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The Otsuka Museum of Art in Tokushima features a full-sized replica of the Sistine Chapel. Kzaral/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Imitation game: how copies can solve our cultural heritage crises

Visitors to the Otsuka Museum in Japan are offered the chance to see through time. Two life-sized copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper are hung on opposing walls, one showing it before the major 1999 restoration, and one as it is today.

Visitors can pivot their view to observe changes in colour on the paintings in front of them. The true-to-scale copies are painted on ceramic tiles, which the Museum claims can maintain their colour and shape for over 2000 years.

The Museum offers visitors the ability to literally walk through the history of Western art’s greatest works. Other recreations include Vincent Van Gogh’s lost Six Sunflowers painting, which was destroyed in 1945 by US airstrikes on Tokyo. Art lovers can view paintings in a manner rendered impossible in real life.

As the world faces ongoing cultural heritage crises – from poverty, to war, to natural disaster – is the creation of copies the answer?

Increasingly sophisticated technology, including 3D printing, offers an alternative to traditional preservation techniques. However, while these new technologies may solve problems of accessibility to precious antiquities they also raise other problems of authenticity and trust.

The New Yorker recently profiled the work undertaken by the Factum Arte workshop in Madrid, which uses advanced 3D printing technology to recreate ancient artefacts that are being ravaged by time and modern life.

The head of the project, Adam Lowe, describes the new artefacts as “rematerialized” facsimiles. Notable projects include a full sized reproduction of King Tut’s burial chamber, built out of extraordinarily detailed scans. The original tomb is at risk of deterioration due to thousands of tourists breathing on ancient plaster, as well as possible excavations to uncover what could be Nefertiti’s tomb next door.

Despite these successes, there are objections to the practice of creating copies. Critical theorist Walter Benjamin famously argued that art loses its “aura” when it is reproduced: the impact an original artwork creates when it’s uniquely present in time and space vanishes as soon as copies are made.

A 5.5-metre recreation of the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, is seen at Trafalgar Square in London in April, 2016. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Yet ultimately, the transferral of art into a new medium and context allows entire new audiences to have a brand new – and possibly deeper – connection to our greatest treasures.

Anyone who has battled the crowds in front of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum or the mass of selfie sticks in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, will appreciate how Otsuka Museum affords the visitor the opportunity to experience a painting’s colours, composition and artistic impression.

Of course the experience of these “rematerialized” paintings and artefacts will be different from that of the original pieces. Tutankhamen’s replica tomb, while set near the original in Luxor, is missing the authentic musty smell of the ancient rooms. It also features a digitally restored panel destroyed when the tomb was originally opened.

Where is the harm?

But as long as the audience clearly understands that these are replicas, from the perspective of preserving cultural heritage, where is the harm in appreciating these objects in a new medium?

Visitors to the Otsuka Museum and Factum Arte are under no illusion that what they are viewing are originals. These are not fakes, as the attention grabbing headlines claim, but replicas and copies, the distinctive feature being a lack of intent to deceive. Honesty with your audience is of paramount importance.

The issue of restoration and conservation is historically fraught, and intensified now by various economic and cultural tensions. As noted in the New Yorker article, visiting Egypt right now is an unusual experience due to that country’s recent political upheavals. Aside from the chance to visit one of the Seven Wonders of the World without battling hoards of tourists, the issues of preserving of the country’s cultural and archaeological assets are obvious.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has limited air-conditioning, with cracked showcases and storage units on display in the main exhibition spaces alongside many priceless relics. They are awaiting the new museum, which has been under construction for many years.

Ironically, the museum collection features a copy of one of the most important Ancient Egyptian artefacts, the Rosetta stone, with the original version found in the British Museum, over 2000 miles away.

In contrast, a different response to cultural heritage concerns can be seen in the vast temples at Abu Simbel. Originally carved into the side of a mountain over the Nile, the temples came under threat with the construction of the Aswan High dam in the 1960s. Under the supervision of UNESCO, the temples were cut out and moved 65m up and 210m northwest.

Tourists and visitors in 2014 queue outside the temple of Abu Simbel to see the dawn light up the temple’s inner sanctum to mark the anniversary of Pharaoh Ramses II’s coronation. The temple is angled so that the inner sanctum lights up twice a year: once on the anniversary of his rise to the throne and once on his birthday. Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

In this case what has been replicated is not the physical temples of Ramses II but the original location and authenticity of the experience as it was originally intended.

The move meant that the temple’s axis is no longer aligned as it was during Pharaonic Egypt. The structure was created so the sun lit up the statues inside the temple twice a year, on February 21 and October 21. The so-called “miracle of the sun” still occurs, just one day later.

Whilst there is no attempt to conceal the relocation, one cannot help ascribing perceived defects to the move. When did Ramses lose his beard? Was it dropped?

Jonathan Jones recently argued in The Guardian that we should leave the crumbling remnants of the Isis-ravaged Syrian town of Palmyra alone, and recognise that the destruction of this sacred site forms part of its history and newfound fame.

For Jones, the authenticity of Palmyra is its decay, not the “faked-up approximation” that a 3D printed version might offer visitors.

But we are constantly battling the push and pull of authenticity and heritage. While Jones may deride the inauthentic replication of Syrian archaeological sites, we must confront the issue of preserving our cultural heritage in manner that is accessible in the future.

When these remnants are no more than dust and rubble, would a future generation really rebuff a “rematerialized” 3D printed version? So long as the creation of a replica does no harm to authentic version, where is the problem in creating a coherent copy?

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