La Biennale di Venezia 2016

The V&A collaborated with La Biennale di Venezia at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition (28 May – 27 November 2016), the world's largest and most important architectural forum.

A World of Fragile Parts was the 2016 special project for the Applied Arts Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia. The exhibition explored the threats facing the preservation of global heritage sites and how the production of copies can aid in the preservation of cultural artefacts.

Ecological uncertainty, violent attacks, and the increasing demands of tourism are just a few of the factors putting global heritage sites and cultural artefacts at risk of destruction and loss. Copies and scans have emerged as a way of mitigating risk by providing valuable records of culture, and offering alternatives for people who want to experience historical sites and objects first-hand.

V&A Cast Courts, late 19th century © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Museums have a long history of producing copies. In the 19th century, the V&A led an effort to produce and display plaster casts of significant works of art for the benefit of art students and local audiences who could not travel to important sites across Europe. The Museum's purpose built Cast Courts still remain open today. Cast collections proliferated throughout Europe and America as an educational tool. However, in the early 20th century, attitudes towards the value of copies shifted, and many of these collections were discarded.

For the cast collections that survived, a new value emerged: preservation. Through decades of careful conservation, museum casts have outlasted many of their originals, which have either been destroyed by war, or degraded through circumstance. In many cases, these casts are now the primary source of knowledge and culture.

Photograph © Andrea Avezzù, courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

With the development of new scanning and fabrication technologies, there is a renewed effort to preserve through copies. With that comes a host of difficult questions: What do we copy and how? What distinguishes a bad copy from one with lasting value? What is the relationship between the copy and the original in a society that privileges authenticity? And how can such an effort be properly coordinated at a truly global and inclusive scale?

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Find out more about the La Biennale di Venezia, or see more from A World of Fragile Parts on our YouTube channel.

This exhibition was supported by Volkswagen Group.