A collection of Bura terracotta sculptures at the Lam Museum of Anthropology

Factum Foundation London has partnered with the Art and Antiquities Blockchain Consortium (AABC) on a pilot project seeking to apply blockchain technology in the context of the repatriation of cultural heritage. As a means of permanently recording transactions, blockchain offers a means of tracking physical objects and acting as a medium for provenance information that can be updated by researchers. Combined with Factum Foundation’s high-resolution 3D scans, this represents a gold-standard for objects to be repatriated, which the project partners are campaigning to be a requirement for institutions planning to repatriate cultural artefacts to source countries.

© Wake the Arts

Over the past few years, the art world has been captivated by the rapid rise – and equally rapid fall – of NFTs, digital artworks that make use of blockchain technology. A significant backlash in terms of concerns about the longevity of the value of these digital assets, as well as their environmental impact, has obscured some of the positive ways that blockchain can be used to address pressing concerns in cultural heritage and preservation.

Whether in developing countries that have been subject to political instability such as Niger, or in UK museums that have been targeted by thieves over a long period of time, digitisation is still an effective means of dissuading looting through enabling future authentication. Blockchain can provide an unalterable record of the movement of the objects.

In January 2024, Dr Ferdinand Saumarez Smith, director of Factum Foundation London, travelled to Wake Forest University, North Carolina to work with Dr Andrew Gurstelle, the curator of the Lam Museum of Anthropology (LAM), on the digitisation of a selection of seven representative objects from its collection of Bura terracotta sculptures. He presented the Foundation’s work to students, faculty members, and the public in a series of workshops and a lecture as part of a two-day seminar sponsored by the Wake Forest University Interdisciplinary Arts CenterWake the Arts and the AABC, centered on the complex issues of repatriation and cultural heritage.

Following the discovery of the Bura terracotta collection in 1975 in southwest Niger and subsequent excavation in 1983, the archaeological site was subject to widespread looting. Many of these looted artefacts became available on the international antiquities market and were widely collected. The Lam’s collection was received as a bequest from a collector who had assembled it over several years, but had not been aware of the problematic nature of these artefacts, and the way in which their trade directly impacted the preservation of the archaeological site.

The LAM is now working with the cultural ministry in Niger to plan the transfer of the physical objects and the accompanying digital data.

Ferdinand Saumarez Smith recording one of the terracotta sculptures using photogrammetry © Factum Foundation

Detail of one of the Bura terracotta sculptures © Factum Foundation

Dr Andrew Gurstelle during one of the seminars © Factum Foundation

Thank you to Susan de Menil, Andrew Gurstelle, and Christina Soriano.