The nature of replication: replicas in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (by Elaine Charwat)

I started working on my AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral project “The nature of replication: Re-contextualising 19th- and early 20th-century replicas at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History – an interdisciplinary and comparative approach” in 2018. My first steps were to review, assess and provenance the models and casts held in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH).

At that point, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what the objects were I was dealing with, within the overall context of a Natural History Museum.

There were specimens, which did not fall into my remit. There were drawings and “artworks” in a wider sense, which also did not fall into my remit. Then there were models. There were casts. I needed to catalogue them. Straightforward.

However, things soon started to get complicated.

Here, for instance, I found some plaster casts of Giant Moa bones intermingled with actual Giant Moa bones, which had not been catalogued or labelled as casts. And they were surprisingly difficult to tell apart from the actual bones just by eye and touch.

Author Elaine Chawat and OUMNH plaster cast of Giant Moa femur. ©OUMNH

For me, it highlighted the fact that a clear distinction between casts and actual bones was – and is! – not always made, not in catalogues, on labels, or even in museum galleries. They are stored alongside actual bones. And this raises interesting questions about authenticity in Natural History Museums.

These bone casts are 1:1 replicas, stained to mimic exactly the actual sub-fossil bone – fossil bones were also often varnished to protect them. They often even have a similar weight. This made them very well suited for both display and research, where they could, for instance, be used in place of missing bones in mounted skeletons.

Reconstructed skeletons not only were – and still are – popular for display in natural history museums, they are also important for research.

In this instance, there is a cast mixed in with actual bone fragments used by Richard Owen from 1843 onwards to reconstruct and essentially “re-discover” this extinct giant flightless bird from New Zealand from just a few bone finds.

Moa bones with added casts, used by Richard Owen (acquired 1848, Royal College of Surgeons of England). ©OUMNH

The bones were sent from New Zealand to William Buckland at Oxford University, who passed them on to Owen. The happy result can be seen on this rather wonderful image below!

Hutchinson (1910), Extinct monsters. London: Chapman. Wikimedia / PD.

Casts of bones are hugely important as “stand-ins” when the bones of extinct animals are being reassembled, as it is rare to find complete specimens. This applies also in particular to dinosaurs.

But there is a caveat of course – these casts, although they give the impression of 1:1, true replicas, may be pure conjecture. Consider, for instance, casts of fake fossils, altered casts, mounted casts, casts not clearly labelled as casts, or objects claiming to be casts of something when they are not, and have instead been “sculptured”.

The various manifestations of the Iguanodon in the OUMNH are good examples – here, for instance, a model based on the first anatomical reconstructions by Richard Owen.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Model of Iguanodon, 1850s; basis for the “life-sized” reconstructions at Crystal Palace, Sydenham. ©OUMNH
The Crystal Palace dinosaurs today. ©Sally Foster

While we would now consider most features quite considerably off the mark (especially the mini horn, which was, in fact, part of the Iguanodon’s forelimbs), this 1850s model in its four-legged posture is closer to our most recent understanding of its anatomy – more so perhaps than this end-of-19th-century mounted skeleton cast from Brussels!

OUMNH cast of Iguanodon bernissartensis; in exchange from Brussels, 1897. (Photo ca. 1930s). ©OUMNH

The Iguanodon skeleton casts, distributed from Belgium to Natural History Museums across the world, further popularised and legitimised this theory.

Müller & Müller (2003) propose a dualistic nature of the model, defining the “model for” as a prototype, “an original”. The “model of”, on the other hand, as an image, a copy. However, as McCarty notes in 2005, the distinction between “models of” and “models for” “reaches its vanishing point in the convergent purposes of modelling; the model of exists to tell us what we do not know, the model for to give us what we do not yet have. Models realize” (McCarty 2005, 24). This aspect of the replica as an original object in its own right is firmly written into Foster & Jones (2020), New Futures for Replicas.

Also, casts, especially their moulds, have been in direct contact with the living or dead (or fossil) organism, but they are considered pure artefacts. They may be the ultimate witness of a state and process by having been in direct contact with and capturing specimens now lost. This wax cast of the Oxford Dodo’s foot was probably made prior or during dissection of the leg in 1847, and shows the ligaments and soft tissue in a way that the actual foot no longer does.

Wax cast of left foot of the Oxford Dodo, [1847?]. ©OUMNH

I believe that in order to do justice to these multi-facetted objects, we need to look at objects across established categories, disciplines, institutions and cultures. As Daston (2004) emphasises – referring to models as “things that talk”– “Things that talk are often chimeras, composites of different species”.

It also chimes beautifully with New Futures for Replicas: The concept of relatedness and composite object biographies takes us as researchers, and the holding institutions, outside silos.

Far from being redundant when the knowledge or science embodied in them changes, these objects make the processes of science visible. Replicas play an active part in re-examining and revitalising the debates and presentation around authenticity in Natural History Museums.

Part of my project is to restore these concepts and contexts to replicas, as they have often become side-lined in Natural History Museums as outdated, misleading and irrelevant.

Replicas tended to fall into two categories: for educating and entertaining the public; for display; or models for scientific research, publishing and teaching. But, of course, this was not always clear-cut, and still isn’t today.

Manufacture, circulation and use are of great relevance in this context. This refers us back to McCarty’s statement that models – and I would say all replicas – “realize”.

One thing is obvious to me – material models are part of “the field”, “the lab”, part of generating knowledge. They are important objects that record the processes behind collections, institutions and science – information that is often not recorded elsewhere.

They are not ephemeral to museum collections; they are part of their core data. And this needs to be written as much into the guidance, practice and infrastructure for Natural History Museums as for Heritage institutions – and the New Futures for Replicas provides an excellent starting point for this.

Elaine Charwat | AHRC CDP PhD candidate | UCL & Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Learn more about Elaine’s work in her podcast!


  • Daston, L., ed. 2004. Things that Talk. New York: Zone Books.
  • McGhie, H. 2019. “Mainly making models: the scientific use of natural heritage collections”. In: Brenna, B., et al. eds. 2019. Museums as Cultures of Copies: The Crafting of Artefacts and Authenticity. London: Routledge, pp.55-68.
  • McCarty, W. 2005. Humanities Computing. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Müller, T., and Müller, H. 2003. Modelling in Natural Sciences: Design, Validation and Case Studies. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

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