The future of art: 3D printing could 'restore' Africa's stolen history

Digitisation is allowing for virtual restitution of stolen artworks, and could even open the door to recreating slices of historic cultures in Africa.

AFRICA’S colonial experience not only displaced people, but histories, memories and cultural artefacts too.

In the Congo, the brutal rule under the Belgians not only saw widespread enslavement and hacking off of limbs when rubber-collection quotas were not met, it also entailed the carrying away of thousands of Congolese artefacts.

The Royal Museum for Central Africa is one of the most visited museums in Belgium today and is filled with an estimated 180,000 African artefacts.

From the Kingdom of Benin, in present day southwestern Nigeria, an estimated 4,000 artefacts are believed to have been carried away when a punitive expedition by Britain in 1868 sacked the city of Benin and sent the monarch – the Oba of Benin – into exile.

Although Ethiopia was never colonised, an 1868 British expedition to Emperor Tewodros II’s mountain fortress in Mekdela saw the destruction of the city and the looting of its treasures. 

Today, about 800 illustrated Ge’ez manuscripts of the Gospels - including some writings that were rejected or lost by other churches, such as the ‘Book of Jubilees’, the ‘Third Book of Ezra’ and the ‘Apocalypse of St Peter’ -  are kept in the British Library.

The theft of art and cultural artefacts continues in more recent times. Up to 300 wooden memorial statues known as vigango were taken from the Mijikenda community at the Kenyan coast, and have now been traced to several American museums.

One documented theft of vigango in the 1980s indicated that a supplier was paid approximately $50 by local shopkeepers, who in turn sold it to collectors and dealers for several hundred U.S. dollars, who then sold it on the Western art market for $1,000 to $4,000 dollars.

But the destroyers of priceless cultural artefacts aren’t always Westerners. In 2012, Timbuktu in Mali was occupied by various Islamist factions, the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

As French and Malian forced drove them out of the town in January 2013, the rebels burned down two buildings that held hundreds of ancient manuscripts, some dating back to the 13th century. It is a curious aspect of African and many other Third World conflicts that art is often destroyed, not looted.

Fortunately, the majority of Timbuktu’s ancient texts were kept in 60-80 private family libraries, and had been smuggled away to safety when the rebels took the town and imposed their harsh rule; some of the manuscripts contain a liberal interpretation of Islam that did not go down well with the hard-liners.

But once in the Malian capital Bamako, they were in danger of degradation from the city’s humid climate. The manuscripts were written in ferrous inks with no fixatives making them extremely volatile; they had been so well preserved in Timbuktu partly thanks to the dry, crisp desert air.

So last year, a campaign called T160K on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo raised $67,000 to purchase humidity-proof lockers with silica inserts to preserve about 600 texts. It was an “innovative use of something very modern, crowdfunding via the Internet, to protect something very old.”

The government of Mali says that the next five years will be dedicated to the preservation of the works: the restoration of 40,000 damaged books and the reconstruction of 45 libraries they belong to, the digitisation of 100,000 works and the cataloguing of 50,000.

Even with the artefacts that have been carried away to European museums, technology is allowing Africans to at the very least, interact with their history – the British Library has microfilmed many of its Ethiopian manuscripts “to make them available in the University of Addis Ababa”, says this article in a report on e-Learning in Africa.

With digitisation, “scholarship has become less and less rooted in physical institutions than ever before”, the report says, but the museums should not think that just giving access to the materials is enough – it should be the first step in returning the artefacts to their rightful owners.

“Digital technology has led the way to virtual restitution. Why should it not now lead to physical repatriation?” the report states.

Nevertheless, sometimes having the art available locally poses a different problem for modern curators. King Tutankhamun’s legendary tomb in Luxor, Egypt, has been deteriorating rapidly because of the constant stream of visitors.

In 2008, the number of visitors had to be limited to 400 per day, as the presence of crowds was shifting the air temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide, creating a microclimate that was deteriorating the paintings. 

“As breathtaking as a visit to the tomb may be, people eventually have to breathe,” says this article by National Geographic. “And with each breath, they exhale bacteria, mould, and moisture.”

So the authorities decided on a radical plan – to shut the tomb completely and create a replica of the entire royal tomb using 3D printers and laser scanners. All the details were meticulously digitised, even the accumulated dust and dark spots of mould; the original crypt will be closed off to all but a few.

In May 2014, the replica tomb opened to the public, and has some benefits over the real thing – in the original people would stand behind a railing, and peer into the burial chamber from a distance. In the replica, visitors are able to inspect every inch up close.

Although there are fears that visitors to Luxor won’t really be happy to see a copy, however perfect, these could be unfounded, if success of reproduced caves in Europe is any indication. 

In the 1970s, the cave of Altamira with its Paleolithic art in northern Spain attracted 150,000 visitors a year, but the impact of all those visitors was degrading the prehistoric paintings so badly that the site had to be closed in 1977, and reopened to limited access in 1982. 

Very few visitors were allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list at one point. In 2001, a replica of the cave and museum was opened, and now attracts 250,000 visitors a year.

So going forward, 3D printing could see the conversation in Africa shifting from only clamouring for ancient artefacts to be returned, to one of more proactively showcasing the continent’s culture and history.

We could see a 3D recreation of slices of any number of historic kingdoms, palaces and civilisations. This stunning blogpost on “100 African cities destroyed by the Europeans” is a good place to start.


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