History of the Collection
The project which became the “Museum of Antiquities” began in 1974. It was initiated by ancient historian Michael Swan and art historian Nicholas Gyenes, both professors of the University of Saskatchewan. The collection began as a small group of replicas purchased from the Louvre, but grew to include replicas from other museums and workshops, as well as original artifacts. The collection grew through the generosity of the University and private benefactors until, in 1981, new facilities in the Murray Library were acquired, and the collection was officially opened as the “Museum of Antiquities.” In 2005, the ever-expanding Museum moved to a larger space in the newly-renovated College Building now known as the Peter MacKinnon Building.
Aim of the Collection
The long-term aim of the Museum is to offer a reliable and critical account of the artistic accomplishments of major Western civilizations and epochs from approximately 3000 BC to AD 1500. The first step in this endeavor was the presentation of a dependable picture of ancient Greco-Roman sculptural art, as it has heavily influenced much later Western art. The present collection focuses on items from the Middle Helladic (c. 1500 BC) to the Late Antique (c. AD 500) period. In recent years, it has been expanded to include pieces from the ancient Near East and ancient Egypt.
The collection is, however, only a beginning. Greco-Roman antiquity was chosen as a starting point. Classical art remains an important frame of reference of Western art, which, whatever it does, does so with awareness of conforming or dissenting. The distinct style of Classical art is also very recognizable and thus provides a familiar foundation. Since the aim of the collection is to make sensible the elements and progressions of the various arts, our initiation is greatly facilitated by familiar examples. The collection’s recent expansion into the art of the ancient Near East and Egypt provides a welcome and necessary counterpoint, illustrating both the convergence and divergence of the artistic traditions of the ancient world.
Given the planned scope of the collection and its aim of explaining and illustrating the evolution of individual arts as well as their interaction, we would be hard pressed to fit, in this small area, adequate representation of the many innovations and rapid changes in pre-modern Western art. Such versatility cannot be thoroughly documented and demonstrated by our few examples. Inevitably, in this phase of the collection, the gaps are many and we can provide only an outline of the art of this period.
Most of the pieces in the Museum of Antiquities are replicas. A replica is a work that is created directly from, and is practically indistinguishable from, its original. The replicas in our Museum are, in general, not crafted from the same material as the original. Most are casts of plaster or resin, not marble or bronze, for the obvious reasons of expense and weight. The replicas by large workshops--such as those at the Louvre, Paris, the British Museum, London, and the Gipsformerei der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin--are created from moulds taken directly from the original pieces. They therefore replicate exactly any damage borne by the original. After the plaster cast is unmoulded, it is painted and given a surface finish which matches the original.
The aim of the present collection is to offer a reliable and critical account of the accomplishments of all periods and civilizations in the field of Western sculptural art. Such an objective would be unattainable for museums of priceless originals, but is within the bounds of possibility with a relatively inexpensive cast collection. It is not the rarity or fame of the work that determines the price of a replica, only the cost of production. A faithful copy of the priceless and famous Venus de Milo, for instance, entails no greater expense than would any other statue of its size. Although a replica cannot serve as an investment or status symbol for a collector, a well-crafted cast provides a unique instrument of study and research in addition to its aesthetic qualities.
In fact, the guarded treasures of departments of antiquity in museums are mostly ancient copies of Greek works made to grace Roman homes. Without these ancient copies, our knowledge of ancient statuary would be most fragmentary. Furthermore, the intermediary procedure and technique used by the sculptors of antiquity correspond to the modern plaster casting technique.
Often a plaster cast will fare better than the original, made of marble or bronze, which has been destroyed or mutilated beyond repair. The replicas of the panels from the Parthenon frieze, for example, are in better condition than the original panels, which were until recently still in situ and had deteriorated, attacked daily by air pollution. Should some major disaster occur and destroy the original, the corresponding replica from this museum could easily be elevated from its humble station of a copy to the high rank of a prototype.
Thus we are doubly indebted to the procedure of replication: the easy, economical technique and light weight of its product makes it relatively easy to create and disperse high quality prototypes all over the world. Thanks to replication, the “survival of the species” is assured and we have the opportunity of knowing and appreciating, at such a distance in time and space, the great creations of the remote past.
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