Q&A with Marjorie Trusted

Simon Stephens, 28.11.2014
The lead curator of the V&A's cast courts on the significance of the collection
Majorie Trusted is the lead curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) cast courts.

The Italian cast court reopens on 29 November following a refurbishment overseen by design consultancy Metaphor. The purpose-built galleries were created in 1873 to house the museum’s collection of casts of post-classical European sculpture. They feature some of the largest objects in the V&A’s collection.

What is the historic significance of the casts?

They reflect what was going on in many museums in the 19th century – the idea of educating people, inspiring artists and allowing the ordinary visitor to enjoy the collections.

You have to remember that in the 19th century not many people could afford to travel and there weren’t that many illustrated art books, so this was a wonderful way of showing people works of art that they wouldn’t otherwise get to see.

And why are the casts important today?

The significance of our casts is that, sadly, many collections have been lost or destroyed, because, as the 20th century dawned, all sorts of other factors came into play.

People could travel more easily and art books were produced and there was a change in attitude towards copies, with a slight feeling that they were rather secondary and less important than what were called real works of art.

But the V&A kept its collection and kept its cast courts. What has happened, which is very gratifying, is that we seem to have come full circle. There are many people who have the same excitement and response to these casts as people did in the 19th century.

And we have tried to indicate on their labels that they are of interest as objects in their own right quite apart from what they represent. They were made by Italian cast makers who were incredibly skilled and who could make high-quality casts that reflected the complexity and detail of the original objects.

Why are these objects so popular with visitors?

One reason is that you are right in among them. They are not in glass cases, and you are very aware of the scale. Another reason is the excitement of being with objects that in reality are often hundreds of miles apart. You don’t know what you are going to see next, so there is excitement and drama.

Many people who have come to these galleries recently have said that they remember being brought here as children. So I think there is a sense that people don’t feel intimidated.

There is not a certain order, chronology or way you must understand a particular artist. You just enjoy the whole thing and you get a very visual pleasure out of them.

Have the cast courts been restored to look as they did in Victorian times?

The decoration is very much as it was in Victorian times as are the floor tiles. But while the position of the big casts is the same, the other pieces have been moved as, if you look at early photographs, things were being moved all the time, there was no one display.

When this was first opened there were photographs, architectural models, brass rubbings, real objects, because this was called the architectural court so they had all sorts of things in here, which would be very confusing if we brought them all back.

We wanted to have this sense of Victorian density and richness without making it too confusing.