Episode 102

102. Copies in Museums


July 31st, 2023

14 mins 55 secs

Your Hosts

About this Episode

On Berlin’s Museum Island, four stone lion statues perch in the Pergamon Museum. Three of these lions are originals — that is to say, lions carved from dolerite rock between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE in Samʼal (Zincirli) in southern Turkey. And one is a plaster copy made a little over 100 years ago.

Pergamon Museum curator Pinar Durgun has heard a range of negative visitor reactions to this copy — from disappointment to feeling tricked — and engages visitors to think more deeply about copies. As an archeologist and art historian, Durgun is fascinated by the cultural attitude and history of copies: the stories they tell about their creators’ values, how they can be used to keep original objects in situ, and their role in repatriation or restitution cases.

In this episode, Durgun describes the ways that museum visitors’ perception of authenticity has changed over time, how replicas jump-started museum collections in the late 19th-century, and some of the ethical implications of copies in museums.

Image: Reconstructed Lion Sculpture Sam'al near modern Zincirli Höyük, Turkey 10th-8th century BCE by Mary Harrsch

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 102. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Welcome to Museum Archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum Archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums. Each episode is rarely longer than 15 minutes, so let's get started.

On the Museum Island in Berlin, four stone lion statues perch in the Pergamon Museum. Three of these lions are originals — that is to say, lions carved from dolerite rock between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE. And one is a plaster copy carved a bit over 100 years ago.

Pinar Durgun:  When you see these lions, you cannot tell the difference which one is a copy, which one is original.

And lately, curator Pinar Durgun has been wondering how visitors feel about that copy.

Pinar Durgun: But when I tell visitors, this one is a copy. So how do you feel about that? How do you feel about a copy being here? Do you feel like you've been tricked?

Pinar Durgun: And if I ask a question like this, they say yes. They say, I don't like copies.

Durgun works at the Pergamon Museum, where those Gate lions from Samʼal are now perched -- well, some of them.

Pinar Durgun: My name is Pinar Durgun. I'm an archeologist and art historian, currently working at the Pergamon Museum as a curator.

Pinar Durgun: We're on the Museum Island. And it's funny because you always say museums are not islands, but we are literally on the Museum Island, one of the five museums on the museum island, but they're all kind of interconnected, I would say.

Ian Elsner: That's terrific. They're in their own little archipelago.

Pinar Durgun: Yeah, exactly.

The Gate lions from Sam’al, also known as Zincirli in Southern Turkey, were excavated in the early 1890s and came to Berlin through a colonial-era practice called Find Division, which was a system to divide up ownership of excavated artifacts.

Pinar Durgun: So during the Ottoman period when excavations were happening, so for instance, Germans or other foreigners were excavating in the Ottoman Empire, there were some agreements between the Sultan and the Kaiser here in Germany. So they were basically dividing objects that they were finding, and half of them would come here and half of them would stay in Istanbul.

Of course, the extent to which this division was carefully adhered to depended on the local and international power dynamics, so in many cases it was more than half. But when an original artifact was to remain in the Ottoman Empire, the excavators would use a molding shop to make a copy.

Pinar Durgun: The Berlin State Museums has its own plaster workshop called Gipsformerei. And this is a very old institution. I think it's one of the oldest in the world. It's 200 years old and the people who work at the Gipsformerei create these copies that look almost exactly like the originals.

Pinar Durgun: And they take pride in creating copies that are skillfully made, skillfully prepared. So it is difficult to distinguish between originals and copies.

The late 19th century was a time when the modern museum was taking shape, and institutions all around the world were seeking to fill collections. And copies, particularly paster copies from skilled molding shops like Gipsformerei made that possible.

Pinar Durgun: So this interest in having ancient objects in museums or in university collections was growing as an idea based on education basically. So you would acquire a copy for your art school, let's say, and then people who could draw these Roman or Greek statues that they would otherwise never see. Now we can travel and see these statues, but think about a time when you could not do that, where you could not go see the statue of David whenever you wanted to, or you couldn't Google a picture of it. Canonical highlights or quote unquote masterpieces were being distributed around the world in universities, museums, and schools.

Pinar Durgun: And this is a time where museums were basically coming to being, right? They were being formed. So a lot of the collections were built through these copies. The Metropolitan Museum, for instance, bought a lot of copies.

The idea behind acquiring these copies was to allow museums like the MET to showcase a “survey of art history” for the interested public, more like a textbook. And many museums still follow this model.

Pinar Durgun: Science museums, natural history museums we're so used to seeing reconstructions or copies of things or for instance, things that are like blown out of scale. It's a copy. It's not an original, but it communicates information that you cannot otherwise communicate. So people are on board with those things.

But during the 20th century, many history museums trended away from showcasing copies. Museums that built up collections based on copies started giving the copies away to smaller collections or smaller universities as the perceived value of a copy waned and the cultural aura around an original increased.

As Durgun says, the visitor's attitude of feeling tricked when presented with a copy might have something to do with the shift – but even that is not clear.

Pinar Durgun: There was a recent survey, I think it was 2020 that they did in maybe nine German museums to see how visitors react to copies. And it was very mixed. There was no solid conclusion that people don't like copies or people like copies. It's very much context dependent and how you present information.

Pinar Durgun: The only thing that they don't like is being tricked, and I think that's also a challenge for us curators. How do you make people feel like they're not being tricked, and how do you signal that this is a copy?

But it’s not like the lion is trying to hide the fact that’s it's a copy. The label on the plaster copy clearly indicates that it is a copy. So if a visitor is feeling tricked, that feeling might be based on a visitor's expectations of what they might see when they enter a museum. Of course, museums are responsible for setting those expectations.

Pinar Durgun: When I say for instance, think about a copy of an object that is lost during the war. Because this also happened, right? Some of the Berlin museums got destroyed during World War II. Some of the objects got lost. So what if we only had a copy of this object, and then we have that in the museum. Then their approach changes a little bit. Or if I say, let's say, we have an object in this collection, but it is requested from the country of origin, and it's returned, and we keep a copy of that object in the galleries and talk about this whole process of restitution, then they're like, yes, you know, that makes sense. That would make sense. Or for instance, if we have a copy and then you can go touch this copy. Recently one of our conservators here created a copy of one of these dragon figures from the Ishtar Gate as a touchable copy. The label encourages you to go touch it. And in this case, everyone loves it. Everyone loves to touch things in museums, as you know. So if there's a copy that you can touch, everyone is on board with copies. So it really depends on how you present the copy to the visitors.

Here, Durgun is focused on archaeological objects, and underscores that coping indigenous objects or ethnographic collections is a completely different issue. In those cases, the indigenous groups need to be involved in the decision to make copies at all.

But even with archaeological objects, the challenge of presenting copies to museum visitors includes understanding different cultural attitudes about the perceived value of copies.

Pinar Durgun: The other cultural context is the Mesopotamian, the ancient cultural context. How did people perceive or think about copying in ancient Mesopotamia? So I'm kind of looking into that as well, because in ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, an image of a person, or a God or a king is not just an image, it's not just a copy of that thing, it's the thing.

Pinar Durgun: It stands in for the thing. So when you make a statue of a king there are all these rituals that go around it, and then the statue becomes the king. So there's a different way of thinking about images and objects in ancient Mesopotamia. So how do I bring in that while presenting these copies.

Pinar Durgun: We also treat some of the artworks in the same way. For instance, if you think about the Hokusai Great Wave, right? There are multiple copies of this because it's a wood block print that was produced, in multiple versions.

Pinar Durgun: So the British Museum has multiples of them. But when you see the Great Wave in a museum, you treat it as this is an original object, even though you can think of it as like a photocopy in some ways, right? But you don't treat it that way.

There’s even a whole industry of immersive exhibitions of famous artists whose work is in the public domain, all displayed as digital copies.

Pinar Durgun: If you think about these more commercial, immersive exhibits that are popping up everywhere, like the Monet's Garden or Van Gogh's World or something like this. And then you just go to this exhibit and there's not a single original painting. Everything around you is a copy, is a digital copy. You're looking at screens, and people don't mind paying 20, 25 euros to go see copies.

The perceived value of a copy also looks different in a computer. Copying is the native function of digital systems – and a digital copy is a perfect replica. The computer doesn’t have a way to know what is an original file, and I’m not sure what that would even mean. Even the concept of moving a file from one location to another in a computer system, which has a clear physical-world analog, is actually achieved on many systems by copying the file to another location, confirming that the two files are identical, and deleting the first.

There seem to be two ways that the digital world intersects copies in museums. The first is translating something in the real world to digital information and back again. A process achieved by digital photographs, by 3D scans and 3D printers. Here the marginal cost of storing, distributing, and copying approaches zero.

Pinar Durgun: I feel like with 3D scanning and copying, because it was such an amazing opportunity to create copies and make things more accessible or documenting things, we all jumped on it really fast before even thinking about what are the ethical implications of copying? If the purpose is we are scanning this building, or this, let's say, open air relief because we wanna preserve this information for the future because it's exposed to the weather and the rain and everything. So it may not preserve in let's say 20, 30 years. Then you need to think differently. It is probably good to have some sort of documentation of these objects because, Wars always happen, catastrophes always happen. The National Museum in Brazil had a big fire a couple of years ago, and a lot of objects no longer exist. So if there was a digital scan of them, maybe that could have been good.

Pinar Durgun: So it has benefits obviously, but then we have to figure out do the benefits justify the fact that there are all these problematic ways of using copies. As a museum, you legally have the right to scan something. You don't really have to ask anybody.But then some of the objects that are in museums come from other places. And then who is the owner of the scan or the copy or who gets to have a saying on what can be and cannot be copied is also I think a question that we haven't really figured out, both like ethically and legally.

Pinar Durgun: You see these replicas in museum shops that basically copy the original objects on display, and I am guilty of this as well. I love buying little replicas of museum objects. But in the museum, it makes money out of this, so what is the ethical implication of this is another question. Do you actually own these things? And do you own the rights to replicate these things, even if it's for education, even if it's not commercial. I find that a difficult question to answer.

The second way that the digital world intersects copies in museums is the increasing amount of culture that’s digital-only. The historical record contained in online forum posts or art that was made and distributed digitally doesn’t really have an original.

There are now digital tools that recreate scarcity in the digital world, that reintroduce the concept of an original to a digital system.

There’s no question who owns a bitcoin for example, and there’s no way to copy your bitcoin and end up with two bitcoins, like you could with any other digital file. NFTs are a way to apply that same scarcity to an arbitrary artwork or piece of information.

Pinar Durgun: Ten years ago were we this much obsessed with authenticity? is a question that I'm trying to ask myself, I'm trying to find more writings about it because I feel like this whole, like NFT or this, AI or the deep fakes, I think you wrote about this as well.

Pinar Durgun: There is this anxiety around things not being authentic and original. So is that the reason why we feel a little bit anxious about copies? It seems like there has always been some sort of anxiety around copies. Maybe not in these early years of the establishment of the museum collections because then they didn't have original objects, so the only thing they had was the copies. But again, like even from like 20 years ago, there are these writings about original objects having their own aura or you having some sort of like genuine experience with the original, whereas you don't have that with the copy.

So where does this leave museums? How should museums present copies in their collections? For Durgun, it might mean actually highlighting the history of the copy itself – how it came to be, what was the reason for making the copies. In other words, valuing the copy as an object with its own history, puncturing the common expectation of museums as public treasure boxes filled with priceless artifacts.

Pinar Durgun: I feel like one of the best ways to open up museums and make them a little bit more welcoming is the possibility that the museum would acknowledge the fact that they're not the sole authority. And saying that we don't know what to do with copies. We have these now in our collection and we're trying to find a way to make them useful. But what do you think about them?

Pinar Durgun: I think this is a better way of moving forward. Maybe some people hate it, but we should also say that for some people,copies may not have any kind of value. But here are maybe some ways that they can be valuable and useful. So showing these different kind of perspectives on the issue of copies, I think is also a good step forward.

This has been Museum Archipelago.