Replicating Artwork in 3D: Is it Ethical to Reproduce Valuable Artwork Destroyed by Terrorists?


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UntitledI attended a wonderful high school up on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. The mountain landscape and fresh air were inspiration in themselves, the backdrop for a small campus where teachers were fond of teaching class outside whenever possible. We were deeply encouraged to follow our creative spirits, and it was there that I met one of those teachers who make a mark on you forever. Entering art class with dread, dragging my feet into class, she met my reluctance with plucky British spirit and encouraged me to loosen up, giving me a set of new pastels, telling me to draw something, anything, and to do it quickly, without thinking. Doubtfully, I chose to do a still life featuring loosely depicted shapes and vibrant colors. To my great surprise, the instructor loved it, as did the rest of the class. I began exploring drawing, painting, and printing from there, and before long I was not able to get to art class fast enough, certainly never wanting to leave. There was so much to learn, and the creative excitement was addicting.

Art class was a rather loose place, with loud music, laughter, and an energy I’ve never found anywhere else. But for all the latitude we were granted, there was a strict rule: no copying other artists. This meant no drawing of an Ansel Adams photograph, no painting of the Campbell’s soup can, and no renderings of the classics for our own projects unless handed imitating the greats as a specific project meant for learning technique. To break this rule was met with great disapproval by a generally nurturing and jovial teacher. We learned fast, and we didn’t want hours of work thrown out due to bending the rules.

But rules change, and nothing is a better example currently than what we are seeing with the advent of 3D technology—disruptive and definitely revolutionary. With the ability to scan, 3D print and replicate, that aspect of the art world seems completely lawless in some ways, mostly for good. We see 3D printing companies taking the classics and adapting them for the blind as more tactile works, along with progressive art installations, and projects that use translations of fine art such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night to make a specific point, such as demonstrating 3D printing finishing techniques.

One area that is being both lauded and criticized is that of other artists who are using 3D technology in recreating art that has been lost or destroyed due to terrorists, mainly ISIS. This is a way not only to give the finger to those who have stolen from us—basically causing death to original art—but it’s also a way to preserve culture and history for posterity.

Mark Sinclair recently brought up the implications of reproducing art as a way of preservation, often in the face of violent theft. Is it right? He discusses the subject in ‘Should Museums be Recreating the Past?’ recently published in Creative Review.

mosul1-300x200The topic caught our attention as of course we often report on museums and artists working to recreate valuable artwork in cases such as that of the organization Rekre, working to recreate pieces from the ISIS-ransacked Mosul Museum, with one example being that of a 3D printed Assyrian lion statue, representing the original, dating back to approximately 860 BC.

We’ve also reported on several different exhibits from Iranian media artist Morehshin Allahyari, with one featuring 3D reconstructions of artifacts destroyed by ISIS at the museum. She has also been working further to make her models available so that the public is able to download, view, and even 3D print the artifacts themselves.

“I think this project is a good example of how you can think of 3D printing, it’s more than this design tool, you can really think about it as a tool that allows for political activism,” said Allahyari in regards to the use of 3D technology and what she is trying to achieve.


from Morehshin Allahyari – Material Speculation – Marten

We’ve also spent some time researching and following the work of the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) as they went on to reproduce part of an architecture built over two millennia ago—Palmyra’s Temple of Bel. While surviving for so many years of history, other wars, and the effects of mother nature, in one fell swoop, ISIS reduced it to rubble. In response to this, and as a way to remember the architecture, the IDA made a replica of Palmyra’s ‘Arch of Triumph,’ thanks to 3D photo technology and carving. Standing now, recreated, it stands as “an action of solidarity,” according to Syria’s director of antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim. The piece was traveling as what could perhaps be called an installation, from London to Dubai and New York, and then back to rest in Palmyra as a reminder.

With projects such as these, it’s obvious that the intention is heartfelt, and in most cases well-received. The question raised in terms of artistic ethics is simply whether it’s appropriate to re-make someone else’s art.

If you were one of the greats and your work was destroyed, would you want—perhaps some lesser artists—better known as technicians—re-making your work? While images and 3D scanning may allow for very good reproductions these days, it’s simply never the same as having something created by the original artist, with his actual hands on the work.

“Is the instinct to repair and rebuild the right one?” asks Sinclair.

Pointing out that we have the technology now to create very good facsimiles, along with ‘a new era of preservation’ the question is a difficult one in terms of artistic ethics. It’s understandable to want to fix what was literally broken.

Sinclair uses examples such as an exhibit at the Jessica Carlisle Gallery in London in April called ‘The Missing: Rebuilding the Past.’ The theme was reconstruction of destroyed artworks, and the Arch from Palmyra was part of the exhibit, as well as showing work by artists such as Piers Secunda, featuring a replica of a Mesopotamian head ‘strewn with bullet holes.’

“Archaeologists, technicians, artists and fabricators have found themselves at the forefront of the ascent of digital conservation, battling against violent ideologies on the one hand and environmental factors, from natural disasters and pollution to the effects of mass tourism, on the other,” states Sinclair. “The likes of crowdsourcing, hi-res scanning, 3D rendering and photogrammetry are increasingly becoming part of the methodology of preserving culture in the 21st century.”

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The arch being uncovered in London. [Photo: BBC News]

Why should we leave gaping holes in the world of art when we have the ability to repair them?

“The advances being made in 3D printing also make this an increasingly contentious area: if we can accurately recreate a cultural treasure from the Syrian desert, for example, is it right that we go ahead and do so?” asks Sinclair.

And as he touches further on re-dressing areas of disaster, we have to ask ourselves if it is a better memorial to leave them sitting naked, without their artifacts, as a reminder of what happened? Perhaps the idea of replacing everything in an almost sterile manner erases the memory of horrors that we do remember—doing our best to stop them from happening again.

It is also true that are many copies that are valuable in themselves; in fact, this was the case at Mosul Museum as originals were destroyed, but there was just as much angst in seeing very old, very valuable replicas crushed into rubble as well.

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Members of ISIS destroying precious artifacts and replicas at Mosul Museum.

“Indeed, many of the casts featured in collections around the world have now survived longer than their originals and copies have therefore become valuable historical records in themselves,” states Sinclair.

Of course, 3D printable models are also now commonly being made available of originals that are still with us. We’ve seen this in numerous collaborations between companies like Artec3D and Threeding, working with several museums such as Stara Zagora, using 3D scanning to archive artifacts, and then making them available as models for the public to 3D print. While most educators and museums applaud the idea of the public becoming more culturally aware as well as combining that with learning about significant new technology, detractors again would question whether this is quite right from the artistic point of view—and especially regarding artists whose permission we cannot get.

With that in mind, perhaps our new talent for re-creating works with 3D scanning and 3D printing is a more modern version of the replicating that’s really just been going on forever. This is different, more futuristic—albeit streamlined and wonderful too—but it will just take some time in getting used to. While we won’t ever get used to idea of other humans destroying artwork maliciously, there is indeed recourse. Whether or not everyone likes it certainly opens up an enormous and ongoing conversation, causing us to think about both sides. Isn’t that what art is so often about though? Do you think reproduction of art in this context is a good idea? Let’s discuss further in the 3D Printing to Reproduce Destroyed Art forum over at

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