The Museum of Classical Archaeology was founded in 1884. In 1879, Art and Archaeology had become part of the Classics degree at Cambridge – and casts were soon used to illustrate the lectures. As a result, the Museum became a University of Cambridge Museum. From its very inception, the Museum was a teaching institution and, indeed, by the terms of its foundation, the Museum is a teaching tool for students first and foremost.
But the origins of the cast collection are as intimately bound with the history of collecting as they are with teaching. The earliest casts in the collection, including the Farnese Hercules, were donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in the course of the nineteenth century – they had a life in the private houses of wealthy donors long before they were part of the Museum of Classical Archaeology.
The man responsible for swelling the number of casts with specially-selected examples of Greek and Roman sculpture was Sidney Colvin, the first director of the Fitzwilliam. In particular, he made sure to include some of the newest archaeological discoveries among his purchases – the , for instance, was purchased within six months of her excavation. The plaster casts, in other words, were part of a process through which new finds were disseminated.
The Museum was originally housed in a building belonging to Peterhouse College in Little St Mary's Lane, known affectionately as 'The Ark'. This building, however, was only leased for one hundred years from the college – and, as the end of the lease fast approached, a new home for the casts had to be sought. In 1983, the casts moved into their present home, a purpose-built Cast Gallery in the Faculty of Classics on Sidgwick Avenue. For the first time, the Museum of Classical Archaeology and the Faculty were united under the same roof.
Today, the casts are still a teaching collection and, during university term-time, undergraduate supervisions on a broad range of classical subjects take place nearly every day. But the Museum is also open to the general public and now welcomes large numbers of school groups, families and general visitors through its doors.