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  1. Science & Tech
2 March 2016

Nefertiti for everyone: returning Egypt’s cultural history with the help of a 3D printer

Where do cultural artefacts belong? And what do we really mean by “original”?  

By Barbara Speed

Nefertiti’s 3,300-year-old bust is one of the most famous artefacts of the Ancient Egyptian world. But to join the million-odd tourists who visit the statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s wife every year, you must travel not to Cairo, but to Berlin’s Neues Museum.

Nefertiti’s resting place has earned her a place on Time magazine’s “Top 10 Plundered Artefacts” list, and she isn’t alone. The grand museums we enjoy throughout the west are filled with objects collected for “safekeeping” over the past few centuries from countries to whose cultural history they belong.

Even now, we cling on: just ask Greece, whose Elgin marbles nearly landed the British government in front of the International Criminal Court. They’re still on display in the British Museum.

To the history of Nefertiti’s location, however, we can now add a curious footnote. In October 2015, German artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles visited the Neues Museum several times, equipped with a covert 3D scanner hidden under Al-Badri’s jacket. Using the scans of the statue, they 3D printed a polymer resin replica, accurate to individual chips and pockmarks. The files of the scans are available for anyone to download for free. They called the project “Nefertiti for Everyone”.

The Times has described the artists as criminals, who carried out the “very modern crime” of ripping off the intellectual property of the Berlin museum via 3D scanner. This seems far less convincing, however, when you consider the history of the statue itself – and the fact that even an Egyptian visiting Berlin would pay pay €12 (€6 concessions) for the privilege of viewing the statue. Photography – let alone 3D scanning – is banned in the display room. Until now, Nefertiti most certainly was not for everyone. 

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Al-Badri and Nelles displayed “The Other Nefertiti” in Cairo in late 2015; the first time the statue has been exhibited in Egypt in any form. According to reports, residents of the city flocked to see the statue, while thousands more people have downloaded the torrent of the scans. Germany is not taking any steps against the artists, though in a statement last week a spokesperson for the Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation said that the scans are of “minor quality” and so there is “no necessity to react”. Experts, meanwhile, have praised the scans’ quality. 

The other nefertiti. Image: Jan Nikolai Nelles/ Nora Al-Badri.

The Neues Museum first acquired the bust in 1913, after German archaeologists split the spoils of their dig with the Egyptian government. The museum argues that this transaction was “legally indisputable”, though some claim that the archaeologists provided a misleading photo of the bust, and didn’t show the object itself to Egyptian inspectors. According to records from the German Oriental Company, one of the archaeologists “wanted to save the bust for us”, ie Germany.

The apparent greediness of archaeologists can be partly explained by the desire to preserve: while Egypt is as able as Germany to put a statue in a glass box, it has a more chequered record of preservation. Some historic sites are still manned by volunteers who live on the tips they receive, though reforms to the way antiquities are managed are on the way. (On a visit to the Valley of the Kings I was asked if I wanted to touch Tutenkamun’s tomb for an extra few Egyptian pounds.) The Egyptian Museum, meanwhile, was looted during the 2011 revolution. 

But do we really believe that cultural objects belong to whoever discovers them, then passing to whoever looks after them? A recent article in Berlin’s Zeitung newspaper claimed that Nefertiti was now “more German” than Egyptian: “The bust has been above ground and visible in Berlin for much longer than it ever was in Egypt.”

I spoke to Nora Al-Badri over email about the question of ownership, and she agrees that returning these objects to their original locations or counties is the best solution: “In an ideal world, repatriating (human remains) and restituting (objects) would be the rightful way.”

The artists have buried the original copy in the desert in a secret location, but another, gypsum version will soon be on display at Cairo’s American University. So while museums abroad maintain their grip on historical objects, are copies a satisfactory halfway point? In China, temples are regularly restored and aspects replaced, since there is less emphasis on “original” objects or fixtures. We value Roman plaster copies of Greek statues, since they’re the closest we have to the orginals.

Al-Badri says that copies “can be an inspiring source to rethink the current and past western mindset of worshipping the original”, which, after all, led to the grasping for ancient artefacts in the first place. The original artifacts shoudn’t be dismissed, Al-Badri says, but we should “value copies” too. 

Burying the statue, she says, is a  “poetic counter-act to the excavation”. There’s a tongue-in-cheek implication that perhaps, since we seem capable of little more than an endless tussle over these objects, a kind of Solomon’s judgement is the only way forward: we should just return them to the ground where we found them. If Nefertiti isn’t for everyone, then she should be for no one. 

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