Mar 30, 2021|News|3 minutes
What does blockchain mean for the cultural heritage sector?
After the sale of a digital collage by artist Beeple for $69m this month and news that Damien Hirst is planning to sell similar NFT artworks later this year, it is perhaps inevitable that attention has turned to museums and the potential to make money selling digitized collections via NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Brendan Ciecko suggested that digital collectibles could offer a new revenue stream and a company called Global Art Museum took matters into their own hands trying to sell open access collections minted on NFTs (they later retracted and said it was a social experiment).
So what should museum professionals say if their directors ask about NFTs?
What are NFTs?
NFTs, or 'non-fungible tokens' use blockchain technology to record a history of ownership stored with digital artworks. Artist Jack Rusher has written a helpful blog comparing NFTs to signed editions of a photograph. While the photograph can be reprinted endlessly, it is the signature and edition that creates value. Jack writes: “When we hear someone say something like “why would I buy it when I could just screenshot the PNG?”, the questioner has misidentified what, exactly, is for sale. An NFT does not represent the PNG, but rather the signature of the artist in the context of that PNG.”
So can a private company attach open access museum collections to NFTs?
Technically yes, open data policies relinquish all rights and claims of ownership over digital images of public domain works. But as Jack’s blog makes clear, NFTs are not really selling PNG files but the ‘signature and edition’ - so attaching open data images to an NFT is essentially value-less, not to mention morally questionable. This highlights the problem of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ (Ito and O’Dair, 2019). Anyone can upload and create an NFT of anything even though they might not have any ownership rights.
If our collection is not Open Access should we sell NFTs just like we do posters and merchandise?
You absolutely could. Although bear in mind that blockchain stores ownership permanently and immutably - meaning you may not be able to publish the same images under open access later on if you have already sold them as a limited-edition. It is also worth noting that currently most popular NFT platforms are very bad for the environment. Computational artist Memo Akten analysed 18,000 NFT tokens, finding that the average NFT has a footprint of around 211 kg of CO2 equivalent. That’s the same as an EU resident’s electric power consumption for more than a month, driving for 1000km, or a return flight from London to Rome.
What’s next for blockchain and museums?
Like any technology, blockchain is simply a tool and can be used fraudulently, for private gain, as well as to distribute power and wealth. There are already many efforts to create open source and low-carbon alternatives (for example the Tezos blockchain). A Tezos transaction consumes 25 million times less power than a Bitcoin transaction and 1.5 million times less than an Ethereum one. Beyond its libertarian, capitalist associations, blockchain could be used to re-imagine the sector’s approach to ownership, archiving and co-production. One obvious example is the need for simpler loan agreements for digital assets with the growth of online exhibitions.
For those looking for more information on this work check out Frances Liddell, PhD researcher at the Institute for Cultural Practices. Her research with the National Museums Liverpool explores how NFTs might be implemented to cultivate a sense of shared guardianship between a museum and the audiences it serves.