For hundreds of years, museums are institutions that collect, protect and interprets object, artifacts and other material evidence of human history, as well as of nature and make them available to the general public.
The rise of NFTs has coincided with the spread of the pandemic. While COVID wasn’t the only reason for the popularity of NFTs and blockchain technology, it shows just how fast the industry is growing and how many people are embracing NFTs and their potential implications.
While celebrities, brands and sports companies have been early adopters, museums are generally slow to take on anything new. However, the shutdown of tourism and world travel has forced them to think outside of the box. NFTs are the perfect opportunity and have all but fallen into the laps of those looking to not only raise funds for museums but offer a new experience to patrons and museum-lovers who can’t travel.
Last year, the British Museum in London converted Japanese painter Hokusai's famous works into NFTs. And recently, the museum announced that it is extending its partnership with LaCollection to digitize William Turner's artworks.
The idea is that users get to purchase these digital tokens, which represent the artwork. These can then be displayed on digital walls as an NFT.
A portion of the proceeds from these token sales will go towards the museum itself. In this way, they fundraise and generate income without resorting to selling physical assets.
So how are museums using NFTs and perhaps just as intriguing, why? Because it’s more than just a revenue stream to make money. In fact, if museums just think of museums in terms of dollars and cents (or, in this case, crypto), then they will most likely fail to make a real and lasting impact.
The Revolt Against Tradition
Manhattan's New Museum was one of the first to adopt the technology by announcing a program of events meant to open discussions about the prospect of transitioning to the digital world. While the museum, in itself, is already a symbol of change in the art industry, this new program is a showcase that it's willing to break tradition.
According to the museum's website, the initiative is a call to action for artists, technologists, and other cultural producers to consider how they might work together to create new structures for supporting the production, dissemination, and collection of art in the digital age.
This is a revolt against convention. At the forefront of this shift are NFTs, the most significant technological innovation in the art world since the internet.
The rise of NFTs has led to a new way of thinking about value, authenticity, and ownership. It has also called into question the very idea of an art object and what it could be.
Many prominent museums have been offering virtual experiences making it possible to visit Paris, New York and Florence from your computer. These include online tours, 3D renderings, and even augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) simulations.
But there's more they can do than just upgrade a visitor's virtual experience. For example, the world's first-ever full-time NFT museum, the Seattle NFT Museum, opened its doors early this year, intending to explore the potential of this technology.
The museum hosts exhibitions and events that feature a variety of NFT-based artworks. These include everything from audio recordings and videos to 3D-printed sculptures. The museum's "Climate Conversation" exhibit features artworks sold as NFTs with the option of being printed in physical form.
But of all the motivations for embracing NFTs, nothing is more apparent than the fundraising potential. The possibility of creating a new revenue stream is too great for museums to ignore.
Russia's Hermitage Museum leads the way in this regard – at least before the sanctions. The institution minted a substantial portion of its massive artwork collection (including a Da Vinci) into NFTs and sold them in their digital form. Driven by the instinct to survive, the museum may have even defied its country's long-standing aversion toward anything that resembles crypto.
Fundraising through NFTs makes sense on many fronts. For one, it allows museums to generate income without selling any of their assets. Likewise, it also allows them to engage with a new and growing community of art collectors and enthusiasts.
And it's not merely about the money. Embracing NFTs through fundraisers efforts a new platform for marketing their collections to a wider audience. With the help of blockchain technology, these NFTs can be authenticated and tracked. This gives rise to a new level of transparency that can help build trust between the institution and its supporters.
Perhaps even more noble than making a new revenue source is the fact that some museums are opening their doors to help educate the public about NFTs. It brings about a sigh of relief, knowing that a historically traditional industry ultimately gives in to change for the betterment of all.
In May of last year, the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum conducted a panel discussion comprised of entrepreneurs, artists, and curators to talk about the impact of NFTs in the art world. The focal point was the question of whether NFTs are a fad or will it be the art's future.
In the same month, the Brattleboro Museum invited prominent author Anne Spalter along with a few local artists and academics, to discuss the impact of NFTs in the art market while also exploring the potential of new art forms brought by this change.
When museums take the initiative in exploring the implications of NFTs, it says a lot about how this revolution will eventually unfold.
NFTs are indeed the complete opposite of how traditional art and museums operate. But it doesn't mean they can't find a way to co-exist.
Museums are some of the most important cultural institutions in the world. They preserve and promote art, culture, and history. In a rapidly changing world, museums are more important than ever to stay relevant. And one way they're doing that is by embracing new technologies like NFTs. NFTs offer a way for museums to collect, curate, and exhibit art by engaging with the public in a new platform and educating them about the ever-changing art world.
NFTs also allow cultures to protect what is lost. During the war in Ukraine, there is a massive amount of destruction. The World Bank has estimated at least $60 billion worth of damage has been done so far. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know how much art has been lost (and perhaps we’ll never know the full extent) but it’s safe to say a significant amount will never be seen again. In 2012, several buildings in Timbuktu, including 14 priceless mausoleums which were part of the World Heritage site, were destroyed by war. These are just two recent prominent examples. There are many more. While nothing can replace the physical buildings and works of art, at least if they are preserved through NFTs, they might be part of the new metaverse so it can be enjoyed by future generations.
There are many reasons museums should be embracing NFTs but perhaps the most important is they are the future. NFT technology is here to stay and will only get adopted by more people, brands, and institutions. It won’t be long before people can hop into the metaverse and visit all their favourite museums from the comfort of their own living room. This should be something that all museums should be moving towards.