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3D rendering of the bust of Nefertiti (all images courtesy the artists)

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 photographers. 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 will reside permanently in the American University of Cairo later this year 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.

“The Other Nefertiti,” a 3D-printed bust installed last year at the Something Else Off Biennale in Cairo (click to enlarge)

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.

“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.”

museumshack from jnn on Vimeo.

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 struggles.”

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.

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

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

Correction: This post originally stated that the bust is on display at the American University of Cairo (AUC) when it was, in fact, at the Something Else Off Biennale in Cairo Downtown. The bust is currently in transit and will be on view at AUC later this year. We apologize for the error; it has been fixed.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

33 replies on “Artists Covertly Scan Bust of Nefertiti and Release the Data for Free Online”

  1. I thought the neues museum in germany HAD scanned the bust, in fact im sure of it. Selling same-size replicas with paint applied for £2100 to £2500???

      1. Thanx, Yuki! My point being the data is alread available from the museum in the form of accurate digitally scanned replicas, however, costly I would imagine!

      1. if its clearly labelled that its illegal to photograph the said work then they have broken the law – copyright or no copyright

        1. That logic is rather flawed. If I wrote here, effectively labelling, that it is illegal to reply to this thread, it doesn’t mean it actually is.

          Now, if you meant that there is a law in place to allow legal recourse in case of photography of a person or company’s possessions, then, yes, there probably is. Whether the museum are rightful owners though, now that’s another matter. Having effectively removed the item from its country of origins, do they really have a right to dictate who gets to see the item in question? It’s rather murky.

  2. The Germans and the Egyptians are arguing over it, best it stay in Germany lest rampant islam take over the area and its destroyed by zealot barbarians.Good work to the people who made it available,any museum that prevents photos is missing the point.

      1. Yes but in Egypt or any other country in the Middle Eastern the probability is of a higher potential,just based upon frequency. I imagine that the appreciation, of their historical past/ and objects, is greater outside of the region than it is at home.

  3. I’ve often wondered why museums have overlooked the obvious benefits of scanning and sharing their collections? People will continue to come as no reproduction can replace seeing the original.

    There are museums that have never gotten around to properly cataloging and publishing much of what languishes in their storage and scanning those items would be another great way to help researchers. It would be a win-win as the items could stay safe in storage while their digital twins could be freely shared.

    I’ve only spoke to a few people employed by museums locally, but it essentially boiled down to control. Most (not all) museums are loathe to cede control over an item, even a digital version. It is an irony given that many museums proudly claim they exist to educate and enlighten, but restrict access to certain items.

    1. The result of a Sinful mind.
      Other than that, I wonder if I was in Germany’s position, I would give back the original, in exchange for the replica. There would be an explanation at the museums stating the history behind this replica and how it was made possible through pure necessity to cooperate.
      Perhaps as a gesture of appreciation the Egyptians could paint a replica, making in essence an authentic piece of art. But I digress.

  4. She’s soooo beautiful. I have a painting of the bust, done on papyrus, from many years ago. She fascinates me. She should be in Egypt, where she belongs, and would have wanted to be. Confiscating artifacts of another country’s past culture is theft.

      1. And confiscating artifacts of another country’s past culture isn’t unethical? 3D scanning an artwork is far from unethical, especially when it is thousands of years old and stolen in the first place.

  5. Last October? 2015? There’s been a lovely version available as an iPad/iPhone app since 2012 (http://3d-star.com/3d-star/Nefertiti_Bust_3D.html) so it’s not like this is a brand new idea. It’s pretty detailed, so it must be from scans. The app only includes the history of the bust itself, not the political/archaeological history of how it ended up in Berlin. The creator of the app himself was near the museum when I was there and personally suggested that I look at it. He did not strike me as a cultural imperialist, if that matters.

  6. my father was allowed inside the basement off-limits area of the Cairo museum back in the 50’s. He reports there are hundreds of items never put on display, some of them depicting the relaxed attitude the ancients had toward sexuality, but which perturbs the uptight prohibitionist Muslims.
    History is continuously falsified to promote or preserve specific models that rule as dogma. The Smithsonian has a bad history of grabbing up and burying away skeletal evidence of giants in America, or ancient civilizations here not Amer -Indian.
    See Utube NewEarth channel for worldwide evidence of ancient destroyed megalithic societies shattered by unknown catastrophes. See archeologist Claude Schaeffer. See Randal Carlson, Robert Schoch, John Anthony West, Brian Foerster, Graham Hancock… so much evidence of former and now lost high civilizations.
    Time to wake up from the imposed dreams of the “peoples of the The Book” meaning that old mashup, the so-call Bible.
    It wasn’t long ago they confidently dated creation to 6000 years ago! You believe anything the remnants of this adolescent belief system still tells us was “history?”
    Egyptologists are so stuck in their out-dated unscientific model it is laughable. Evidence of advanced machine tooling and impossible stone carving by even today’s standards is all over the Giza plateau. Erosion by water dates the Sphinx back 9-12,000 years ago.
    And don’t forget the so-called Big Bang theory was proposed by a Catholic priest; it’s just Vatican 2.0 version of God waved His magic wand… Big Bang theory is collapsing, Try the Electric Universe for some non-computer generated fantasy.

    1. In case anyone reads that comment and gets excited, he’s referring to a fake news story about the Smithsonian destroying the bones of giants. It’s very fake.

  7. By all means, let’s repatriate art and artifacts so their home populations can blow them up as idolatrous, burn them in bonfires, or loot them to sell back to us.

  8. After the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, they lost all credibility as potential leaders of any nation, leadership which of course includes authority over a nation’s cultural heritage. Unfortunately, they are not alone as malefactors for whom humanity’s common heritage is a fantasy. And that in turn is because we as human beings still do not see ourselves as one people, as citizens of a small planet where care of the natural world, treasuring of our artistic heritage, and defense of the rights of men and women should have long ago become givens. In my mind, whoever has the best prospects for guardianship of our natural and intellectual patrimony (matrimony?) should be the keepers of those things PROVISIONALLY. The Elgin marbles should not be viewed as the permanent possession of the United Kingdom,the Neues Museum shouldn’t be viewed as the eternal keepers of Nefertiti’s bust, and Chinese and Indian museums should not forever house Tibetan or Mongolian artefacts. Yes, these works were unquestionably taken unethically. Yet I feel, reluctantly, that as long as their current possessors are seen by the rest of humanity as reasonably responsible guardians of our heritage, then perhaps we should let the works remain where they are for the time being. But. These institutions should make a clearly stated commitment to returning the works to their places of origin as soon as there are commonly agreed upon safeguards in place to protect them. That is not the case in the Middle East now. After all, radical Islamists have vowed to destroy the pyramids and the Sphinx if given the opportunity, making Egypt a risky proposition as the home of Nefertiti for the present. (It’s still not known, by the way, whether this threat is a hoax. Still, after the immolation of the Bamiyan Buddhas, anything is possible in the minds of committed iconoclasts.) On a lighter note, did anyone else think that Nora looked a little too guilty while she was doing the scanning? As probably an ethically upstanding person, she has a hard time maintaining subtlety as a rule-breaker. Had I been a museum guard, I’d have thought, “Why on earth is that nice young woman acting like that?”

  9. The idea of context is so important here. I totally agree with Al-Badri and Nelles’ assertion that viewers should understand how the bust arrived in the Neues Museum collection. We all implicitly understand that it was taken by archaeologists operating with colonial superiority as their motivation. The history of the Nefertiti bust’s removal from Egypt, and that of thousands of other artifacts, is a history of colonial domination, theft, and cultural recontextualization. The new context, that only the European colonial powers are civilized enough to preserve our global cultural heritage, is preposterous. It is remarkable that these artifacts survived two World Wars in Europe. By not only preventing the return of the bust to Egypt, but refusing to explain the true history of its new setting, the Neues Museum is seeking to preserve the paternalistic context of European superiority.

    But there is another idea of context here that should be considered. In Egypt, the bust would reside in its true context. It would regain its provenance and power. It would connect viewers as directly as possible to its origin in Thutmose’s workshop, to the incredible story of King Akhenaton and Queen Nefertiti, and to spiritual power of the city of Akhetaton. The bust’s original story in ancient Egypt is so much more compelling then what has happened to it in the last 100 years. Seeing the bust in its original place would be a unforgettably moving experience, much like Ludwig Borchardt must have felt when his team found it in 1912. European appropriation of cultural artifacts robs us all of the magnificence of time and place; replacing splendor with a sterilized, temporally shallow, and hopelessly narrow perspective.

    To the trustees and administrators of the Neues Museum, if you care in the slightest for the cultural artifacts you claim to “protect,” then you should show the same care for the Egyptian culture that you continue to oppress. Return the bust to Egypt, and print your own damn copy!

  10. While I don’t really agree with the politics motivating the people who scanned this – especially as Germany is funding the construction of a museum in Amarna – I love the idea of guerrilla scanning museum art, and the scan itself is exquisite! Thanks for providing it for download!!

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