In February of last year, Islamic State militants stormed the Mosul Museum in Iraq with drills and sledgehammers in hand. Once inside, they proceeded to topple statues and pulverize artifacts on display, including an Assyrian lion carved from limestone around 860 BC.
Fourteen months later and 5,800 miles away, that lion was resurrected for an evening in a seventh-floor gallery at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. It wasn’t the only destroyed artifact from the Mosul Museum on display—a first-century Nirgul tablet and a statue of a priest from the ancient Persian city of Hatra were perched on nearby pedestals, fashioned out of what appeared to be gleaming white marble. A closer look, however, revealed thin concentric rings from the 3D-printing process that brought these objects back to life.
These recreations are the work of Rekrei, an organization that uses a process called “photogrammetry” to produce digital 3D models of cultural artifacts from crowd-sourced photographs. The brainchild of Ph.D. students Chance Coughenour and Matthew Vincent (studying in Germany and Spain, respectively), Rekrei was initially intended as a response to the ISIS-led demolition of the Mosul Museum.
“I made the comment to Matthew: Why don’t we try to crowdsource the images and the data from people who had visited the museum previously, use those images to reconstruct the artifacts, and then place them back into a virtual museum at some later date?” Coughenour explains.
It took just two weeks for the pair to get Rekrei online. Although there had been previous efforts to digitally reconstruct single objects—such as the Bamiyan Buddhas, blown up by the Taliban in 2001—Coughenour says Rekrei is the first photogrammetry initiative of this scope. Originally christened Project Mosul, “we quickly realized that the platform we were developing would work for the entire globe,” Vincent says. The project changed its name to Rekrei, which means “recreate” in the international language of Esperanto. “At this point, the idea is that the global community prioritizes the sites or monuments or artifacts for reconstruction. The process is very organic, in the sense that not long after Palmyra was occupied by the Islamic State, all kinds of tourist photos were being uploaded to the site because so many people have been through the city,” Vincent notes.