Archaeology / History / Museums

Finding Forgeries at the Museum of Classical Archaeology

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‘Finding Forgeries’ at the Museum of Classical Archaeology

If you visit the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge in the next month, you will see a display that I curated on the idea of forgeries. It might seem curious that a museum would keep such objects after they have been identified as fake and even put them on display, but this isn’t the first time it has happened. There have been exhibitions on the topic before in the British Museum, the National Gallery, the V&A and many other places. In all these settings, they are usually accompanied by all the things you expect in a museum exhibition: labels detailing their history, glass cases to keep them safe, and lighting that ranges from the dim to the dramatic. In essence, they are museum objects; in reputation, they are often thought unworthy of the title.

The forgery of ancient Greek and Roman objects has a long history. Some might argue that for a museum to keep these objects is an inefficient use of space and that to display them is a disservice to their authentic cousins who might be waiting patiently in storage. In contrast, we could also say that the complicated narratives that come with forgeries make collections more layered and provide interesting opportunities. The histories of their investigations, the politics involved, and their constant reassessment as ideas about authenticity change over time are just the beginning of the story. I’m not here to argue that forgery should be lauded or accepted, but since we have so many of them around and we’re likely to discover more, we can think about how we can make them work for us as tools for creating knowledge.

The idea that a fake anything can somehow be acceptable is topical these days. Not only in the sense of today being the era of ‘fake news’, but also in the world of museums and heritage. The use of replicas is not a new phenomenon, but the decreasing costs of 3D printing have meant that more and more museums are creating copies of their objects. Initiatives like the 3D printed arch of Palmyra after its destruction have given ancient material remains more prominence, and have also brought new sets of complications. Forgeries of ancient objects are rarely copies, but they share with them the same paradox of looking like something but in actuality being something different.


The museum’s Peplos Kore statue.

Having forgeries on display in a place like the Museum of Classical Archaeology has interesting implications. The bulk of this museum’s collection is made up of plaster casts of ancient sculptures. These objects are overtly fake. Their museum labels explain their history and tell you where to find their originals. Most of them have been painted to look like marble, making them seem more ‘real’. Nevertheless, a few multi-coloured examples on display (even if quite imaginatively reconstructed) work to remind the visitors that the casts’ greyish skin provides a fake version of what ancient objects originally looked like. Some casts are fantasies in their entirety as they combine elements of different ancient objects to create a vision of the past rather than a copy of it. Despite all this fakery, the casts have authenticity as the artefacts of their own histories. They tell the story of collecting ancient art in whatever form, of the democratisation of knowledge through the distribution of copies, of the value of making connections between things separated by geography, and of generations of university students taught about ancient art in a chronological perspective. If we can find so much significance in copies, can we also find some in forgeries?


Amelung’s Athena is a composite sculpture

When creating any display or exhibition, an important goal is to construct a space and experience that will make people stop and look. As I read more and more about the forgeries in the museum’s collection, I was struck by how much effort had gone into trying to prove or disprove their origins. The question of whether something is real or not made people pause and has meant that many of these objects have received more attention than those whose authenticity is not in dispute. In all my reading, I also found a story about another exhibition which put forgeries alongside ‘real’ originals. The director of the museum made the observation that visitors spent more time looking at things now that fakes were also on display.* Artworks that had passively hung on walls now became something interactive as visitors sought to find the truth by following the footsteps of those for whom it is their life’s work. The fake had brought the real to life.

In my little display, I have also tried to make things interactive. You are asked to spot the fakes by using some clues, your phone’s camera and your detective skills. The focus is on the methods that archaeologists and art historians have used to cast doubt on objects’ histories because I wanted to show that authenticity in this context is a conversation about how we create knowledge about the past. For the twitter inclined, I encourage you to tweet your findings and your thoughts to #MOCAspotthefake and to tag the museum @classarch.

Having this display in the Museum of Classical Archaeology also means that we can think about the objects not only on their own but as part of a complex web of relationships. Do the cast copies gain an authenticity when they are placed next to forgeries? Would this authenticity be lost if the originals were in the mix? If a forgery is fake, is a copy of a forgery (we have a few of those too!) more or less fake than the ‘original’? What tarnishes the forgery is the intent to lie, but a copy of a forgery doesn’t have this problem. Does that make it more authentic than the thing it copies? All of these questions and the others I have hinted at throughout this post are difficult to answer, but that really is the point. When it comes to studying the history’s material remains and how we display them, answers are never as simple as just ‘this is fake’ or ‘this is real’ and if they are, then we are asking the wrong questions.


Find me on twitter at @AlinaKozlovski.


* This story is about Samuel Sachs, the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and his exhibition ‘Fakes, Forgeries, and Other Deceptions’ from the 1970s. See Newsom, Barbara Y.; Silver, Adele Z. (1978) The art museum as educator: a collection of studies as guides to practice and policy (Berkeley; London: University of California Press), p.81.


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