BY Dan Hicks in Thematic Essays | 03 JAN 23
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Issue 231

How NFTs and 3D Printing Are Changing Restitution

The age of digital reproduction is forever altering Euro-American collections

BY Dan Hicks in Thematic Essays | 03 JAN 23

Every spring, a group of eleven-year-old pupils from the north Birmingham secondary school I attended as a kid makes a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford Universitys Museum of Anthropology and World Archaeology, where I now work as a curator. I always try to meet with the students, and give them a short talk about my job and the history of the museum. On one visit, in 2017, the questions they asked were different. They werent just interested in the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and of Flinders Petrie in Egypt, or in Captain Cooks voyages on the Pacific Ocean and the famous 100-year-old witch in a bottle’ collected from Hove in Sussex, who might escape if you pull out the cork. The questions asked then and at every subsequent visit – indeed by so many of our visitors now – run more along the lines of: How did they steal all this stuff?’, When are you going to give it all back?’ and What are you going to do with all the empty cases?’

That image of the empty case lies at the heart of current debates about cultural restitution. It would be hard to overstate the radical change in public attitudes and understanding of the question of colonial theft and demands for returns – not only in the UK but across Europe and North America – over the past five years. The Euro-American museum is no longer imagined to be a one-way street, which simply piles up treasures from cultures around the world and across the human past. Every week brings a new story about the return of looted items to claimants in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Many routes and approaches to restitution are being worked out, and questions of method and process are increasingly discussed. In these debates, one very common issue is the potential role of making copies of items, using new technologies of digital reproduction and 3D printing to facilitate the return of an original item while the display can remain the same. What, then, are the possibilities and the risks of such an approach to keeping the museum vitrines full?

Jan Nikolai Nelles, After 3000 years in the desert's sand and 100 years behind museum walls, I keep smiling!, 2022, deep-fake-photography. Courtesy: the artist 

This is a fast-moving area of museum practice. Earlier this year, the self-styled Institute for Digital Archaeology – an Anglo-American project led by Harvard-educated lawyer Roger Michel – suggested it might make copies of the Parthenon Marbles, taken from Greece by Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, between 1801 and 1812, to facilitate their return from the British Museum to Athens. When access for scanning was denied, the group even threatened legal action. The so-called ‘Nefertiti Hack’ has put similar pressure on Berlins Neues Museum to return its most iconic object: the 3,500-year-old Bust of Nefertiti found at Amarna in 1912 by a German Oriental Company archaeological expedition led by Ludwig Borchardt. In 2019, artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles obtained the museums high-quality scans of the bust and released the files under a Creative Commons licence. This intervention raised the issue of European museums holding not only physical objects but also the digital data associated with them. As Monica Hanna – a professor at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Cairo, and a leading voice in African cultural restitution – told me, this intervention was welcome because it shone a light on the monopoly Euro-American museums seek to maintain on knowledge as well as ownership. In May this year, the Nigeria-based project Looty, founded by designer Chidi Nwaubani, launched a series of interventions around what is described on the website as digital repatriation to the metaverse – scanning Benin Bronzes and offering the digital assets for sale as limited-edition NFTs, with 20% of proceeds paid to a fund to support African artists under the age of 25 and advance the cause of restitution to African claimants. 

While proposals for such reproductions of museum pieces proliferate through new technologies, there is also much that pertains to longstanding museum practices. Whether casts of dinosaur fossils exhibited in natural history museums or the Cast Courts of Londons Victoria and Albert Museum – which, when they opened in 1873, were built to a height of 25 metres to accommodate the two gigantic halves of a replica of Trajans Column – copies in the form of plaster casts have long been a part of standard museum display. And, of course, the work of the museum conservator invariably involves making material interventions to objects or artworks, which means that objects in the collection very rarely remain totally unchanged through the process of curation. To some extent, the potential of 3D scanning and machining simply expands these longstanding practices.

But where reproductions connect to international dialogues about restitution, questions of ethics are also raised. This was perhaps clearest in a 2016 project by the Institute for Digital Archaeology, in which they installed a copy of the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra in Londons Trafalgar Square. The Roman monument, located in a World Heritage Site at an oasis in the Syrian desert to the north-east of Damascus, was originally erected in the early third century CE to commemorate the victory under Emperor Septimius Severus over the Parthians. After it was destroyed by ISIS in 2015, the replica was erected in London a few weeks after the recapture of Palmyra by the Assad regime in spring 2016. Boris Johnson, in a speech at the unveiling of the replica in his role as Mayor of London, claimed: This is an arch of triumph. An arch of the triumph of technology and determination.’ Manufactured in Italy from data derived from photographs, the 3D print introduced inaccuracies and anomalies into the form of the monument. The diminutive copy stood just five and a half metres in height – a fraction of the size of the original – and was taken down after three days. Johnson used the media opportunity to describe Syrian defiance of the barbarians who destroyed the original of this arch, while remaining silent on the human loss of the Syrian war or the British governments hostile environment for Syrian refugees. The main question raised by many archaeologists, however, related not to the replica’s inaccuracies, nor to the politics of highlighting iconoclasm above human life and death, but to ethics. Surely, many argued, decisions about what to reproduce or restore and how such a process should operate ought to lie with Syrians rather than Euro-American projects.

Looty, Saeyama Tusk, 2022, 3D render/NFT. Courtesy: the artist

The question of mechanical reproduction is hardly a new topic for art historians. Here, Walter Benjamin, the last centurys great theorist of mimesis and modernity, is informative: Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The greatest capacity for producing similarities, however, is that of the human being. The human gift for seeing resemblances is nothing other than a vestige of the once-powerful compulsion to become and to behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of the higher functions of the human mind that isn’t determined by this mimetic faculty. But this faculty has a history.’

When Benjamin opened his 1933 essay ‘On the Mimetic Faculty’ with these lines, he could hardly have imagined how the history of mechanical reproduction would unfold. Benjamin’s most famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, written two years later, introduced the idea of the ‘aura’ of an artwork which can be destroyed through the act of making a copy. His argument was about authenticity and the rebirth of the mimetic faculty under modernity in the age of cinematography and photography. The questions he raised about works of art designed for reproducibility are just as pressing almost a century later. As Benjamin understood it, the act of mechanical reproduction can lead not just to the proliferation of images but to its very opposite – its reduction through a kind of absorption of the process of production – ‘changing its finalities and altering the status of the product and producer’, as Jean Baudrillard put it. Reproduction, in other words, can represent a diminution of an artwork in order to control it.

There is a parallel here with how anthropologists have discussed the features associated with the phenomenon of art produced for the tourist market across different societies. In The Commercialisation of Ethnic Crafts (1988), Erik Cohen identified a series of broad tendencies in the transformation of so-called ethnic crafts when they were commercialized as commodities for trade by a new generation of makers selling to mass markets. These tendencies include, he argued, changes in materials (modern industrial materials replacing natural, locally prepared ones), differences in scale (not only miniaturisation to make artworks more easily transportable but also, conversely, gigantism) as well as temporal elision (whereby motifs or designs from a regions antiquities or architecture are introduced to new items in variously elaborated or simplified forms).

Carving process in the Carrara workshop. Courtesy: The Institute for Digital Archaeology and Robotor

The lesson here is simple: a copy is never merely a copy, and the act of reproduction can affect the original as much as the simulacrum. Casts and copies can change an artwork, its authenticity, its aura, its meaning but also its coherence. In the context of restitution, the question must be: who is in control of those changes? In part, this is a matter of intellectual property: who owns the knowledge in the form of a scan or a print? But it is also a wider question about the ethics of digital reconstruction. For human remains whose returns are demanded, for example, the idea of 3D printing would be dismissed. What, then, of cultural objects that, for claimants, do not simply represent ancestors but actually constitute their enduring presence – as a human skull might? The technological possibilities of 3D printing and NFTs thus have a continuity with the longer-term regimes of display in the museum vitrine. The technological optimism associated with debates about copies is understandable, as museums and their audiences, staff, stakeholders and communities seek to find ways to address demands for returns. But these new mimetic technologies are far from neutral. And they may even risk doing far more damage than older techniques of making plaster casts or taking photographs or making museum documentation. The ethics of restitution begins with the admission that a case-by-case approach is essential, and that what might be a solution for the Parthenon Marbles may not be right for the Benin Bronzes. Making copies is no silver bullet for restitution. Sometimes, perhaps, the museum case should be left empty – as a space for reflection and remembrance as well as return.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 231 with the headline ‘The Age of Digital Reproduction’.

Main image: Courtesy: Keleenna Onyeaka and Looty

Dan Hicks is Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford University and Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum. His book, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, was released in 2020.