabot, Report of the Committee on the Museum, 1886, quoted in Whitehill 1970, 31; Boston MFA 1883). A collection of casts was a safer hedge than acquiring original artifacts, wrote J. Elliot Cabot, a Trustee of the MFA, in 1886, because there was no danger in “wasting our money through mistakes of” judgment (J. Elliot Cabot, Report of the Committee on the Museum, 1886, quoted in Whitehill 1970, 31). Whether Cabot feared wasting money on forgeries or on original artifacts whose educational or financial value dropped at a subsequent period, his proposition was that casts afforded more safeguards against the vagaries of the market.

By the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some staff members at the MFA and dealers argued that the market offered the best opportunities for acquisitions of new masterpieces of classical statuary, which in turn, offered museums the possibility of differentiating themselves (M. Prichard letter to S. Warren and trustees, November 1, 1904, quoted in Whitehill 1970, 201). The dealer E. P. Warren suggested that with his aid the MFA would become a “summa artistic [venue] of the best qualities of Greek art, boasting its fine specimens in each branch of sculpture, its few masterpieces” (E. P. Warren, Address to the Trustees of the MFA, November 13, 1900, Edward P. Warren Box, MFA Archives). Influenced by a focus on connoisseurship, some staff members at the MFA argued that the primary purpose of the art museum was not to engage in pedagogy, but rather to foster and maintain aesthetic taste in the community (Gilman 1904, 213, 217; Whitehill 1970, 183; Wallach 1998, 50, 56). This taste could not be found in the mechanically reproduced casts, which MFA staff member M. Prichard referred to as “engines of education,” but rather in authentic ancient artworks that were the “objects of inspiration” (M. Prichard letter to S. Warren and Trustees, Nov. 1, 1904, quoted in Whitehill 1970, 202). Here the museum’s primary functional value lay in its ability to inspire appreciation, and the museum’s role as refined tastemaker became paramount through its display of ancient sculpture.

Many casts were deaccessioned to clear precious floor and storage space for ancient statuary. At the MFA, Boston, the trustees gave some of the casts to local schools in Massachusetts, and museum staff members destroyed others with sledgehammers (Whitehill 1970, 437; G. Chase [Acting Curator of Classical Art at the MFA], letter to G. Aarons of the Samuel Adams School, November 5, 1947, Art of the Ancient World Department, Correspondence A 1941–1950, MFA Archives). Large museums’ abandonment of casts, once valued and esteemed tools for societal advancement, and their turn to amassing collections of original antiquities—in this period primarily statuary—had profound consequences for public conceptions of museums, originality, and education.


In the early United States, the acquisition and display of classical statuary and casts reinforced American political and social beliefs and asserted American cultural (p. 57) connections with classical civilization. The ownership of casts of statuary and later of original ancient sculptures, therefore, was a visual expression of American identity and interests, or at least the identity and interests espoused by some Americans. Casts offered a democratization of ancient culture both through their ease of production that afforded low-cost alternatives to ancient statuary and through the manner of their consumption. Casts permitted those familiar and unfamiliar with classical civilization the opportunity to gaze at and receive the benefits of canonical classical imagery. Supporters of casts asserted that this interaction could transform and enlighten the masses. Under this view, the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome was envisioned as the keystone of American culture. Classical civilization, however, was not a cultural history shared by or even recognized by all of the inhabitants of and immigrants to the United States. Unlike casts, original pieces of ancient sculpture enabled American museums and universities to distinguish themselves from their European counterparts. An emphasis on artistic genius in museums prioritized the ancient object but also underscored museums’ roles as tastemakers, astute connoisseurs, and disseminators of unique visual knowledge in American society.


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