New Futures For Replicas

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The soaring 1970 concrete replica of St John’s Cross, Iona. Image © Sally Foster.

By Sally Foster

With the publication in July 2020 of New Futures for Replicas: Principles and Guidance for Museums and Heritage, one of the lead authors invites us to reflect on its implications in heritage preservation practices and mind-set. New thinking about authenticity reinforces the critical role of conservators, past and present, in realising #replicafutures.

I am not a conservator, but I felt a strong affinity as I listened to those of you speaking at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s (V&A) 2019 Cast Courts conference Celebrating Reproductions: Past, Present and Future. This was the last in a series of activities marking the 150th anniversary of Henry Coles’ 1867 Convention for Promoting Universal Reproduction of Works of Art for the Benefit of Museums of all Countries. The V&A Museum had just refurbished its Cast Courts, including the addition of a new gallery looking at replication. A palpable interest in the cultural biographies of the casts was evident. The casts had all needed conservation, and their intimate, embodied examination had enthused the conservators working with them. They were making new and exciting discoveries that enriched the stories of the casts, people and places associated with them. All the way up to its director, the V&A was now focussing on the stories of the casts in its collection rather than on the originals for which they stood proxy, a shift reflected—in an understated way—in the Museum’s new display captions.

The V&A is rightly proud of its replication history—at the core of its very being—as are a growing number of other museums and art galleries with significant plaster cast collections. But replicas are found, created and used far more widely and diversely. They continue to have mixed fortunes, with many still in curatorial purgatory of some sort and are sometimes still at risk of ready disposal or destruction.

My direct experience has been that the intellectual and practical treatment of existing replicas is disjointed and fragmented in terms of the museums and heritage sites where they are found. Replicas, and often their originals, sit between places, collections and sectors and are subject to inconsistent, different and divergent practices which may well lead to inertia and invisibility. Shifts in museum practices so evident at the V&A Museum’s conference are therefore not universal, and heritage organizations can be on different tracks all together. We seek to change this with new and joined-up thinking and working.

Fundamental to such a change is moving away from the idea that authenticity is something intrinsic to an object. Rather, it is about how we experience the truthfulness and auratic qualities of our subject; this is based on material qualities, a sense of ‘pastness’ and the networks of social relations it is embedded in over time.

This is the context in which my colleague Professor Sián Jones and I led on the co-production of New Futures for Replicas: Principles and Guidance for Museums and Heritage, now available as a 20-page illustrated leaflet, available to download here. Working in collaboration with a wide range of academics, museum and heritage practitioners, in partnership with National Museums Scotland, ICOMOS UK and the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities Heritage Hub, we have sought to transcend sectoral thinking and practices. Published on the New Futures for Replicas website, New Futures for Replicas is supported with thematic reading lists and a #replicafutures blog. Overall, this is the place for joined-up thinking about, and working with, replicas, particularly analogue replicas informed by current ideas about authenticity, value and significance. We welcome you to take a look and join in on the discussion!


Sián and I, between us, have a long history of researching replicas, composite biographies of objects (linking the lives of replicas and originals), exploring alternative understandings of authenticity and co-production. The immediate research context for New Lives for Replicas is that we had teamed up for an ethnographic study of a modern concrete replica. Our full study, My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona is a composite biography of the eighth-century original, the world’s first Celtic ringed cross, with emphasis on the life of the 1970 replica. It is also a critical study of what it means for an object to have a ‘life’ and to possess authenticity. Our ethnographic findings unravel the role that social relations, craft practices, creativity, place and materiality play in the production and negotiation of replica authenticity. Such authenticity is rendered invisible when replicas are treated as mere surrogates for a missing ‘original’.

Prior to our research, the St John’s Cross replica was being perceived and treated by heritage professionals in a way that was informed by traditional understandings of authenticity. Our research invited new and alternative ways of thinking. The outcome is that the St John’s Cross replica, deliberately omitted in the past from any designation at Iona Abbey, is now listed at Category A, and new on-site interpretation gives the replica a voice of its own.

“The agency of local makers and modern-day conservators is generally under-explored and needs to be considered.” (Guidance 1.11)

When researching the historical dimensions of this composite biography, it became clear that conservators (and at times the lack of them!), played critical roles in the story. Yet, the conservators’ full agency was difficult to establish from the historic records. The implications of our findings from the Iona case study have fed into New Futures for Replicas.


“This special category of ‘linked objects’ … warrants research that also crosses institutions, museums and borders.  The principles and guidelines offered in New Futures for Replicas form a useful basis/tool for directing new research and conservation questions and contribute to an overall re-evaluation of this category of objects. For museums in particular this could help making replicas more visible and an integrated, valued and functional part of their collections and (online) catalogues.” (Lucas Petit, Head of Collections & Research, National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden)

In short, New Futures for Replicas champions replicas and offers a means to analyse and articulate their potential significance, informed by new understandings of authenticity. Focussing on analogue replicas, we complement the 2017 V&A / Peri Reproduction of Art and Cultural Heritage Declaration with its digital focus, although our approach and framework are different.

We crafted the introduction to give context and explain the focus on analogue and the gap we are filling. We define a series of principles (higher level and sub-principles—see below):

A. New understandings of authenticity recognise replicas as original objects in their own right with stories worth telling
B. Replicas are distinctive as ‘extended objects’ with ‘composite biographies’ that link the lives of the copies and the originals
C. Replicas merit the same care as other objects and places
D. Replicas invoke specific local and global ethical issues

Guidance then follows that underpins the cross-cutting principles:

1. Researching and understanding replicas
2. Understanding the authenticity and significance of replicas
3. Caring and protecting
4. Engaging and enjoying
5. Creating new replicas

We offer an appendix of questions to ask of replicas, individually or in groups, to help elicit historic, aesthetic and social/spiritual values, and the whole is topped off with a glossary, starter reading and credits to the many who worked with us.

You would be correct to detect the influence of the Burra Charter behind our framing of assessment of value and significance and the “Heritage Cycle” behind the guidance.


“The story of the creation of replicas can be captured and shared for the benefit of present and future generations. This might encompass all the people involved, the intent, the decisions made along the way, the personal reflections as people engage with the historic original and replica. Visual media are particularly effective but should be accompanied by documentary sources. This can be built into commissions for new replicas.” (Guidance 5.4)

You’ll recognise a place for yourself in all categories of our guidance, not just the above. No one else will examine replicas in the way you do, nor with your particular skills and experience. Our desire is to better capture the knowledge and observations of conservators in future assessments and projects.

We created and designed New Futures for Replicas for international application, with a view to it being read and adapted for local, culturally specific circumstances. We’d love to know how it could (and does) make a difference to your thinking and practice. Please contact us to share your experiences and feedback.


Dr Sally Foster is senior lecturer in heritage and conservation at the University of Stirling and newly elected secretary of the European Association of Archaeologists. Her publications include “The thing about replicas: why historic replicas matter” in Journal of European Archaeology (with Neil Curtis). Her recent book with Professor Sián Jones, My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona, includes their ethnographic research on replicas, first published in International Journal of Heritage Studies and Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites. @ableminds_ #stirheritage #replicafutures #stirlingprinciples

(Read the whole story and see the stunning images in the October-November 2020 "News in Conservation" Issue 80, p. 14-19)

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My direct experience has been that the intellectual and practical treatment of existing replicas is disjointed and fragmented in terms of the museums and heritage sites where they are found. Replicas, and often their originals, sit between places, collections and sectors and are subject to inconsistent, different and divergent practices which may well lead to inertia and invisibility
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