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The bust of Nefertiti is a 3,300-year old work of art that was found in Egypt by German archaeologists in 1912 and has more or less been in the hands of the Germans ever since. And ever since being unveiled, it’s been steeped in controversy about whether or not it should be returned to Egypt, where authorities and historians say it was taken illegally. Egypt has asked repeatedly for its return, but Germany keeps saying no, if they bother to reply at all. Even Hitler was a superfan who refused to let her go, and we know how he felt about black people in general.
But recently the question of where the sculpture belongs has been expanded to include the idea that maybe it belongs not just to Germany or to Egypt, but to everyone. Last month, a pair of artists made headlines for releasing a full 3D digital model of the Nefertiti bust, which would allow anyone with access to a 3D printer to have their very own copy.
The artists, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, kickstarted a larger conversation about the sordid history of plundered artifacts and about who should really own and control who sees important art and artifacts. They pointed out that the German museum holding the bust actually had a high-res 3D scan of it, but they refused to share it with the world, ensuring that they were the only ones who could have it.
So Al-Badri and Nelles say that they made their own covert scan by carrying a hacked Kinect around in a backpack, and then delivering the equipment to an anonymous third party who used the resulting data to produce the scan. It was made public at a large hackers’ convention and has now been downloaded many thousands of times.
There’s just one possible new twist to the story: experts say that the scan the artists released is way too high of a resolution to have come from a hacked Kinect, and the artists themselves have no real response to it. All the technical aspects were handled by the unnamed third party, so Al-Badri and Nelles have no idea if that person really did get the data off the Kinect they used. People like Cosmo Wenman, who is a 3D printing expert who has scanned and printed many works of art in the past, suggested that the artists may have been pawns and that the unnamed third party used them to release what was actually the museum’s own high-res scan under the cover story that it was done with a Kinect. Comparisons between the released file and close-up examples of the museum’s file, which was produced by TrigonArt, show a suspiciously identical likeness.
So is this a surreptitiously taken scan, or is it a stolen digital file? Either way, Wenman points out that it is happening due to museums considering themselves “repositories of secret knowledge,” which is a wonderful turn of phrase. It makes me think of the way that museums are seen in the movies and other media these days, as mysterious places with hidden information. Meanwhile, what did our favorite movie plunderer, Indiana Jones always say? “It belongs in a museum!” And why? Not to be secreted away, but so that as many people as possible could appreciate it.
Not everyone can get to a museum, but there are now new ways that we can spread art around the world. For that, I agree with Wenman when he says that “the best place to celebrate great art is in a vibrant, lively, and anarchic popular culture,” and I hope this growing PR nightmare encourages museums everywhere to reconsider releasing their backlog of art into the larger world.