Could high-tech copies be the solution for the return of colonial artefacts?

Could high-tech copies be the solution for the return of colonial artefacts?
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“Africa is empty of its riches,” Beninese artist Thierry Oussou told the Guardian earlier this year in an interview. “When young students wish to write about the treasures of their homeland, they have to travel to France to do their research.”

This was in reference to Oussou’s work, whose latest multimedia installation, Impossible Is Nothing, reproduced a 2016 archaeological dig in southern Benin. It featured a video of the excavation projected next to the objects that were unearthed: potsherds, an axe, gongs, a water jug but most importantly: a remarkable recreation of the 19th century royal throne of King Behanzin, the last ruler of the kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin). The real throne has been owned by France since the 1890’s when Behanzin was dethroned and his country was colonised. Along with up to 6,000 other artefacts, it has recently been under the spotlight in a mission to be returned to its people in Africa.

Oussou’s dig was a performance and his throne was obviously fake. As the debate on the restitution of colonial artefacts wages on however, an unlikely solution begs consideration: high-tech copies. Technologies like virtual reality and 3D printing have long been simulating experiences in the art world. Some uses in the past few years could shine a light on their potential contribution to the conversation about the restitution of colonial-era objects.

In 2015, two artists 3D scanned the historic 3,300 year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti and produced a practically identical replica. Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles visited the Neues Museum in Berlin and secretly scanned the original bust, before 3D printing a replica and donating it to a Museum in Cairo. The original bust was discovered in Egypt by German archaeologists and the German government has since insisted that it belongs to Germany and not Egypt. The move was hailed as “the world’s most ethical art heist” while Nora and Jan called their rebellious act “digital repatriation”.

Since this happened, the controversy surrounding the topic as well as museums’ reluctance to allow unrestricted access to their collections has only increased. This November, a report commissioned by French president Emmanuel Macron advised the country’s museums to initiate permanent restitution campaigns to return every object unfairly acquired during colonial times. The authors mentioned the possible role high-tech replicas can play to fill the void left in European collections.

“It is even possible to consider the creation of apparatuses to fill the void left by these objects, in the guise of the creation of replicas to be housed in Western museums, whose energetic aura will be assured through the machinery of narrative and the possibilities that digital tools allow for as well as ICT (Internet Communications Technology),” the report said.

The authors referenced Indigenous artists in Canada who are creating convincing replicas of their cultural objects for Canadian museums while the originals are returned to their respective communities. The replicas end up staying with the museums along with much more information so that they continue to serve as educational tools for the public. The idea has certainly caught on and resonated with communities all around the world advocating for the return of their artefacts. Artists from Rapa Nui have offered to make a copy of Hoa Hakananai’a to replace the original sculpture the island is fighting to reclaim from the British Museum.  

The concept has not only been adopted by communities fighting for their artefacts’ return, as some architects have embraced it too. In 2012, some of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum were 3D scanned in high resolution by Níall McLaughlin Architects and recreated in concrete for the London Olympics athletes’ village residences. A few years after that, conservation experts created an accurate replica of the archway from Palmyra’s 2,000 year old Temple of Bel and brought it to New York and London to inform the world about the destruction of the ancient Syrian city due to the war.

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London famously has two halls dedicated entirely to copies. This includes Michelangelo’s David and even Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, standing just as beautiful as the originals and providing a wealth of knowledge about the pieces.

With repatriation claims rising at an ever-increasing rate, museums and policy makers have no choice but to consider the role certain technologies can play in the solution. This does not pose as a quick fix however, as a shift in the way we think about the value of objects is integral. At a conference at the Vatican this year, Italian Egyptologist Christian Greco suggested to an audience of museum professionals that “we must not insist on the sacrality of the original.”

If we agree that a museum’s entire raison d’etre is to offer public access to remarkable artefacts then perhaps an apostasy is very much in order.