What Can The Digital 'Heist' of the Bust of Nefertiti Tell Us About Colonialism in Our Museums?

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The Bust of Nefertiti
In the Neues Museum in Berlin there is a very special artefact that is so prized that the public are not even allowed to take pictures of it. 

This the bust of Nefertiti, a 3,300 year old piece of royal art that was removed form Egypt by German archaeologists in Amarna, shortly after its discovery. Germany has always asserted its legal right to the fragile artefact but Egypt contends that it was removed with fraudulent documents. This exquisite bust, like many objects in modern museums, had become the centre of a political struggle over the true 'rights' of historic objects and their 'owners', and two German artists decided to do something about it.

As part of their project "The Other Nefertiti", Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles aimed to encourage museums to look again at the concepts of ownership of the past and how they interact with their own colonial pasts. To achieve this, they arrived as visitors to the museum and, using 3D scanners hidden under their coats and scarves, managed to created a fantastically detailed digital scan of the bust. They then released a torrent of the 3D data to a collection of hackers who further seeded the data, spreading it to allow potentially any member of the public to get a copy of the data and create their own 3D printed version of the controversial work of art. To crown their defiance the resulting 3D printed piece of polymer resin was placed on display at the American University of Cairo as a stand in for the artefact until it can be 'rightfully' returned to its homeland.

At play here are two real issues: The first, who truly 'owns' these priceless historic artifacts and the second, why should their be any restriction in how the public can interact with their shared past? It is clear that in respects the public are getting better and better access to the treasures of museums, with museums such as the British Museum even hosting 'scanathons', but many museums like the Neus museum still restrict much access and, frankly, we are a long way off the public being able to benefit from many of these archives or academic reading materials without paying a hefty subscription. But, in the end, things are getting better.
This then leaves us with the first question - who 'owns' the originals? And do museums have the obligation to make up for shady colonial pasts?

The issue of colonialism in museums

"The Other Nefertiti"
I'm English. So far as I know my family have never strayed far from these shores (though there are echoes of a 'gypsy' or yiddish past somewhere that could either be truth or the product of the kind of romantic fancy one finds themselves in when the censuses start to crumble apart.) As such, I accept that I have privileged hugely from colonialism, being a member of the country that has had the most recent and largest empire. 
History is written by the victors, they say, and so the narrative of my own nationality - and western history as a whole - has been written from the perspective of colonial victories. Just as the Romans idealised and absorbed Greek history, ideas and mythologies into their own identity while simultaneously sniffing at the contemporary Greeks themselves, the British identity is one that sends its ties out into other cultures to bolster itself. The Victorian idea of eugenic progress never really died and my culture attached itself to the Romans and Egyptians as proof of its own civilisation, and relegates other peoples as being somehow 'other' and more fragile, violent or uncivilised. It become a self fulfilling prophecy, of course, with the wealth and control stripped away from 'lesser' nations and the British ideals pushed into the new void until those cultures started to imitate our own in order to get by. "Ah." The old Victorians would say "Look how much more civilised and successful they are now that they're acting like us. Didn't we do a good job of sorting those blighters out?"  Sure, these other cultures could be exotic and admirably so, but they weren't seen as responsible enough to look after themselves in any sort of autonomy that we could respect. 

A lot of work has gone into eroding those rather poisonous but perhaps inevitable cultural narratives since then. But the spirit of them is still within the museums due to the nature of how many of their most precious artefacts were discovered. The Empire had the interest and resources to go mad for archaeology and made great progresses, but also claimed that the items they found as their own. Instead of working with the cultures they found these items from, many took them for their own, feeling entitled to them either out of greed or out of wonder. After all they could 'care' for them better, couldn't they? The items would be safest where the country was most stable and well funded. And anyway, wasn't the history of, say, the Egyptians really the history of everyone? It was civic duty....and also surprisingly profitable.

So should we start to give back items to their 'rightful owners'?

Dr Jones: Surprisingly problematic
There are many reasons why one could argue that museums that holds such culturally valuable collections shouldn't be bound to return them. For one, they were acquired under a different system than today. Michel Guiraud - head of collections at the Natural History Museum in Paris -  explains that:

“In the old days there were far fewer rules for collecting specimens in the field....people would go exploring and bring back whatever they found of interest. It was all part of collective appropriation by the scientific community. Now, adding an item to a collection is subject to a strict procedure.”

In other words we have since improved ourselves. It would be a pointless and anachronistic endeavor to try to put the genie back in the bottle and retroactively correct all the more challenging elements of history. We can't, for example, give America fully back to native peoples. We can't settle personal injury claims for every single person affected by slavery - black or white. We can't trudge across to the Nordic countries and demand reparations for viking rape and pillage in the dark ages. If I am to play devil's advocate then the brutal heart of the matter is this: to the (historic) victor the spoils. If it was legal at the time, then it is acceptable. If the colonial country invested money and resources to dig up and find these items then even more so as the host countries clearly didn't have the resources or inclination to do so.

Monuments men: protecting priceless art from Nazis
Another argument for the retention of these items is one that can loosely be called a sort of 'Monuments Men' mentality. That is that all art and history belong to all peoples - they all makes us who we are as humans - and so we have a duty to protect them. Many countries just simply aren't able to protect their precious artefacts 'properly'. Recent threats from ISIS of cultural terrorism will for many emphasise the argument that items of global cultural value should go nowhere near the involved countries, even if it is their own heritage. Many a tourist have found themselves anxiously deciding whether their desire to see the great pyramids trumps their fear of getting caught up in a war that has been raging for decades. Every historian and librarian worth their salt imagines with horror the legends of what treasures resided in the great library of Alexandria before it burnt to the ground, and how further advanced civilisation might have been if it had survived.  The privilege of the empire created a certain amount of wealth and stability that still safeguards these items to this day so surely it would be right to retain ownership of these items...'for their own good.'

It doesn't always "belong in a museum"

But, on the other hand, it's hard to argue against the return of these items as being the ethical thing to do. And, frankly, all of the above issues can be cured with proper collaboration between countries and the erosion of what 'ownership' even means when applied to this global cultural heritage.
Jonathan Jones, while writing for the Guardian, makes a fine point when he examines why some items that still have this colonial past, are regarded as far more palatable:

"I realised this recently on the Greek island of Aegina. It has a superb classical temple whose sculptures were removed and taken to Bavaria at about the same time Britain took the frieze and pediment sculptures of the Parthenon. Today they are in Munich, but there is no global outcry for their return. Why not? Well, if you visit the temple you can’t help noticing the prominent German involvement in archaeology and conservation work there. German scholarship has kept up a constant, reciprocal relationship with Aegina. There is no equivalent British involvement in the preservation of the Parthenon."

The real life monuments men
The key here is the collaboration and relationship of mutual respect. Both countries work together to care for what they believe is an item that they culturally share, despite the dark past. It's this respect that gets to the heart of many of the above disputes. Often, when peoples who have been hurt by colonialism look for reparation the thing that is perhaps most important to many is the apology, the admission of guilt, the taking of responsibility and the giving of respect. The acknowledgement that these people and their ancestors are human: not 'others' and not inferior and entitled to own what they themselves created. The reason why Indiana Jones and the Monument Men are the heroes of their stories is because, while they do take historical valuable items of art and archaeology, it is because they are protecting them from a greater force of destructive evil, like the Nazis, and are working with other cultures to do so. Indiana gives the stones of power back to the Indian village when it's safe and he trusts that they can best take care of their power. The Monument Mens' works of art are returned to their rightful homes once the war is over.
Nowadays many funding bodies demand the collaboration of multiple universities across the globe as a matter of course, so there is little excuse not to take this approach in modern times. Clearly it also works for those items that historically did not have this applied to them.

But what if the origin countries still demand their precious items to be returned home? Well, is this so bad? It's patronising to assume that items are 'safest; on foreign shores and the old colonial xenophobia of assuming that other cultures aren't intelligent enough or able to rally resources to do so enough rears its ugly head. More 'stable' countries should not act as parental figures, and even if they did after a point parents have to let their children have responsibility to look after their own property in an autonomous way. It is their right to be given the opportunity to care for their own heritage. Add to the collaboration above and really, you're mitigating the risks involved anyway. If everyone is working together to care for these artefacts then what risk is there in doing the good thing and passing across the items? Aside from risk to the colonial nation's pride. Or risk to the thickness of their wallets.
Heck, even monetary risk can be mitigated - what is more likely to get crowds flocking in anew to museums then the 'tour' of a famous artefact? It's been working in this way with the Magna Carta for years.


My opinion is a difficult one: I have a colonial entitlement in my blood that is hard to escape due to sheer social osmosis. I selfishly want the easy road - to have all the world's heritage at my fingertips to experience so I, like others in my country, naturally slip into a certain greedy appreciation of the status quo out of instinct. But I know this is wrong and in modern times this selfishness is frankly inexcusable.
I understand that museums are fragile creatures that already face funding cuts and jockey desperately for income, and income is created by interest. The financial risks involved in doing the right thing are frightening. But it doesn't make doing the right thing any less important.

Nefertiti, hidden in a German salt mine in the war
The handing of obviously stolen items back to their country of origin clearly works and symbolically is very important in showing what we want history to be. When Rome returned the 2,000 year old obelisk that was looted by Mussolini in 1937 back to its owners they not only did this as a sign of respect, and because it was the right thing to do, but as a political statement against dictators and the thieves of heritage. In returning it they said in not so many words "this will never happen again."

If we can create a global culture of collaboration, with items on loan across the globe and accessible to all then we really have very little to lose. If, furthermore, we can use technology to scan and preserve these treasures in a  digital and well as physical format the dangers of such collaborations are even further lessened. If every man woman and child can potentially hold and touch and marvel at their own Nefertiti, then how can it be truly lost?

Finally, the sharing and digitisation of our heritage gets to the deepest core of what a museum is.  The museum belongs to the people. It is created to share knowledge, to educate, and to put us in touch with our clever, beautiful, frightening ancestors. Collaboration, respect and openness for all peoples is the name of the game. If we keep this goal at heart then we should never go far wrong.

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Stay curious!


- Artists Covertly Scan Bust of Nefertiti and Release Data for Free Online by Claire Voon of Hyperallergic (originally found via Szembogar on Tumblr)
-The Art World's Shame: Why Britain Must give its Colonial Booty Back by Jonathan Jones
-French Museums Face a Cultural Change Over Restitution of Colonial Objects by Laurent Carpentier
-To Be or Not to Be Colonial: Museums Facing Their Exhibitions by Alexandra Sauvage
-Egypt asks Berlin to Return Nefertiti Bust
-Rome obelisk set for African return

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