UNESCO Unveils Design of First Virtual Museum of Stolen Cultural Objects

UNESCO’s forthcoming virtual museum of stolen cultural objects is one step closer to reality. 

UNESCO (short for The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has partnered with Interpol, among other as foreign parties, to develop the $2.5 million museum, with the first round of funding being provided by Saudi Arabia. 

In an announcement, UNESCO said, “The virtual museum will be a game-changing tool to raise awareness on the illicit trafficking and the importance of protecting cultural heritage among the relevant authorities, culture professionals and the general public, notably young generations.”

The museum was announced in September 2022, and last week the agency unveiled its schematic design by Burkina Faso–born architect Francis Kéré, winner of the 2022 Pritzker Architecture Prize. 

“For this project, we needed an architect capable of rewriting the traditional playbook, who could design spaces while thinking outside the box, who could intimately link the material with the immaterial,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO director-general, told Artnet News.

The museum’s architecture draws from the towering baobab tree, an Indigenous African plant with hundreds of life-sustaining uses and deep spiritual significance. Its distinctive silhouette—a broad bare trunk and short, fused stems—will form the foundation of the space, while elements of the Guggenheim Museum’s iconic rotunda, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, will also be incorporated. Visitors will be invited to explore a series of virtual galleries containing detailed 3-D re-creations of artifacts, each paired with literature on their cultural significance, including testimonies from communities within their countries of origin.  

The museum is set to go live in 2025. According to the Guardian, UNESCO will not unveil the works that will make up the initial collection until shortly before the opening. 

“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,” Azoulay told the Guardian.

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