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The Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung Funds a Research Project at the Gipsformerei

21.09.2020

The Gipsformerei (Replica Workshop), founded in 1819, houses historical moulds and models of over 7,000 pieces of sculpture dating from prehistory and early history through to the 20th century and stemming from almost all of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin collections as well as renowned institutions in Germany and abroad. After having long been regarded as purely utilitarian, the collection’s historical value is now becoming apparent. The Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung (Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation) has been decisive in facilitating the first step on the way to a scholarly and conservational indexing of this extraordinary collection.

Historical casts provide information about the history and canon of our museums, the relationships of political exchange between international institutions, and the biographies and transfers of museum collection objects. They are artefacts of traditional casting and mould making techniques, preserving lost works of art and cultural history beyond their lifespans. It is in this sense that this pilot project focuses on those forms and models based on lost, destroyed or damaged works of art. A large proportion of these works did not survive the Second World War or were taken out of the country as spoils of war; some were harmed throughout the years by weather conditions or otherwise damaged. Thanks to the historical casts produced on a grand scale as of the mid-19th century, many of these works have been preserved in plaster for posterity.

A Three-Year Research Project Has Been Made Possible by Generous Funding from the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung

The Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung’s generous support is now making it possible to examine this part of the collection, which is particularly important to Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Around three hundred works in the inventory form the key focus of the three-year research project, which is being carried out by an interdisciplinary team consisting of an art historian, a restorer-conservator, artistic plasterers and sculpture painters. The project will lay the groundwork for a complete inventory and constitute the first stage in preparing a scholarly inventory catalogue. This undertaking will not only pave the way for further research into lost works of art but also provide knowledge about the history of plaster casting, the techniques and craft of historical casting, and the significance and value of casts over time.

Recovering Historical Knowledge and Generating Insights into Old Craft Techniques

“On behalf of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, I would sincerely like to thank the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung for its generous contribution,” said Christina Haak, deputy director-general, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. “The project’s eligibility for funding highlights the Gipsformerei’s great potential and the need for a rethink ‒ one in which moulds and models will also come to be recognised as historical collection objects.” “The two main pillars of the Gipsformerei – production and collection – come together in this project in an ideal way”, explained Miguel Helfrich, head of the Gipsformerei. “In an exemplary manner, the project will recover historical knowledge and generate insights into old craft techniques, providing the basis for us to guide the Gipsformerei’s operation into the future.” Veronika Tocha, who leads the project, added: “With Near Life: The Gipsformerei – 200 Years of Casting Plaster, we made the Gipsformerei’s collection the focus of a large public exhibition for the first time in 2019–20. Funding from the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung now enables us to carry out the necessary basic research and to test and introduce scholarly and conservational standards on site”.

Documentation of the Gipsformerei’s Historical Inventory

“Documentation of the Berlin Gipsformerei’s historical holdings is of incalculable value from an art historical standpoint, with unparalleled information preserved in the moulds about damaged or even lost artworks”, Martin Hoernes, secretary general of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung pointed out. “It is also an important concern of the researchers that the extensive cultural as well as historical economic cosmos of the museum manufactory ‒ consisting of craft production, demand-driven marketing, and sales ‒ is also soon incorporated into existing knowledge about the inventory.”

The Project Provides a Cross-Section of the Gipsformerei’s Entire Holdings

The objects examined have included forms and models based on works from the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst (Sculpture Collection and Museum of Byzantine Art), the Antikensammlung (Collection of Classical Antiquities), the Nationalgalerie (National Gallery), the Ägyptischen Museum und Papyrussammlung (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection), the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte (Museum of Prehistory and Early History), the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum), the Museum für Asiatische Kunst (Asian Art Museum) of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and external collections. The heterogeneity of the collection areas and types of objects means that the project provides a cross-section of the entire inventory of the Gipsformerei. Because losses and damage were suffered throughout the collection, affecting not only famous portrait busts from the early Renaissance, classical figurines, and small Greek sculptures but also English plaques, ancient Egyptian implements, Attic votive reliefs, Byzantine lamps, Javanese Buddha heads, Aztec calendar stones and Trojan antiquities – to name just a few examples.