The collection is made up of 22 plaster casts of famous sculptural pieces from National and International Collections. These include mainly examples of Ancient sculpture, in particular sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens in Greece. There are also copies of Renaissance pieces.
An art education teaching school in Birmingham first came into being in 1843 - known then as the Birmingham School of Design. At this time, like other regional art schools the teaching followed The National Course of Instruction for Government Schools of Art in Britain, as laid down by the Department of Practical Art within the Board of Trade, then under the influence of Henry Cole. The syllabus of this course focused on learning by practice and imitation, believing that by copying the best examples, students could learn their artistic skills, and so continuing the long tradition of artistic apprenticeships first started by the Renaissance artist of Italy. Within this syllabus, various objects and ornaments from history were actually prescribed for use, for example at stage 8 when studying human or animal figures it was suggested to use the Parthenon Frieze. The Birmingham School of Art in common with various other schools in this country and abroad, developed its own collection of plaster casts for students and teachers to use.
Artists and students have used plaster casts of original sculpture from classical antiquity and classical archaeology to assist with their study for hundreds of years. Even the Ancient Romans produced copies of earlier Greek statues for study. The first artist to have collected plaster casts is thought to have been an Italian fifteenth-century painter Francesco Squarcione, who used them to assist with the training of his apprentices. The style of ancient sculpture was much revered by the Renaissance artists of this time including both Michangelo and Donatello. The study of ancient classical sculpture, through drawing, painting and modelling formed a large part of an artist's apprenticeship. Since this time, this tradition has continued, with various individuals and institutions starting their own plaster cast collections. The first university to assemble a collection of this kind was in Göttingen in 1767. It was at this time that plaster casts were becoming more widely available as more ancient discoveries were made, and the fabrication and transportation of these often-huge pieces became more affordable.
The decline in the making and collecting of casts appears to have come about with the Great War of 1914-1918. The ideas of classical civilisation being the pinnacle of taste fell from favour, halting the reproduction of classical sculpture in plaster cast forms.
The exact details of when and where these plaster casts were acquired is not known, they may have been donated to the Birmingham Society of Arts c.1820 or they maybe later examples from the late-nineteenth or early twentieth century. A number of the casts are recent copies made from other casts already in the collection; these have been identified where known.