A 'Digital Heist' recaptures the Rosetta Stone

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A 'Digital Heist' recaptures the Rosetta Stone
Chidi Nwaubani, who set up the artist collective Looty, with a display of Benin bronzes at the British Museum in London, July 25 2023. Looty creates virtual replicas of looted treasures, digitally reclaiming them from Western museums to give people from former colonies a chance to learn about their stolen heritage. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)

by Farah Nayeri



LONDON.- The Rosetta Stone is to the British Museum what the “Mona Lisa” is to the Louvre in Paris. Every day, throngs of visitors to the London museum take smartphone snaps of the etched black slab that was seized from Egypt more than 200 years ago and never went back. Except that, in the next month, the Rosetta Stone is returning home — in a manner of speaking.

At Fort Qaitbay in Rashid, along Egypt’s northern coast, visitors will soon be able to stand where the Rosetta Stone is thought to have been found, point their smartphones at a QR code and watch the stone pop out of their screens in an augmented-reality installation. The stone is being “digitally repatriated” by Looty, a collective of London-based designers who, as they put it, virtually reclaim artifacts in Western museums that were plundered during colonial times.

Chidirim Nwaubani and Ahmed Abokor founded Looty in 2021, naming it after Queen Victoria’s Pekingese dog, which was picked up in a ransacked Chinese palace. The collective seeks to give people from former colonies who are unable to travel to the West 3D replicas and knowledge of their stolen treasures. Their aim is to end Western museums’ monopoly over the narrative and give the public a more complete picture.

On a recent afternoon, Nwaubani, just back from Fort Qaitbay, stood before the 2,200-year-old Rosetta Stone in London.

“I don’t like being here,” he said, motioning at the slab and surrounding statues and sarcophagi in the British Museum’s Egyptian sculpture gallery. “These are reminders of the spoils of war, reminders of defeat, reminders of colonialism.”

He said the museum gave an incomplete description of the antiquities exhibited in its galleries, not representing them as they were meant to be shown; these were often royal, religious or ritual objects, which were never intended for display in a vitrine. For young people of African descent such as himself, he said, “not having the power to tell your own story is wrong.”

“What I’ve been able to do is actually take some of that power,” he added.

The AR installation in Rashid will offer visitors a high-definition image of the stone, with detailed descriptions in Arabic and English, a translation of the stone’s inscriptions and an account of how the artifact left Egypt.

By making virtual replicas of looted treasures, he was shifting some of the attention to the digital space — a “new landscape,” he said, where “laws have not caught up. No one is colonizing digital space. It’s like a free space.”

Looty is part of a group of young activists, artists and academics of African descent who are taking restitution into their own hands by digitally recapturing pieces of their heritage and showing the replicas in the metaverse, in international exhibitions — such as a current display by Looty at the Venice Architecture Biennale — and in the countries from which the objects came.

“The restitution conversation is all about what happens next,” said Dan Hicks, a professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford University, “and there is a new generation, it seems, who are not willing simply to wait for the cogs to turn at the glacial pace at which museums often operate.”

Restitution is “fundamentally about agency,” Hicks said, and so is Looty. The collective has challenged Western museums’ control over treasures and the narrative about them and is using digital media to show that artifacts are “not dead,” Hicks added. “They are continuing to be a living part of culture.”

Looty’s latest target, the Rosetta Stone, is a 3-foot-8-inch fragment on which the same text is inscribed in three different scripts, including hieroglyphs. That single slab allowed hieroglyphs to be deciphered and Egyptology to be born as a discipline.

It was discovered in 1799, a year after Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt. As the French forces were busy building up their defenses before a key battle, it is believed they found the slab inside the outer wall of the ruined Fort Qaitbay. It was sent to scholars in Cairo, then transferred to Alexandria in 1801. Later that year, when France was defeated, the Rosetta Stone was part of a set of objects handed over to the British.




The operation for a digital repatriation began in March. Late one morning, shortly after the British Museum opened, Nwaubani, Abokor and Egyptologist Monica Hanna made their way to the vitrine containing the Rosetta Stone and circled it with their iPads, taking 3D scans from all angles. The two men wore black track suits and hockey masks made of a checked nylon, with matching bags. When security guards asked if this was a protest, Nwaubani and Abokor said they were just photographing and not doing anything illegal, and were left alone.

Hanna is an associate professor at the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, part of the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Aswan, Egypt. She said that Looty’s action was in support of Repatriate Rashid, a campaign urging Egypt’s prime minister to demand the return of the Rosetta Stone, which she said was a spoil of war and illegally in Britain’s possession. (In a statement, the British Museum said the Rosetta Stone had been handed over to the British “as a diplomatic gift.”)

It has been a long time since the Egyptian government made a restitution request for the innumerable treasures seized and taken abroad during colonial times; there were several official requests from the 1920s to ’40s, according to Hanna. Today, such artifacts fill entire wings of the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Even the Egyptian people don’t seem greatly exercised by the issue; the petition has garnered only a few thousand signatures.

Hanna said the installation in Rashid would help engage Egyptians by “putting our activism in 3D.” Most Egyptians have no access to the original object because of high travel costs and visa restrictions. They also don’t know much about it, she added, but Looty’s digital installation would “restitute the knowledge.”

One of Hanna’s students, Nour Zakaria, recalled that, as a child, she received “very superficial” schooling in her country’s history and found visits to Egyptian museums unengaging because the wall texts were rarely in Arabic. “For a very long time, knowledge about our history was never for us; it was for someone else, for the Westerner,” she said, adding that it was time to “decolonize our minds.”

The Rosetta Stone is “the icon of Egyptian heritage, of Egyptian identity,” she said. “But it also represents how that identity is lost.”

That loss is what Nwaubani also experienced as a child born in Britain to Nigerian parents. Growing up in and around London, he was a creative boy who drew and painted but was somewhat “unruly,” he said.

A school switch at the age of 14 turned his life upside down. He experienced racism there, he said, was spat at and chased; police regularly stopped him for no reason. It “changed me a lot,” he said. “It made me quieter and more angry and distrustful of a lot more people.” The little boy who had “wanted to feel integrated” in Britain was made to feel “a sense of other,” of “being different,” he said.

That sense of otherness was reinforced in other ways at home, where Nwaubani’s parents worked hard to keep their children’s ties with Nigeria alive and were dismissive of Britain’s imperial past. Whenever treasures from Africa were shown on television, they would laugh and say, “All of this stuff is stolen,” Nwaubani recalled. “I always came into that conversation with the mindset of ‘These people don’t know how to represent us properly,’” he said.

Nwaubani went on to become a digital product designer, working for brands including Burberry. In 2020, he decided to use his skills with digital technology to “loot back” the Benin Bronzes, delicately carved cast sculptures, plaques and commemorative heads from the ancient kingdom of Benin (in present day Nigeria), now in museums all over the West.

The collective’s display at the Venice Architecture Biennale seeks to represent the Benin Bronzes in their original context: inside the royal palace in Benin City plundered in a deadly British military expedition in 1897. There are 3D replicas and holograms and an augmented-reality rendition of the thousands of bronzes all brought together. Abokor said that because the original sculptures are in multiple Western museums — “They might have 10 pieces here or 15 there” — visitors never understand the scale of the looting. Looty’s aim was to “visually tell that story,” he said.

The Biennale’s artistic director, Lesley Lokko, who invited Looty to participate, said in an email that the collective’s two founders were “young creatives working across art, archives, history and architecture in a way that was powerful and accessible.” They were “taking on the museum world in a way I hadn’t seen before,” she said. “Their work closes the circle of art, architecture, capital and control.”

Nwaubani said his mission was to make sure that museums, which currently controlled the physical objects, would not control those objects virtually.

“The physical still has power,” he said. “Let’s at least get the power of digital in our own hands, for us to be able to tell that story, rather than leave it up to museums to then start representing things digitally, and then own that narrative.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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