Call for papers workshop Plaster face casts and the heritage of colonialism and racial science, Rome 18-21 October 2021

Fenneke Sysling's picture
Call for Papers
May 21, 2021
Subject Fields: 
Anthropology, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Race / Ethnic Studies


Dear colleagues,

We are still looking for several contributions to this workshop. The workshop aims to bring together European researchers and museum curators who know more about anthropological face casts. Collections of plaster casts of the human body can be found in anthropological museums all over the world and 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 it to create copies of the original faces. These casts were used to study and display racial differences and were often made of colonial subjects. Examples are collections created by Otto Finsch, Lidio Cipriani or P.M.A. Dumoutier.

The aim of this workshop is to discuss both the histories of these collections and current museum practices. How have these collections been made, studied and displayed? And what are the ethics involved in keeping and displaying the casts today?

Possible paper topics include:

  • What do we know of the experience of those people whose faces were cast in plaster?
  • What were the aims and ideas of the anthropologists who made the casts?
  • How were the casts displayed in museums? How were they received by visitors?
  • Can the casts be replaced by copies (if the moulds still exist?) or is there some value in the originals?
  • Is it possible to take ‘race’ out of the masks? (Where they were once displayed in a racial context they now seem to be displayed at times to convey a message about the beauty or the (genetic) diversity of humankind).
  • What do the descendants of these people think of the presence of the masks in Europe?
  • Should these collections be ‘decolonized’ and how?

This workshop is organized by Fenneke Sysling and the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome. An in-person conference is currently planned.

Please submit a short abstract (max. 300 words) and a short biography (max. 150 words) by 21 May 2021 to f.h.sysling[at] We do provide funding (within our budget) for travel and accommodation.

If you are not interested in participating but you do have plaster face casts in your museum, an email will be very much appreciated, as I’m trying to make an inventory of where these plaster casts are located.


Contact Info: 

Dr Fenneke Sysling, University of Leiden