PUL Special Collections and Makerspace collaborate on face casting workshop and conference presentation

What is the purest image of a person? Is it their reflection in a mirror? A marble statue? An impromptu self-portrait?

 Will Noel

Emma Sarconi (left) and Ariel Ackerly standing behind two examples of face casts. Photo credit: Will Noel

For late 19th century American essayist and theater critic Laurence Hutton, face casts were the pinnacle of recreating an individual’s likeness. 

“The value of a plaster cast as a portrait of the dead or living face cannot for a moment be questioned,” said Hutton in Harper's Monthly Magazine in 1893. “It must of necessity be absolutely true to nature. It cannot flatter; it cannot caricature. It shows the subject as he was, or is, not only as others saw him, in the actual flesh, but as he saw himself.”

Hutton collected face casts of prominent figures, building out a trove of 104 masks ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Queen Elizabeth I and Walt Whitman. He donated the collection to Princeton University Library around 1915, where it recently became a centerpiece for a collaboration between Special Collections and the Makerspace. 

Makerspace Specialist Ariel Ackerly first came across the mask collection in the summer of 2021 during PUL’s summer community engagement program. 

“The program mentee, Asha, was learning how to 3D scan and 3D print objects selected by librarians,” Ackerly recalled. “The prints didn’t come out well, but they were good for establishing coordination between the Makerspace and Special Collections.”

While working with Asha, Ackerly asked Sarconi a common Special Collections question: “What’s the weirdest thing in the collection? 

Soon after, Reference and Outreach Specialist Emma Sarconi took Ackerly to see the death mask collection in the Special Collections vault where the pair had the idea to offer a workshop in which participants could create their own casts. 

Attendees to the face casting Wintersession inspect the details of a cast shortly after removal.

Attendees to the face casting Wintersession inspect the details of a cast shortly after removal. Photo credit: Brandon Johnson

Ackerly and Sarconi offered the first run of their face casting workshop as part of the Library’s participation in Wintersession 2023. Attendees had the opportunity to see the collection in Special Collections and then create their own face or hand casts in the Makerspace. 

“I think we both share a real passion for what we do and drive to share that magic–and maybe get a little messy too!–which is just a winning combination,” Sarconi said. “We're already thinking about other programming we could do using a similar model.”

The program was such a hit that Ackerly and Sarconi submitted a presentation on it at the Inclusive Makerspace Conference in Vancouver.  Sarconi also presented a poster on the project at the Rare Books & Manuscripts Section Conference at Indiana University Bloomington in June 2023.

“People were positive and interested!” Sarconi said of attendees’ reception to their discussion. “There was a talk about Chat GPT at the same time as our presentation, so I was surprised that as many people attended our event as they did.”

Ackerly noted that a portion of their presentation was dedicated to discussing how other institutions could replicate the programming, particularly those that don’t have the resources of a university or private institution.

“A big duty that library and other workers at public institutions have is to get people in the door so that visitors start to learn all that their institutions have to offer.” Ackerly said. “We advised that the outreach component of getting people to an institution through programming like this could sell it. We also had very clear anecdotes of people who attended our workshop sessions who then came back to the Makerspace for other programming, or to Special Collections to request to see the masks.

Most importantly, Ackerly and Sarconi stressed that the workshop is replicable, whether people have access to a Makerspace or not. The masks are made with just a handful of basic ingredients - water, store-bought alginate, plaster and plaster strips, common tools used for stirring and chiseling, and a partner. 

"All of our workshop participants were new to face casting. Anyone can do it, really, and that's the point,” Ackerly noted. “Once upon a time, this technique was appropriate only for celebrities and anthropological purposes, but materials are relatively easy to access now. Almost anyone can create a cast of their own likeness. They just need some patience and clear nasal passages."

To learn more about face casting, visit the DPUL site “Laurence Hutton Collection of Life and Death Masks.”

Or, to learn how you can make your own cast, check out the tutorial video below.

Filmed and edited by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist 

Voiceover and Script by Ariel Ackerly, Makerspace Specialist

Model demonstrated by Emma Sarconi, Reference and Outreach Specialist

Published on July 6, 2023

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Strategist

Media Contact Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications