The Aura of Copies: A Study in Victorian Museology


This project builds on a successful collaboration with Museums Sheffield, and the Guild of St George, owners of a collection of books, minerals, plaster-casts, and paintings exhibited in Sheffield in the 1870s by John Ruskin. Ruskin's museum aimed to further the ‘liberal education of the artisan’, and to house what he called ‘memorial studies of Venice’, works of art commissioned to preserve that city’s endangered facades and paintings. I was awarded funding to create an online museum that would reconstruct and re-interpret the system of meaning between artefacts and environment that prevailed before the collection moved from its original home. The online museum is viewable at Walter Benjamin’s account of copies as hostile to the 'aura' of original works undergoes complication when applied to Ruskin’s ‘memorial studies’. Ruskin hesitates between the idea that works of art embody irrecoverable intrinsic value, and the notion that their essence can be preserved through copying.

My proposal lays the foundations for a book-length study that explores the relationship between copies and aura in Victorian art and literature. At its core will be a chapter on Ruskin, which will address Ruskin’s contribution to the theory and practice of the copy, and how might it challenge dominant conceptions of how copies preserve value as well as to what extent Ruskin’s emphasis on copies challenges the conventional understanding that Victorian museums alienated original objects from native contexts. I will also explore how Ruskin’s curatorial methods condition the meaning and function of copies, and their relationship with the original works housed by the museum.?


Marcus Waithe is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Lent 2012.

Dr Marcus Waithe completed his PhD at King’s College Cambridge in 2004. He held the post of Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Sheffield between 2005-2009, before returning to Cambridge in 2009 to take up a University Lectureship. He is the author of William Morris’s Utopia of Strangers: Victorian Medievalism and the Ideal of Hospitality (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2006). Articles by him have appeared in Victorian Studies, Textual Practice, The Yearbook of English Studies, English and Essays in Criticism. Apart from writing on Victorian topics, Dr Waithe has published on the poetry and criticism of Geoffrey Hill.


In 2010, Dr Waithe launched Ruskin at Walkley, a funded project to reconstruct John Ruskin’s museum for artisans on the web.


Tel: +44 1223 766886