UNESCO planning virtual museum of stolen cultural artefacts

17 October 2023

Unesco, the United Nations’ culture body, has announced plans for what it says will be the first virtual museum of stolen cultural artefacts, aimed at raising public awareness of trafficking and the unique importance of cultural heritage.

“Behind every stolen work or fragment lies a piece of history, identity and humanity that has been wrenched from its custodians, rendered inaccessible to research, and now risks falling into oblivion,” said the Unesco director general, Audrey Azoulay.

“Our objective with this is to place these works back in the spotlight, and to restore the right of societies to access their heritage, experience it, and recognise themselves in it,” Azoulay told a meeting of national representatives in Paris.

Developed with the international police organisation Interpol, whose database of cultural objects stolen from museums, collections and archeological sites worldwide lists more than 52,000 artefacts, the $2.5m (£2.05m) virtual museum should open in 2025.

Visitors will be able to navigate a succession of virtual spaces containing detailed 3D images of the artefacts, each accompanied by materials explaining their unique cultural significance including stories and testimonies from local communities.

Unesco does not expect to be able to name the items that will make up the initial collection until shortly before the museum’s opening.

According to the Antiquities Coalition, a US-based NGO, the most significant looted and stolen artefacts currently missing globally include a third century alabaster stone inscription taken from Awwam temple in Yemen between 2009 and 2011.

Also on the coalition’s list are a seventh century BC ivory relief of a lion attacking a Nubian, stolen from the Baghdad Museum in 2003; a green stone mask looted from the Maya site of Rio Azul, Guatemala in the 1970s; and a fifth-sixth century figurine of Varaha taken from a temple complex in Rajasthan, India in 1988.

“These are objects that exist physically, but we don’t know where,” Ernesto Ottone, the organisation’s assistant director general for culture, told the Guardian. “We will exhibit them virtually, in a space where we can really tell the story and the context behind them.”

Ottone said the aim was to “help young people especially to understand that a stolen artefact is one that has been ripped from its community, but also to help recover stolen objects and promote the repatriation of cultural property generally”.

Logically, he said, the museum’s ultimate aim should be its own disappearance: “It’s the opposite of a regular museum, whose collection will continue to expand. With this one, we hope its collection will shrink, as items are recovered one by one.”

The project’s architect, Francis Kéré, the 2022 – and first African – winner of the prestigious Pritzker prize for architecture, said the project was about “awakening the imagination”. Cultural artefacts embody “a value in their physical presence, but also a value to their communities … that we cannot describe”, he said.