Student Collections Assistant, Isabel Leininger, assists in capturing a 3C image of a small sculpture from Rapa Nui. (all photos courtesy the University of Wyoming Art Museum)

Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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As museums look at 3D scanning as a way to deal with mounting calls for repatriation, the technology is raising a range of new questions. Are scans of colonial objects simply reproducing them in digital form, or are they reproducing — and preserving — the colonialism that uprooted them and makes their status problematic? 

“There isn’t really any global guideline for repatriation,” says Nicole Crawford, chief curator of the University of Wyoming Art Museum. It’s often unclear who — an individual, community, or government — can request the return of a lost artifact, and the path to repatriation, Crawford explains, can be rocky. With digital scans of artifacts, curators like Crawford are attempting to collaborate across borders with the communities where art originated for research and knowledge exchange. “It’s not the end-all be-all,” says Crawford. “It’s a way for us to start making those connections with other museums, Indigenous communities.”

Emilio Paoa, “Arina Ora (Moai)” (1955), wood, 15-1/2 x 6-1/4 x 4 inches, gift in memory of Dr. William T. Mulloy, University of Wyoming Art Museum

The UW Art Museum currently houses a collection of cultural artifacts from the Pacific island of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, a territory of Chile. Logistics of how the physical objects should be repatriated have yet to be worked out. (According to Crawford, there’s uncertainty over whether they should be sent to Rapa Nui directly, or routed through Chile.) So the museum sent digital scans, enabling replicas to be 3D-printed for the island’s elders to interact with tactilely. 

Though not a replacement for the physical repatriation of precious artifacts, the accessibility generated by 3D scanning can ostensibly allow historically subjugated communities to establish approximations of relationships with their long-lost artwork. Still, Crawford grapples with ethical questions the technology raises. “It’s another way of controlling the information,” she explains. “It does become a new form of colonialism.”

One path forward, when physical repatriation is an immediate option, is to return the artifacts but retain the digital files for research. “Is that the right thing to do?” she asks. “I don’t know. There are just too many questions.”

Answers are slow to materialize, even as 3D scanning appears to be taking hold in the world of art. In an effort to make artwork more widely accessible to communities around the globe, the non-profit initiative Scan the World 3D-scanned more than 18,000 sculptures, monuments, and artifacts from museums, collections, and public spaces. Today, the scans live online in an open-access platform, available for anyone to download. This semblance of accessibility can “provide a meaningful contribution to education, preservation and accessibility, as well as encouraging an increased sense of cultural identity,” according to Scan the World’s website.

At the same time, “Once [an] object is separated from its meaning, it takes on a different life. And that’s where appropriation can start,” says Crawford. “I think there’s opportunity for some sort of global conversation on what these cultures are and what the objects are and to share that knowledge, instead of someone like me, a White person working in a museum, telling the story for somebody else.”

Capturing the digital 3D image of a moai sculpture from Rapa Nui at the University of Wyoming

Right now, anyone can upload, download, and print scans on Scan the World. This means that 3D-printed replicas of cultural objects could wind up separated from their context and used for any number of things — from home decor to more nefarious purposes. “It’s disrespectful to the originating culture when the context of that object is lost,” says Crawford, noting that it would be especially inappropriate for sacred or ceremonial objects to live in the public sphere. 

Scan the World recently announced a partnership with Google Arts & Culture to broaden the initiative’s reach, raising the colonialist spectre of vast, centralized power. “If Google wants to engage with those groups, then it’s not a consultation process,” says Kereama Taepa, a New Zealand-based artist of Te Arawa and Te Atiawa descent who often uses digital technologies like 3D printing to explore the cultural themes of the Māori community indigenous to New Zealand. “It’s actually a collaboration process — led not by Google, but actually by those Indigenous cultures, because they’re the ones who have the knowledge.”

Kauwila Mahi, an ʻŌiwi Hawaiʻi scholar and artist based in Honolulu who creates 3D-printed statues inspired by Indigenous symbols and artifacts, adds that there should also be regulations to govern who should have the ability to print cultural artifacts from databases like Scan the World, and how those 3D prints get used. “One of the things I would want is for there to be a process by which they had time to learn and at least know part of the story, before they’re allowed to print it,” he says.

Installation view of small Moai sculptures from the University of Wyoming Art Museum Collection

As 3D technology evolves, curators and artists around the world continue to navigate the increasingly complicated questions these advancements pose for their work. Kauwila Mahi notes that culture is always influenced by evolving times, and that communities must shift and grow with the changes. To that end, when employing 3D tools in his art, he asks himself how the technology can support his greater goal of increasing cultural awareness: “How do we…root it in our tradition, and advance our tradition instead of advancing colonialism?”

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Megan Zhang

Megan Zhang is a culture journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in BBC, CNN, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, and Saveur, among others. You can follow her at @meganjzhang on Instagram...