Copy Culture
Reproductions at the V&A and the ReACH Declaration
Brendan Cormier
Senior Design Curator
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Brendan Cormier (CA) is Senior Design Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. For the last three years he has been working on the curation of the new V&A Gallery in Shenzhen, China, which opened last December. In 2016, he curated "A World of Fragile Parts" at the Pavilion of Applied Arts in Venice, a collaboration between the V&A and the Venice Biennale. Prior to working at the V&A, he was the managing editor of Volume Magazine, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Reading time: 14 minutes.

We1 don’t tend to think of museums as storehouses of copies. Rather, we go to them to see the real thing: virtuosic works of art, painted sculpted, and crafted by the hands of great makers over the centuries. We seek out originals, presumably, to bathe in the warm glow of their aura, to come as close as possible to a historical time and place, and to revel in the experience of a unique and irreplaceable object. After all, in a world of seemingly frictionless reproduction, originals have become a rare commodity, their numbers decreasing in proportion to an ever-growing number of digital and physical copies.

Copies, for this very reason, are a bit of a dirty word: they are seen as cheap, vulgar, and fake. At their worst, they take on the form of the forgery, an unethical attempt to pass for an authentic work, punishable by law. A gentler form of critique sees them rather as a pest: proliferating both materially and digitally, polluting our collective visual landscape with poor renditions and tacky applications (a Mona Lisa coffee mug, anyone?).

Yet, for as much as museums do brave and valiant work, collecting, maintaining and displaying originals, they are far more ensconced in the conservation and circulation of copies than we might think. Peering into this world reveals a far more complex relationship: a copy has a symbiotic role that rather than degrade the value of an original, works to exalt and preserve it.

Look behind the scenes, and you’ll see how museums employ dedicated photography and scanning specialists to record and document their collections, working at a furious pace, with the goal to record everything the museum owns. Through this work, millions of digital files are being produced and stored on massive server farms; complex digital asset management systems are being constructed to control the flow of information, and website portals are being refined and tweaked; all so that museum professionals and the broader public of Internet users can access cultural heritage through digital copies. As museums expand and grow across the globe, a parallel world of digital copies grows along with it.

Digital copy-making is also improving: becoming more faithful to the original, higher in resolution, capturing details naked to the human eye. This is not just restricted to the flat images we see on our screens, but also the world of three dimensions. Any moderately tech-savvy person can now walk into a museum, and using just their smartphone, take multiple pictures of an object (provided you can walk all around it), feed it through some software, and create a fairly faithful digital model. Websites like Scan the World and SketchFab are growing exponentially in content, with the simple mission to host the 3D creations of hobbyists and professionals alike. Museums too are adapting by creating their own 3D studios, building a library of mesh files and point cloud data – the DNA of any three-dimensional image – which could one day rival the collection of 2D digital images currently being made. It can seem downright Sisyphean at times: once a complete collection of reproductions in one format is achieved, a newer higher-quality format arrives, and the task must start afresh.

So why go to the trouble? Why amass such large reserves of digital content, in various formats? To answer that, you might start by asking yourself where you first encountered a famous work of art. Odds are, you saw it first as a reproduction: online, in print, in a film or on a poster. The proliferation of images of works of art, in fact, has become a significant driver for going to museums: the opportunity to see the original, finally, after having seen the reproduction so many times over. The value of any given work, for better or worse, might even be measured more by the extent of its reproduction, than of its art-historical merit. The reproduction has a very real currency.

But beyond simply increasing footfall, museums are interested in copies for fundamental reasons concerning access and learning. Museums emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the mission to serve a broad public, to give access to great works of art, for both pleasure and education. It was especially so in Victorian England, where a reformist attitude took hold: museums were tasked with doing nothing less than improving all of society. Specific measures were taken to ensure that every social class had access. Gas lighting, for instance, was introduced early on, so that museums could stay open late, providing the opportunity for labourers to visit those hallowed halls. The V&A itself established a circulation department in the 1920s, so that its collection could travel to different towns and cities across the country: it was not just Londoners who should reap the benefits of such cultural amenities, but the entire nation. Fast forward a century, and we can now view the museum as having a world-wide audience. With the explosion of global tourism, and ever-increasing Internet connectivity, museums are harnessing the power of their online platforms to build their reputations and provide unprecedented access to their collections across the planet.

V&A archival photos. From left: RCA Workshop, Head of David

Copies also play a significant role in stemming the tide of loss and degradation. Museums are charged with keeping objects forever. But all artefacts are susceptible to damage, and the deteriorating vicissitudes of age. For this reason, digital records have become of increasing interest for conservation departments, keen to keep precise data on the state and changing state of an original. The copy acts as a valuable resource from which to base important conservation decisions. In certain, more tragic cases, copies have served as the only surviving record when an original object is lost. This was highlighted most brutally during the ISIS occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq, when several iconoclastic acts led to the destruction of World Heritage sites. Digital archaeologists, using tourist photography and museum images, were able to reconstruct several of the lost and damaged artefacts. As a result, scanning is increasingly seen as a pre-emptive measure to safeguard against destruction.

The 1867 Convention and towards a new Convention

While the possibilities of digital reproduction are incredibly exciting, it’s important to remember that in many ways, we’ve been here before. Copies once helped form an important part of many early museum collections. This was especially the case for the V&A, where in its first decades, the museum actively commissioned and displayed copies in the form of plaster casts, electrotypes, and photographs. During the construction of the museum, two enormous courts were designed and designated for the display of plaster cast copies of statues and architectural details. The logic behind collecting casts was simple: the museum wanted to show its audience the greatest works of art in the world; architecture and statuary being generally immovable, and owned by other nations - the museum’s response was simply to copy them. The crowning achievement for the V&A was the cast of Trajan’s Column, erected at the museum in 1864. Towering so high that it had to be chopped in two to fit the already cavernous space of the courts, the cast showed, and continues to show, how an architectural copy can resonate with its own unique presence and aura, separate from its original in Rome. During the second half of the nineteenth century, museums around the world participated in the commissioning and collecting of casts. A thriving economy grew, of professional casters, producing vast catalogues of disembodied plaster copies, for sale to the highest bidder. The trend came to a halt at the beginning of the twentieth century, with many curators and museum directors beginning to view cast courts as vulgar and lacking in value. Sadly, many cast collections were discarded wholesale from museums, making the surviving cast collections today all the more curious and valuable.

V&A archival photos. From left: Trajan’s Column, Cast Catalogue

At the end of the nineteenth century museums also experimented with other novel reproduction technologies. One such method was called electrotyping, whereby a mould was dipped into an electrolyte bath, which, when charged with an electric current, would deposit a thin layer of metal onto the mould, creating a microscopically perfect copy. The V&A partnered with a commercial manufacturer called Elkington & Co., to produce hundreds of metal copies of assorted objects, including goblets, tables, and basins. Elkington & Co. also ended up selling many of these copies to film studios, and so museum copies have gone on to leave their impression in film history. Copies of V&A electrotypes have been spotted in film classics like Ben Hur, Indiana Jones, and more recently Game of Thrones.

The museum was also an early adopter of one of the most radical reproduction technologies of the nineteenth century: photography. It established its own photographic studio in 1856, with the museum’s founding director Henry Cole appointing his brother-in-law Charles Thurston Thompson to be the first official photographer. Thompson oversaw the production of over 10,000 negatives, of works from the collection and on loan, but also of architectural, figurative, and decorative works in various sites around the world. The photography collection served many fronts: as a way of documenting what the V&A owned, as an easy-to-distribute educational tool (photographs being easier to move than casts), but also as artistic works in their own right, highlighting how copies carry their own unique expressive signature.

In 2016, sensing that there was an important relationship to be drawn between the nineteenth-century history of copying, and emerging twenty-first century digital technologies, the V&A curated and produced the exhibition ‘A World of Fragile Parts’ at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, in collaboration with La Biennale di Venezia. The show traced both the history and original ambition of the museum’s copying practices, while pointing out an unexpected role these copies ended up playing: preservation. Copies unintentionally acted as back-ups. As various forces wreaked damage and destruction on originals (pollution, war, and accident), the museum was diligently conserving and preserving their copies. As a result, in some cases, these copies have in a way outperformed their originals, having suffered less decay, and thus remaining truer to the original from 150 years ago than the original today.

A World of Fragile Parts © Photo by Andrea Avezzù, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

In the exhibition, nineteenth-century copies were then contrasted with a section showing twenty-first century initiatives, in which each explored different aspects of the potential for digital copies. As this was a period following the iconoclastic acts of ISIS, many projects focused on how digital tools could be harnessed to recreate lost artefacts. Morehshin Allahyari digitally remodelled figures from Hatra, embedding a USB stick within 3D resin prints, which contained the source material she used to make her objects. Project Mosul Rekrei, on the other hand, scoured the Internet for imagery of lost artefacts, often taken by tourists, to reconstruct models through a process of photogrammetry. Other projects looked at freezing ephemeral moments in time. Forensic Architecture took four different bombing sites in the Middle East and modelled the resulting plume clouds; Sam Jacob Studio took a temporary shelter from a refugee camp outside Calais and monumentalized it by milling a new version out of synthetic stone. Other projects called for more open sharing of 3D models. Scan the World, for instance, offers a platform for anybody to upload their own 3D scans of statues and works of art. ‘#NefertitiHack’ was a staged ‘ethical art heist’, where Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles surreptitiously obtained a 3D file of the bust of Nefertiti and released it publically as a torrent file online. The projects all suggested that 3D reproductions represent a rich and complicated terrain – one that we have only just begun to explore.

At the centre of the exhibition was a single document, Henry Cole’s 1867 ‘Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefit of all Countries’. The document laid out, in concise and simple terms, the immense cultural value of sharing reproductions, and called for a system of collaboration, where countries could openly and easily exchange copies with each other. While attending the Paris Expo of the same year, Cole was able to charm several princes from across Europe to sign the document. The document is remarkable, in one sense, because it presages by 150 years the enormous energy today in arguments being made for more open systems of exchange, such as those laid out by Creative Commons, OpenGLAM, and Europeana. For this reason, at the end of the exhibition, we asked participants to consider what an updated version of the convention might include today, given the new opportunities that our technological landscape provides. This planted the seeds for thinking how we might go about actually rewriting Henry Cole’s convention, especially considering the fortuitous timing that 2017 would mark the document’s 150th anniversary.

1867 Convention courtesy of the V&A

The ReACH Declaration

Following the closing of the exhibition in November 2016, the Peri Foundation approached the V&A, via Adam Lowe – who also participated in the exhibition – with the suggestion that we collectively and formally attempt to rewrite the convention, which we would go on to call ReACH (Reproductions of Art and Cultural Heritage).

It was interesting to think about: not just in terms of how the content of such a document might change and evolve to reflect the realities of today, but also how the format for drafting it should differ. In all likelihood, Henry Cole wrote the original convention on his own, and given its brevity, probably over the course of a single day. He also appealed exclusively to royalty to sign it, rather than the museums and institutions that actually oversaw cultural heritage. We took it upon ourselves, instead, to think more collaboratively about writing a convention, by partnering with several host institutions, and by inviting as wide a range of experts as possible, to help co-author the document.

What transpired was a series of five roundtables with five host institutions – the Smithsonian, the Hermitage, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Palace Museum and the V&A – held in Washington, St Petersburg, Abu Dhabi, Beijing and London, where we would attempt to write successive iterations of the new document. In addition, the project was launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in May 2017, where an initial conversation was had to discuss the fundamental question of what such a document should try to achieve. In actuality, we know very little about the effectiveness of the 1867 Convention, nor what kind of actions it might have prompted. Plaster production and trade was already well underway in 1867 and would eventually decline at the beginning of the twentieth century. In all likelihood, the document was most important as a reflection of an ambition, rather than something that effected massive change. So understanding what kind of agency we were seeking to have with the updated convention was crucial. We decided that the new document should both reflect an ambition for more open production and sharing of reproductions, but also lay out guidelines for sound principles of how such an ambition should be approached.

At each roundtable, experts from across the region were invited to speak about specific areas of digital reproduction they were currently wrestling with, in order to inform the contents of the new document. Individuals as well as institutions, start-ups as well as public organizations, scholars, lawyers, curators, digital experts, conservators, and educators took part. At the end of each roundtable, a special session was convened with a smaller group to work through iterations of the new document. These sessions were often hotly debated, while remaining constructive. Through repetitive drafting, the group was able to gradually find consensus and mutual understanding as to what the document should achieve and what it should contain. The final version of the document, called the ReACH Declaration, was unveiled at a special forum held at the V&A in December 2017, containing the signatures of the partnering institutions as well as several other collaborators. The goal now is to grow the list of signatories and to encourage ReACH-inspired projects in cultural institutions around the world.

A book was also produced, entitled Copy Culture: Sharing in the Age of Digital Reproductions, to commemorate the ReACH Declaration. The book serves to elucidate in more detail some of the bigger challenges ahead, while highlighting the best practices we encountered. Contributions came almost exclusively from practitioners who participated in the ReACH roundtables, and the discussion has been roughly divided into what we see as four main opportunities and challenges behind digital reproductions: how we make them, store them, share them, and use them. The book was also a live experiment in using open-access imagery. Throughout the book, we scoured open-access collections from around the world, juxtaposing imagery from these collections with quotes from the texts. It’s an exercise in free association, and just one more example of what you can do with digital reproductions.

In writing about copies, it’s useful to recall the famous short story by Jorge Luis Borges, ‘On Exactitude in Science’. In it, Borges depicts an empire obsessed with the recording of its own territory through cartography. Eventually the maps grow in size and detail, until one day an exact one-to-one map is constructed, covering the entire empire. The inherent folly of the endeavour was sensed by passing generations, and it eventually withered and decayed into the landscape. One wonders if, with the world of digital copies, we too are creating a kind of one-to-one map, an overlay of digital objects, so vast that it might one day become ungainly and unusable, only to wither in the digital landscape in the near future. Borges’ story is a useful reminder that the impulse to record should never outweigh asking the fundamental questions of why and how. This is precisely what we hope to achieve with ReACH and our ongoing explorations in digital reproductions at the museum.

Kick-off event for ReACH at UNESCO, June 2017, courtesy of the V&A
Brendan Cormier (CA) is Senior Design Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. For the last three years he has been working on the curation of the new V&A Gallery in Shenzhen, China, which opened last December. In 2016, he curated "A World of Fragile Parts" at the Pavilion of Applied Arts in Venice, a collaboration between the V&A and the Venice Biennale. Prior to working at the V&A, he was the managing editor of Volume Magazine, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

  1. Re-worked version of the introduction (Anaïs Aguerre & Brendan Cormier) to Copy Culture - Sharing in the Age of Digital Reproduction, edited by Brendan Cormier, V&A Publishing, 2018. [return]