Response to the Alleged “Nefertiti Hack” at the Neues Museum

Neues Museum

As part of an intervention titled The Other Nefertiti, two artists have posted a 3D scan of Nefertiti’s bust online – on the grounds that the museum had restricted public access to the bust and the data pertaining to its scan. So, is there any truth to their claim?

According to a statement on their website, Jan Nikolai Nelles and Nora Al-Badri claim to have secretly generated the scan themselves inside the Neues Museum. The activists’ intention was to make cultural artefacts available to the public. They argue on their website that “the Neues Museum in Berlin until today does not allow any access to the head of Nefertiti nor to the data of their scan”.

There is no question that the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, which it oversees, has facilitated public access to the bust: it has been on public display for several years. Since 2012, a tactile, interactive replica of the bust has also been on display near the original, allowing people who are blind or visually impaired an opportunity to enjoy a sensory experience of the sculpture. The museums in the SMB network have always ensured that any new scientific findings concerning the bust of Nefertiti are made public, and photographs of the bust are publicly available on Sammlungen Online (Collections Online) and the bpk-Bildagentur (bpk Image Bank of Cultural Institutions).

In 2008, a scan of the bust was generated by Trigon Art. The data pertaining to this scan is currently only available for use by researchers. The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin did not receive a request from the artists to use the scan data before they engaged in their intervention. The Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz is investigating how the artists were able to create their 3D model of the bust, but currently sees no reason to take legal action. Should there be any indication that a criminal offence has been committed, the SPK will consider whether or not to take legal action.

According to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s museum regulations, visitors are generally permitted to film, photograph or scan the museums’ exhibits, provided they do not use technical equipment that would disrupt the functioning of the museum. Any commercial use of films, photographs and scans, however, must be approved in writing by the museum management. In some cases, a general photography ban will apply for specific exhibitions and exhibition spaces. One such ban is enforced, for example, in the Neues Museum’s North Dome Room, which houses the bust of Nefertiti as its sole exhibit. The ban on photography in this space ensures that the object – which can only tolerate a limited degree of light exposure – is properly conserved, and that visitors are able to enjoy the exhibit in a peaceful, relaxed environment. In the past, many visitors to the museum had taken flash photographs of the bust, even though this practice was strictly prohibited. It is for this reason that the museum felt it necessary to implement a blanket ban on all photography in the exhibition room.

It is still unclear whether the data that was published by Nelles and Al-Badri was actually generated by the activists taking a scan of the original in the museum. According to specialists in the field, it is unlikely that the scan was produced in the museum.