Plaster face casts and the circulation of racial knowledge in Europe

Central to this paper are collections of plaster face casts, found in anthropological museums all over Europe. Plaster face casts were made by anthropologists who created moulds by applying plaster to the faces of non-western people, brought the moulds to Europe and poured fresh plaster into them to create copies of the original faces. These casts were used to study and display racial differences and were often made of colonial subjects.

While they were made as scientific artefacts that were supposed to convey the essence of racial groups, people have always been struck by their individuality and lifelikeness. Today’s museum visitors on the other hand also see these objects as a forceful reminder of the violence of colonialism and its impact on individual lives that can be seen in the anxious faces.

Unlike ethnographical objects or human remains, plaster face casts are not unique: from the moulds, several copies could be made and exchanged. Plaster cast collections, for example those made by anthropologists such as the German Otto Finsch and the brothers Von Schlagintweit, the Dutch J.P. Kleiweg de Zwaan and the Italian Lidio Cipriani, can therefore be found in anthropological museums all over Europe.

This paper traces several collections of plaster casts to start mapping a European transnational network of paster cast production and exchange. What role did casts have to produce friendship and community among anthropologists? The paper also aims to better understand what the role of these masks was in the production of racial knowledge: what did masks do what human remains, photographs of measurements couldn’t?