The Plaster Cast

a 19th century collection of ethnographic objects procured for the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, London

The portrait bust is a plaster cast taken from life. It depicts Niels Pedersen Karasjok who was a prisoner at Christiania Tugthus (prison) in Oslo when the plaster cast was made. According to the prison records, he was «a butcher from Karasjok» and father of four children. This was his second conviction for stealing reindeer. He arrived at Christiania Tugthus on 27 January 1852 and was released on 9 May 1853 [1]. 

This is one of three plaster casts of Sami prisoners, made for a collection of Sámi artifacts in the 1850s. The collecting process was lead by the Norwegian scholar Prof. Ludvig Kr. Daa, acting on a request from the British ethnographer Dr. Robert Gordon Latham. The archive at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo holds a complete list of the objects they collected [2].

Today, the idea that humans can be categorized in subspecies, races, is no longer valid and is considered as pseudo-science.

The making of life casts like this arose in response to the late 18th century science of phrenology. In anthropological circles, during the later part of the 19th century, the study of man was based on measuring bodies, since morphological characteristics were held to reflect an individual´s moral and intellectual character. The casts could be reproduced, exchanged and arranged in series to show the hierarchy of man. In addition to measuring faces and skulls, casts could convey aspects of race that could not be expressed in numbers, and could also serve as archetypical examples of race.

Today, the idea that humans can be categorized in subspecies or races, is no longer valid and is considered pseudo-science. The plaster casts have been removed from exhibitions and are stored in museum attics and basements. The material presence of these plaster casts raises many ethical and museological questions. As a testimony to scientific racism, the busts now bear witness to the history of science. There is an urgent need to historicize these objects and re-introduce them in exhibitions, this time to deconstruct racial categories.

[1] Fangeprotokoll Kristiania Tukthus. Fanger. 1850-1857. Statsarkivet, Oslo SAO/A-10644/Had. IV.

[2] Universitætets ethnografiske Musæum. Indkomne Breve 1833-1877 Archive reference 246/1855: «Fortegnelse Over de ethnographiske Gjenstande, der ifølge  kongl: Resolution af 8 Febr 1853 ere anskaffede for Chrystalpaladset i Sydenham.”



Silje Opdahl Mathisen