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It’s rare for a museum to make itself so wonderfully obsolete. But that’s just what the British Museum has done – or I should say, started to do – this November. The museum has begun posting
3-D scans and 3-D printer files of its sculpture collection, particularly items from Ancient Egypt. Now anyone with access to a 3-D printer can create near-perfect visual replicas of ancient artifacts.
When I learned about this exciting development, I made the point that this a great leap forward in access to cultural heritage. Collections are no longer under lock and key within museums, but can be physically recreated in classrooms, homes, and art studios around the world. No doubt, Walter Benjamin would have some issues with this mechanical reproduction of art – more literal than he could ever have envisioned. Nonetheless,…
But there is a concomitant point here worth making: If we have the technology to recreate sculptures often “owned” by museums far from where they were recreated, why don’t those museums return the works of art back to their places of origin? These museums, which are the heirs of looting from around the world can 3-D print their own collections and right the historical wrongs that are the very facts of their collections.
I’m writing this article in the Louvre. I’m sitting in front of a spectacular ancient monument of Nike, which scholars now call “Winged Victory of Samothrace.” : after its provenance,a Greek island, once allied with Pergamon. The plaque on the wall of the Louvre notes that this statue even bears a resemblance to the Altar of Pergamon, which is on the Aegean coast of what is now Turkey.
I’ve been to Pergamon. Amid the ruins of Pergamon, there is a giant hole-in-the ground where the Altar of Pergamon used to be. The Archaeology Museum in Istanbul draws attention to this theft none too subtly by displaying in the main entrance two photographs side by side: said hole-in-the-ground in Pergamon and the Altar of Pergamon in the Pergamon Museum in Germany.
The illicit underside of the art world is well known, but few museums openly admit to their legacy. The Brooklyn Museum is one notable exception: publicly explaining how it acquires objects from Egypt. But now that we can readily and relatively cheaply recreate collections, museums have no excuse to hold onto what has been pilfered.
But this hardly makes museums obsolete. Museums don’t just house art, they also provide people with the tools and information to appreciate it. Even after repatriating archaeological antiquities, museum education departments could still thrive based on the collections they once held.
There is of course the argument to be made that museums keep works of art safe. And if, for instance, works were returned to Egypt, where they originated, they might be stolen or destroyed due to political turmoil in the country. But then again if countries like Egypt had ownership of their cultural heritage, they would have the chance to build world class museums that bring in tourist revenue, and, in turn, be able safeguard their collections.
In reality, the British Museum is no more likely to remit objects from its collection than a wolf would relinquish its prey. Instead, I propose the inverse as a thought experiment and political statement: an exhibit entirely of 3-D printed replicas from a country like Egypt or Greece or China that has most of its cultural heritage displayed elsewhere, housed in a museum or gallery of high art in the country the originals were taken from.
All it would take is a forward-thinking curator with more than a little chutzpah.
Jay Cassano is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. He often writes about politics, technology, and social justice. He was previously a foreign correspondent in Istanbul. You can read more of his work and contact him at his website, www.jcassano.net.