Abbey L. R. Ellis

ContactAbbey L. R. Ellis


Dr Sandra Dudley

Dr Milena Melfi

Prof Bert Smith

Thesis title

Original copies in the modern museum: value, authority, authenticity and practice in the uses of archaeological plaster casts.

The project is funded by the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme and is split between two institutions, the University of Leicester and the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology.

Thesis synopsis

Abbey's project will contribute new ways of thinking about the life and significance of replicas and copies in museums, and of cast collections in particular. The research is very timely: the last international conference devoted to the topic, Destroy the Copy II, organised by the Freie Universität Berlin (8 to 10 October 2015), expressed the urgency of sharing views, knowledge and practice over the value of casts and their future. This CDA will contribute to addressing this need for impactful work in this area in general, and in the Ashmolean’s cast collection, in particular.

The research aims to explore the possibilities that may lie in considering casts in museums as what they are, rather than what they stand for. Research questions include: Do cast collections have their own value, or do they inevitably comprise secondary, supplementary objects? What right do they have to be kept and exhibited in a museum? Are they simply copies of masterpieces, made of poorer material? Do they have intrinsic value, and if so, what is it? What perceptions do visitors have of casts? What are museum professionals’ main challenges in curating and presenting these materials? Are there alternative means of engaging and enabling visitors to engage with them? And how might such an investigation inform current scholarship and practice around authenticity, object potentiality and visitor experience in museums?

Over the last few decades, plaster cast collections have become an increasingly resonant area for scholarly research and museum practices. There has been renewed interest in such objects – from their role as teaching materials and means of representing absent and lost works, to broader recognitions of their artefactual appeal for display. Yet in most of these approaches, casts continue to be dependent upon the originals from which they were derived, with their own intrinsic identities as objects in their own right, still neglected. Abbey seeks to investigate how far the casts' own qualities have particular effects on museum visitors, and how far these effects are enhanced or altered by other factors too. Recent work in material culture theory and museum studies, particularly that focused around object materiality and object agency,  provide an important critical context for understanding this aspect of classical archaeological casts.

Abbey's research is interdisciplinary, drawing on relevant work in the fields of archaeology, history of ancient art, art criticism, material culture, museum studies, visitor studies, etc. It will involve field research conducted in the Ashmolean Museum’s Cast Gallery, utilising a combination of methods that will likely include ethnographic techniques together with some experimental interventions and evaluations thereof.


2017 - Featured Article: "Banquets in Etruscan Funerary Art: For the Living or For the Dead?" in Assemblage, The Sheffield Graduate Journal of Archaeology.

2018 - Forthcoming featured article in FRONTIER Postgraduate Journal, University of Leicester.

2018 - Forthcoming featured article in the International Journal of Student Research in Archaeology.


2013-2016: Classical Archaeology and Ancient History BA. Merton College, University of Oxford (First Class)

2016-2017: Classical Archaeology MSt. Merton College, University of Oxford (Distinction).

Share this page: