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<nettime> "The Other Nefertiti"
nettime's avid printer on Mon, 22 Feb 2016 16:37:01 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> "The Other Nefertiti"

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

by Claire Voon on February 19, 2016


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 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.

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.”

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.”

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