In February of 2016, Hyperallergic reported that two artists secretly 3D-scanned the heavily guarded bust of Queen Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin, and released the files to the public as a free download. German-Iraqi artist Nora Al-Badri and German artist Jan Nikolai Nelles framed their clandestine project as an act of cultural repatriation since the museum kept scans of the bust hidden from the public and even banned visitors from taking photos of it. A month later, claims surfaced that the scans were not original, as the artists initially claimed, and that they were obtained by hacking the museum’s servers. The artists neither confirmed nor denied the allegations. Now, after a three-year-long Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) effort in Germany, the official scans of the artifact have been released under a Creative Commons license.
Behind the newly released scans is Cosmo Wenman, an artist and design consultant specializing in 3D design, 3D scanning, and 3D printing applications, who was the one to accuse Al-Badri and Nelles of staging a hoax. At the time, Wenman argued that the artists could not have achieved such high-quality scans with the equipment they had. In response, Al-Badri told Hyperallergic: “Maybe it was a server hack, a copy scan, an inside job, the cleaner, a hoax. It can be all of this, it can be everything. We are not revealing details. We are standing by the fact that we actually scanned it, but we don’t want to dismiss the other options at the same time.”
The 3,364-year-old Bust of Nefertiti is considered one of the most copied works of ancient Egyptian art. It has been held the Neues Museum since 1920, several years after its discovery in Amarna, Egypt. The bust draws over one million viewers every year to the Berlin museum, which has used been using it as its cultural symbol. Egypt has been demanding the repatriation of the bust for decades but has faced resistance from Germany’s cultural authorities.
Since 2016, Wenman has taken it as his mission to press the state-run German museum to release the original scans, using Germany’s freedom of information laws. The museum referred the matter to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation — known in Germany as the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK) — which oversees Berlin’s state museums. According to Wenman, the foundation initially refused to grant him full access to the scans, instead offering him to inspect them in a controlled setting. “The organization was treating its scan of Nefertiti like a state secret,” the artist wrote in a recent article about his campaign to release the files.
The SPK initially explained blocking access to the scans as a way to protect the commercial interests of the Neues Museum, which generates revenue from selling expensive Nefertiti replicas in its gift shop. But in the second Freedom of Information Act request, Wenman found that these revenues were minuscule (SPK confirmed it had earned less than €5,000 [~$5,500] in total from marketing the Nefertiti scan). “SPK cried poverty to protect a tiny amount of gift shop revenue that it falsely purported to spend on digitization efforts,” Wenman wrote. “It tried to enlist the help of Germany’s diplomatic apparatus, and it engaged a heavyweight law firm to assist in a scheme to prevent me — and you — from looking too closely at a 3,364-year-old portrait of an Egyptian royal.”
After a long back and forth, Wenman recieved a USB stick with files of the scans. “It was SPK’s way of saying, ‘Here it is, now leave us alone’,” he wrote. While viewing the files, the artist was surprised to find the museum’s 3D copy of the bust was engraved with a Creative Commons “CC BY-NC-SA” license at its base. This license allows copying, distributing, and adapting the scans, but not using them for commercial purposes.
“It’s unclear which elements of their digital copy of the Bust of Nefertiti SPK imagines it has a copyright in,” Wenman commented. “The original artifact is clearly in the public domain … copyrighting a copy doesn’t make sense,” he continued. “It has a chilling effect on the public’s lawful use of public domain works, and creates paradoxes in enforcement.”
Wenman added that instead of officially releasing the scan to the public, the SPK left it to him to upload the files online and make them available. “They should be embarrassed,” he wrote. “I don’t have curators, an administrative staff, or a legal department. SPK, with its state-sponsored mission to serve the public, has an extensive web presence and a 390 million euro annual budget.”
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