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The Victorian equivalent of VR

Cast from the past

The Victorians discovered a way to install the world’s great monuments in museum galleries. It was, argues Tom Standage, an incipient form of virtual reality

The Victorians discovered a way to install the world’s great monuments in museum galleries. It was, argues Tom Standage, an incipient form of virtual reality

Tom Standage | April/May 2018

In February 1880 Alfred Maudslay, a 29-year-old British diplomat who had served as consul in Tonga and Samoa, resigned from the colonial service to pursue his real passion: archaeology. He set off for Guatemala, where he became one of the first people to excavate the ruins of the Mayan civilisation. As well as recording temples, monuments and elaborate hieroglyphs using dry-plate photography, then a new technology, the pith-helmeted Maudslay made liberal use of a technique that had recently become all the rage in the museum world: plaster-casting. It was the Victorian equivalent of virtual reality.

Enthusiasm for plaster-casting had taken off at the end of the 1860s. Henry Cole, director of the South Kensington Museum (now known as the Victoria & Albert Museum), persuaded 15 European princes to share plaster casts of their countries’ greatest artworks with each other. He believed this would democratise art: people who could not afford to criss-cross Europe on a Grand Tour could now view the continent’s treasures up close. In 1873 two galleries dedicated to plaster casts opened at the V&A to critical acclaim. Visitors perused a replica of Michelangelo’s “David” and a huge cast of Trajan’s column from Rome, sliced in half to make it fit indoors.

The mania for plaster casts did not last. Museum directors worried that original works were being crowded out by mushrooming plaster-cast collections that lacked thematic coherence and took up too much space. A report published in Britain in 1905 noted that “in conversation with experts abroad, no subject seemed so controversial as that of plaster casts.” Opponents of casts considered them “misleading, being dull and mechanical in comparison with the originals”. Were they valuable educational tools or was disposing of casts, as one critic suggested, a necessary endeavour, equivalent to “the dethroning of false gods from their altars”?

Maudslay’s casts of Mayan hieroglyphs, donated to the V&A, were transferred to the British Museum, where most of them spent the 20th century in storage. By the 1920s the tide had turned decisively against such reproductions: the British Museum closed its cast gallery and the V&A elected not to acquire any new examples. There was talk of shipping the V&A’s casts to Crystal Palace, which had its own extensive collection, but this idea was abandoned when Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936. Reluctantly, the V&A was obliged to accept the surviving casts. Not for the first time, a virtual-reality technology failed to live up to lofty expectations.

Yet Victorian plaster casts have recently enjoyed a change of fortune. As part of a collaboration between the British Museum and Google, Maudslay’s casts have been digitised using 3D scanning and can now be scrutinised online and in modern-day virtual reality. They are invaluable for researchers deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs. Unlike photographs, they can capture depth and detail. They are also prized for another reason. The original Mayan monuments have been greatly eroded since the 1880s by acid rain, so Maudslay’s virtual models are now the most detailed record of them. He foresaw such an outcome. In 1899 he wrote that his casts, “preserved in the museums of Europe and America, are likely to survive the originals”. Similarly, the cast of Trajan’s column in the V&A is in better condition than the real one.

Around the world, efforts are now under way to digitise works of art, buildings and entire sites using modern technologies such as lidar – a laser-scanning technique that recently revealed thousands of Mayan structures hidden, appropriately enough, on the floor of the Guatemalan jungle. Maudslay would surely have approved. As he was the first to realise, virtual-reality models, both old and new, can do more than just transmit the experience of objects across space. They also preserve them through time.