They stole nothing—but left with an unprecedented 3-D model of an Egyptian artifact that’s been in Germany since 1913.
Inside Berlin’s NEUES Museum, four guards were guarding the Queen Nefertiti, while artists Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles secretly for three hours were scanning the sculpture with a hacked Kinect type scanner, and in January, The German artists released the data online and created a 3-D printed polymer resin replica of the piece that now resides in the American university in Cairo.
For years, Queen Nefertiti has been the subject of dispute between Germany and Egypt, where the 3,500-year-old bust originated. The piece has been in Germany since 1913, but Egyptian officials say she was brought to Germany illegally and have demanded her return. Al-Badri and Nelles chose Nefertiti as the subject of their project in an effort to shed light on institutional transparency when it comes to the objects a museum owns as a result of colonialism. The Neues Museum, for example, doesn’t provide any context for how Queen Nefertiti arrived at the museum. Since they leaked the information, thousands of people have downloaded the torrent and Egyptian universities have asked to use it for academic purposes. But one institution the artists have not heard from is the Neues Museum, which they believe knows about their project but has yet to respond. The artists say their critique of the museum is meant to be constructive, rather than merely pointing a finger. Their goal is to open up the topic for discussion and appeal to the museum to make its collection open-access. “Museums administer culture,” says Nelles. “[The Neues Museum] is often complaining, saying, ‘we have huge collection we don’t know what to do with it all.’ The open community is waiting to share on a public domain” to give people worldwide access to museums’ collections. “Collections are financed publicly,” Al-Badri adds. “We have paid.”