One of my favorite areas in Berlin is the Museum Island. It includes the Egyptian Museum, which is part of the Neues Museum. Among its most famous possessions is a bust of Nefertiti which dates from about 1340 BCE. The museum has an entire room dedicated to Nefertiti.
More relevant to this blog, it has made a detailed 3D scan of the bust. The museum belongs to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is funded by the federal government and the 16 state governments. Supposedly it has an obligation to make its information public, but for reasons that aren’t clear, it held tight to that scan for a long time. It’s now available as a free download, ten years after it was made, thanks to the persistent efforts of Cosmo Wenman. He tells the story on Reason.com.
According to the accompanying text, the download button at the top of the page doesn’t work quite right. There’s another download link in the text which it recommends you use. The download is a ZIP with several files. The important one is aem_aem21300_3dsl01_mo08-03_p.mtl. It’s a Material Template Library (MTL) file, which I haven’t been able to open myself. Supposedly it will open with Photoshop, but it doesn’t open with my (very old) copy. I’d appreciate comments on how usable the scan is.
Copyright 1340 BCE?
The Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection claims copyright over the scan and makes it available under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. It even carved the license notice into the base of the scan. There’s an email address for requesting permission for commercial use. The legitimacy of the copyright claim has been disputed. I’m not a lawyer and definitely not a German lawyer. The museum is government-funded but not directly government-owned.
In any case, the claim doesn’t interfere with research and academic work. Researchers can work with the scan and students can examine it in detail. It’s not the same as having the actual bust in your hands, but it’s as close as anyone is going to get. Perhaps it could even be put on display as a hologram.
More to come?
Nefertiti could be just the beginning. Wenman writes:
The Louvre, for example, has 3D-scanned the Nike of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. The Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence 3D-scanned Michelangelo’s David. The Bargello has a scan of Donatello’s David. Numerous works by Auguste Rodin, including the Gates of Hell, have been scanned by the Musée Rodin in Paris. The Baltimore Museum of Art got in on the Rodin action when it scanned The Thinker. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has scans of works by Bernini, Michelangelo, and many others. But instead of allowing them to be studied, copied, and adapted by scholars, artists, and digitally savvy art lovers, these museums have kept these scans, and countless more, under lock and key.
Do they think the scans will let anyone create plausible counterfeits? I can’t imagine how. They only show the surface of the work. The hard part of counterfeiting is getting the fake to look, feel, and weigh just like the original. Hopefully it’s just cultural inertia which is preventing the release, and practices will change soon. Then art students will be able to study these works almost as if they had them right at hand.
The scans provide some insurance in case the original is lost or damaged. Nothing makes up for losing an original work of art, but a detailed 3D scan means it’s still possible to examine it as it was. That’s a lot better than nothing. It could also reduce the need to handle the original, increasing its longevity.