Artists Covertly Scan Bust of Nefertiti and Release the Data for Free Online



An Iraqi/German pair of artists
just pulled off what might be one of the most digitally-enhanced art
heists in recent time. They covertly scanned the Nefertiti bust (with an Xbox 360 Kinect sensor, no less) and released the 3D printing plans online. They did so as an act of defiance, as the bust was actually looted from an Egyptian site by German archaeologists.[x]


[article by Claire Voone /Hyperallergic]

Last October, two artists entered the Neues Museum in Berlin, where they
clandestinely scanned the bust of Queen Nefertiti, the state museum’s
prized gem. Three months later, they released the collected 3D dataset
online as a torrent, providing completely free access under public
domain to the one object in the museum’s collection off-limits to
Anyone may download
and remix the information now; the artists themselves used it to create
a 3D-printed, one-to-one polymer resin model they claim is the most
precise replica of the bust ever made, with just micrometer variations.
That bust now resides permanently in the American University of Cairo as
a stand-in for the original, 3,300-year-old work that was removed from
its country of origin shortly after its discovery in 1912 by German
archaeologists in Amarna.


Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles with the 3D bust in Cairo

The project, called “The Other Nefertiti,” is the work of German-Iraqi artist Nora Al-Badri and German artist Jan Nikolai Nelles,
who consider their actions an artistic intervention to make cultural
objects publicly available to all.
For years, Germany and Egypt have
hotly disputed
the rightful location of the stucco-coated, limestone Queen, with
Egyptian officials claiming that she left the country illegally and demanding
the Neues Museum return her. With this controversy of ownership in
mind, Al-Badri and Nelles also want, more broadly, for museums to
reassess their collections with a critical eye and consider how they
present the narratives of objects from other cultures they own as a
result of colonial histories.

The Neues Museum, which the artists believe knows about their project
but has chosen not to respond, is particularly guarded towards
accessibility to data concerning its collections. According to the pair,
although the museum has scanned Nefertiti’s bust, it will not make the
information public — a choice that increasingly seems backwards as more
and more museums around the world are encouraging the public to access
their collections, often through digitization projects. Notably, the
British Museum has hosted
a “scanathon” where visitors scanned objects on display with their
smartphones to crowdsource the creation of a digital archive — an event
that contrasts starkly with Al-Badri and Nelles’s covert deed.


3D rendering of the bust of Nefertiti

“We appeal to [the Neues Museum] and those in charge behind it to
rethink their attitude,”
Al-Badri told Hyperallergic. “It is very simple
to achieve a great outreach by opening their archives to the public
domain, where cultural heritage is really accessible for everybody and
can’t be possessed.”

In a gesture of clear defiance to institutional order, Al-Badri and Nelles leaked
the information at Europe’s largest hacker conference, the annual Chaos
Communication Congress.
Within 24 hours, at least 1,000 people had
already downloaded the torrent from the original seed, and many of them
became seeders as well. Since then, the pair has also received requests
from Egyptian universities asking to use the information for academic
purposes and even businesses wondering if they may use it to create
souvenirs. Nefertiti’s bust is one of the most copied works from Ancient
Egypt — aside from those with illicit intents, others have used photogrammetry
to reconstruct it — and its allure and high-profile presence make it a
particularly charged work to engage with in discussions of ownership and
institutional representations of artifacts.


“The head of Nefertiti represents all
the other millions of stolen and looted artifacts all over the world
currently happening, for example, in Syria, Iraq, and in Egypt,”
Al-Badri said. “Archaeological artifacts as a cultural memory originate
for the most part from the Global South; however, a vast number of
important objects can be found in Western museums and private
collections. We should face the fact that the colonial structures
continue to exist today and still produce their inherent symbolic

Al-Badri and Nelles take issue, for instance, with the Neues Museum’s
method of displaying the bust, which apparently does not provide
viewers with any context of how it arrived at the museum — thus
transforming it and creating a new history tantamount to fiction, they
believe. Over the years, the bust has become a symbol of German identity,
a status cemented by the fact that the museum is state-run, and many
Egyptians have long condemned this shaping of identity with an object
from their cultural heritage.

The heist: museumshack from jnn on Vimeo

Ultimately, the artists hope their actions will place pressure on not
only the Neues Museum but on all museums to repatriate objects to the
communities and nations from which they came.

Rather than viewing such
an idea as radical, they see it as pragmatic, as a logical update to
cultural institutions in the digital era: especially given the
technological possibilities of today, the pair believes museums who
repatriate artifacts could then show copies or digital representatives
of them. Many people have already created their own Nefertitis from
the released data; the 3D statue in the American University in Cairo
stands as such an example of Al-Badri and Nelles’s ideals for the future
of museums, in addition to being one immediate solution that may arise
from individual action.

“Luckily there are ways where we
don’t even need any topdown effort from institutions or museums,”
Al-Badri said, “but where the people can reclaim the museums as their
public space through alternative virtual realities, fiction, or
captivating the objects like we did.”


3D-printed bust of Nefertiti

[source: Hyperallergic, emphasis mine]