Category Archives: Commentary


[Update, March 15, 2016: After this investigation was reported by multiple news outlets, including Smithsonian Magazine, Popular Science, InstapunditThe Daily Dot, Kotaku, Digital Trends, Fusion,  Gizmodo, Hyperallergic, MentalflossBoingBoing, and ARTFIXdaily, The New York Times was compelled to publish a follow-up story: Nefertiti 3-D Scanning Project in Germany Raises Doubts.]

[Update, November 13, 2019: After a three-year FOIA effort, I was able to obtain the Neues Museum’s original 3D scan of Nefertiti. That story is here.]

March 8, 2016

The New York Times’ March 1, 2016 story “Swiping a Priceless Antiquity … With a Scanner and a 3-D Printer” by Charly Wilder tells how two German artists made a surreptitious, unauthorized 3D scan of the iconic bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

The artists, Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles, make a case for repatriating artifacts to their native countries and use Nefertiti as their focal point. They also point out that the Neues Museum has made its own high-quality 3D scan of the bust, and that the museum should share that data with the public. As a protest, they released their own scan to the public, and the quality of their scan is extraordinary.

The story has received a great deal of attention and Al-badri and Nelles have earned much praise for their efforts to digitally repatriate important cultural artifacts. Unfortunately, there are serious problems with their story and The Times’ account.

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20150414 Man In High Castle Map 670px

Last year for Veterans Day I wrote about my Russian-born grandfather, Boris Krass, a US Army intelligence officer during WWII. In 1944 he interviewed hundreds of Russian slave-laborers whom the Allies had recently liberated from Nazi labor camps. He found hate for the Nazis, hangings, black markets, sabotage, murders, Russian prisoners all but abandoned by the USSR, and calculating Germans hedging their bets by passing information to their captives. You can read his secret report to the Army and OSS here.

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Curious if the Smithsonian had any notable unpublished 3D scans, and how the museum is prioritizing its digitization efforts, in 2014 I sent the Smithsonian’s Office of General Counsel a records request.

I was hoping for Rodins, Degas, Bugattis, and more. Here’s what I found:

Since then, the Smithsonian has produced an unusual 3D scan of an extremely high-profile subject that would be of great interest to the public. But they haven’t published the results. I’ve been trying to access it, but the museum’s legal department has completely refused.

Instead of granting access to the scan, the Smithsonian’s senior lawyers offered only dilatory responses and arbitrary interpretations of loopholes in the museum’s own open access policies. Their explanations include comments such as “we’ve answered your questions, what’s not clear?” and that there are “any number of other reasons” they would keep the scans from the public.

I’m still pursuing this, and hope to share more about it here soon.



3D Scanning and Museum Access

I’ve posted an online adaptation of my recent presentation to the California Association of Museum’s 2015 conference panel on access.

I advocate that museums begin freely publishing the many archival-quality 3D scans they’ve been accumulating for over a decade, but have not been sharing. I list examples of of the world’s cultural heritage that have already been digitized, but are currently locked up inside museums’ and universities’ research labs.


20150104 Getty Caligula by Cosmo Wenman 2

“Although he is now a god, he is still the same lovable young man we’ve always known. I can attest to that. And to enable his relationships with all of us to continue exactly as they were, he has decided, for convenience, to retain his mortal form. Oh and by the way his sister Drusilla’s become a godess. Any questions?” —Macro, in the BBC’s I, Claudius
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