In the public imagination, hacking is often associated with the stealing or swiping of data or information, such as emails, financial records, or passwords. But what happens when hacking is applied to an ancient object as a form of redress, calling attention to the ways in which cultural heritage objects have themselves been appropriated or stolen?
Two German artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles have posed this question through a clever hack involving mobile scanners, 3D printers, and one of the most famous Egyptian artifacts of all time: the limestone bust of Nefertiti, the Royal Wife of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. The bust, one of the treasures of the Neues Museum in Berlin, has been the subject of sustained calls for repatriation by the Egyptian government since she was smuggled out of Egypt using a range of covert and distracting techniques and then unveiled in Berlin in 1923.
In December 2015, during one of the largest hacker conferences in the world, Al-Badri and Nelles released files for 3D images of Nefertiti into the public domain, along with a video, featured here, showing how they had clandestinely stolen the data during museum visits using Kinect scanners hidden under their coats.
Their project also included a 3D print of the bust and a discussion hosted by the artists in Cairo of the relationship between contemporary art practices seeking to address the colonial legacies of European collecting and ongoing claims for repatriation and restitution. The artists called their project The Other Nefertiti and used the hack to propose both a virtual repatriation of Nefertiti, allowing a printed version of the bust to be made visible in Egypt for the first time since her removal. The project also drew an analogy between the subversive way in which the data was collected and the tomb-raiding of Egypt by European archaeologists. They later buried the 3D-printed bust in the sand in the desert outside of Cairo.
The story, however, does not end there. In the wake of Nefertiti 2.0, technologists and journalists questioned the authenticity of the artists’ claims and their data. Their charge was simple: the hand-held scanners used by Al-Badri and Nelles were incapable of producing such high-quality images/scans
Journalists traced a probable source of the data to a much higher-resolution scan commissioned by the Neues Museum itself, which the museum had refused to release (at that time). The website of the commissioned company presented a scan of Nefertiti that was uncannily like the image released by Al-Badri and Nelles. Were the 3D blueprints indeed stolen with a more traditional computer hack? Or leaked by an insider? The artists’ responses were evasive. Disavowing technical expertise, they explained that their hacker-associates, who they refused to name, simply provided them with the tools/scanners and then assisted in working with the data to produce the files that could then be shared.
If the skeptics are right, then the project is in fact a double hack: it draws attention to museum hoarding not just of ancient collections but of their digital doubles. Here, the ongoing colonialist authority in Europe over cultural heritage from elsewhere is challenged using the tools of data collection and presentation to undo the regimes of authority and property over which the museum still asserts sovereignty. This mocks the redemptive claims of so-called “digital repatriation” in which cultural institutions may think that they are returning cultural treasures, albeit in digital form, while communities are still painfully aware that the original objects lie sequestered far beyond their reach. The Museum has since released the files, allowing for the creative appropriation of Nefertiti into a host of new open-source projects, in what was hopefully a small step toward transforming the regimes of ownership that not only govern digital data but the future of museum collections.