Technology & Art Crime

This post originally appeared on the Cultural Security Blog.

In our quest to locate, preserve, and secure cultural property we have lauded advancements in technology. A premier example is Dr. Sarah H. Parcak’s use of infrared imagery from satellites to uncover ancient archaeological sites. Satellite archaeology will enable us to proactively secure sites, and will provide the tools necessary for monitoring looting.

Another technological advancement that has great potential is the development of 3-D printing technology. 3-D printing is the process of synthesizing three-dimensional objects whereby successive layers of material are formed under the control of a computer using a 3-D model or other electronic data. The possibilities are virtually limitless.blog_image-20160501

However, we cannot turn a blind eye to the potential pitfalls and threats such new technological developments may pose to the art world. Charly Wilder’s piece “Swiping a Priceless Antiquity … With a Scanner and a 3-D Printer,” featured in The New York Time’s Art & Design section last March, describes the project of two German artists, Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, who last October used a mobile device to covertly scan the 3,000-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti currently housed in the Neues Museum in Berlin. They then used the data to create copies and delivered those copies to Egypt. Last December they released the scanned data on the internet. Accessibility to the data enables anyone to download and 3-D print their own copies of the artifact. Within 24 hours at least 1,000 people had downloaded the data. As yet no legal action has been taken against Nelles and Badri. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation claims the scans are of “minor quality”; however, other experts have praised their accuracy and quality.

Like so many cultural artifacts, the Nefertiti bust is fraught with repatriation controversy. After its discovery in Egypt by German archaeologists in 1912 the bust was taken to Berlin–illegally, according to Egyptian authorities, and “legally indisputable,” according to the Neues Museum. The artists’ project, called “The Other Nefertiti,” purportedly confronts what they see as cultural theft and persisting colonialist notions of national ownership. According to Nelles: “The Nefertiti stands for millions of stolen and dead objects, which are buried in museums.”

3-D scanning technology has great potential for the preservation of cultural heritage. Cultural institutions are producing their own high quality 3-D scans for internal conservation, reproduction, and research. The Art Institute of Chicago and the Met both encourage visitors to scan objects in their collections, and the British Museum even hosted a “scanathon”–enlisting visitors to help create a crowd-sourced digital archive. With regard to physical reproduction, 3-D printing enables us to recreate artifacts such as those destroyed by ISIS. The possibilities really are limitless. 3-D printing also holds great potential for the resolution of restitution cases: the artists Nelles and Badri suggested that the original Nefertiti bust be returned to Egypt and a 3-D-printed copy take its place in Berlin, which could be a solution for other cultural patrimony disputes.

However, this case study is a warning: although the advancements and broadening use of 3-D scanning technologies offers new opportunities for cultural institutions, it also poses new threats. As data becomes increasingly accessible we run the risk of counterfeits and must contend with who owns the rights to which images.

It is of paramount importance that we continue to foster innovation and new technologies; however, we also must play devil’s advocate and recognize how these developments can be turned into threats for cultural security. Given the burgeoning use of 3-D scanning and printing, new policies governing their use should be a top priority.

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