Casting an eye on the V&A

Little can prepare visitors to London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) for the shock and thrill of being confronted by a life-size replica of Trajan's Column. This stupendous sight and many other treasures are on show again in the museum's recently revamped, hugely impressive Cast Courts.

The largest galleries in the V&A, they are also the only galleries there to house the same collection they displayed when the museum opened in 1873 (above).Collecting plaster cast reproductions and electrotypes (models made by electrolytically depositing copper in a mould) had become extremely popular, especially as few people at that time could afford to travel to see the originals. In the V&A, reproductions of a range of the world's most illustrious works of art and architecture were on show: from Trajan's Column (AD 113) to many works by Michaelangelo (1475–1574), including David, a bust of Brutus, a colossal statue of Moses and the unfinished Slaves from the tomb of Julius II. The Trajan's Column cast – now restored (below) – was so vast it had to be cut in two to fit it into the gallery.

Erected in Rome to commemorate the emperor's two successful campaigns against the Dacians, the original column is famed for its spiralling friezes, which portray in astonishing detail 2500 figures in battle and engaged in an array of other activities, providing us with a clear glimpse into Roman life.

The skill and ingenuity in creating these casts was considerable, and their makers achieved great feats of artistry and engineering. When the art of cast-making fell out of favour in the 20th century, many collections were dispersed or destroyed. But the V&A's collection was retained and is one of the few remaining in the world. Today, the casts have the additional value of presenting us with accurate copies of originals that have been destroyed or damaged in war or revolution, or severely weathered.

New exhibits include a scaled-down digital reproduction of the 3rd-century triumphal arch of Palmyra, which was destroyed by so-called Islamic State in 2015, and casts from the 16th-century Tuileries Palace, burned down by the
Paris Commune in 1871.

The original 19th-century floors and wall-colours of the Cast Courts have been restored and a brand new gallery explores the history, processes and contemporary significance of casts. The V&A's cast collection is still awe-inspiring and, like our forebears, we can admire these works in the comfort of elegant galleries without having to travel to distant lands.

Diana Bentley