Swiping a Priceless Antiquity ... With a Scanner and a 3-D Printer
Then last December, in the tradition of Internet activism, they released the data to the world, allowing anyone to download the information for free and create their own copies with 3-D printers.
On Thursday, German museum authorities responded publicly for the first time. They were not amused.
Birgit Jöbstl, a spokeswoman for the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the national museum system in Germany, cast doubt on the quality and authenticity of the scan, saying in an email that the museum had “noticed the ‘artistic intervention’ regarding the Nefertiti bust, but sees no necessity to react.”“Legal steps are not currently being undertaken as the scan seems to be of minor quality,” the official said, adding that “a detailed comparison with the museum’s own 3-D data has not yet been made.”
The artists, Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, contended that their scanning data was accurate and several independent experts praised the quality of the data.
Don Undeen, the senior manager of the MediaLab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, called it a “very good model” coming from consumer-level technology. “I’m glad to see the bust of Nefertiti join the ever-growing online collection of scanned art objects,” he said.
The artists’ project, “The Other Nefertiti,” confronts what they see as cultural theft and persisting colonialist notions of national ownership by making the object widely available.
It’s also a potent example of the way 3-D scanning technologies, which are becoming cheaper and more accessible, present cultural institutions with new opportunities, as well as new challenges.
“The Nefertiti stands for millions of stolen and dead objects, which are buried in museums,” Mr. Nelles, said in a recent interview at a cafe in the Berlin neighborhood of Friedrichshain.
The Nefertiti bust, added Ms. Badri, a German of Iraqi descent, “is special because it is not only an ancient artifact, but also a media icon with its own social power.”
Considered the jewel of Germany’s state museum antiquities collection, the bust adorns posters and billboards throughout this capital. The artists argue that the Neues Museum presents the artifact without sufficient explanation of how it was obtained or of its contentious status.
The original bust, a remarkably well-preserved depiction of the royal wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, was removed from Egypt shortly after its discovery in Amarna, in what is now Minya province, by German archaeologists in 1912. Egyptian authorities say the artifact was taken illegally and have repeatedly called for its repatriation. The German museum representative, Ms. Jöbstl, said “the Egyptian state has never filed a restitution claim.”Mr. Nelles and Ms. Badri have called for the original Nefertiti bust to be returned to Egypt, with a 3-D-printed version taking its place in Berlin, an example they suggest could be followed in other cultural patrimony disputes, of which the most well known is probably that between the British Museum and Greece over the Elgin marbles.
The Neues Museum argues that its acquisition of the Nefertiti artifact in 1913 was “legally indisputable.” Opponents of repatriation make the further case that as the centerpiece of the museum’s collection, the bust is secure and accessible to millions of visitors from across the globe who are able to view it in the context of one of the world’s great antiquities collections.
Ms. Badri and Mr. Nelles planned their project for a year and a half. Ms. Badri concealed the scanning device — a modified version of the Kinect, a motion sensor developed by Microsoft for the Xbox 360 that can be purchased for around $100 — underneath a blue cashmere scarf, circling and scanning the artifact whenever the guards would congregate to chat with one another, while Mr. Nelles filmed, during the October visit.
The artists then handed the data off to be assembled by outside experts — hackers who declined to be identified. Two months later, they leaked the resulting 3-D data set to the public under a Creative Commons license at Europe’s largest hacker conference, the Chaos Communication Congress, in Hamburg. Within 24 hours, at least 1,000 people had downloaded the torrent.
Ms. Badri and Mr. Nelles took their copies to Egypt on a trip funded by the Goethe-Institut. (“We didn’t tell them what we were presenting until we were already there,” Mr. Nelles said.)
They buried the first copy, made of polymer resin, in the desert. The artists then filmed a staged discovery of the second, made of gypsum and painted to look like the original, and donated it to the American University in Cairo.
Some institutions take a relatively open approach to scanning technology. The Art Institute of Chicago and the Met encourage visitors to scan objects in their collections. The British Museum hosted a “scanathon” for which museumgoers were asked to use scanning devices and smartphones to create a crowd-sourced digital archive, and the Musée du Louvre in Paris held a similar series of digital workshops.
Like the Neues Museum, these institutions have produced their own high quality 3-D scans for internal conservation, reproduction and research purposes without making the data accessible to the public.
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation says it “hasn’t yet discussed a policy on scanning.” Last year, the foundation produced a limited edition of 100 painted 3-D-printed copies of the Nefertiti bust at the Replica Workshop of the National Museums of Berlin, which it sells for 8,900 euros (about $9,650) each.
“Right now there’s this boom of 3-D scanning to reproduce cultural heritage,” said Morehshin Allahyari, an Iranian-born artist who uses scanning technologies to recreate artifacts destroyed by ISIS. “But few people are talking about who the images belong to.”