Museums Need to Get Serious About Digitized Collections

Museums Need to Get Serious About Digitized Collections

Museums are in a transition period and the steps they take in the next couple of years will determine if they are going to become relics of the past or innovators of the future. Museums are traditional against digital innovation. But as the industry has progressed and digital collections have become more legitimized, it's time for museums to take notice.

Stuck in the Past

Museums have always been about tradition. They're designed to preserve and display art, artifacts, and specimens for future generations. If you look at the Meriam-Webster definition of ‘museum,’ you get ‘an institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.’ In many ways, they've been the gatekeepers of what's considered to be valuable and important. 

But this rigidity has also made museums resistant to change. They're often slow to adopt new technologies, and when they do, it's usually in a way that doesn't require them to change their core operations. 

We're only now starting to see museums experiment with things like virtual reality and augmented reality. And even then, it's mostly in the form of temporary exhibitions or one-off events. 

Museums are starting to recognize NFTs, but they're still largely hesitant to fully embrace them. Part of this is that digital collections, at least on the surface, go against everything that museums stand for. They're digital, intangible, and often associated with cryptocurrency and gaming. In other words, they're not exactly seen as high art. 

But the reality is that NFTs are quickly becoming a major force in the art world. And if museums want to stay relevant, they need to start collecting and displaying them. 

NFTs provide a new way for artists to create, own, and sell their work. It's a completely different ecosystem from the traditional art world and one that museums have been slow to acknowledge. 

A Necessary Transition

Museums make money and stay afloat by collecting artworks, charging visitors for entrance and from private donations. Like any other business or institution, they need to generate enough revenue to support their operations. 

NFTs are arguably a disruption to this business model, as they provide a new way for artists to sell their work directly to buyers without going through galleries or dealers. At the initial glance, it makes sense that museums don't like this idea as it seems to takes away their role (and value) in the art market. 

But of course, that’s not the case. If we take a step back, we can see that this transition is necessary for museums to stay relevant. To remain key players in the art world, they need to adapt to the ever-changing landscape and embrace new technologies like NFTs. To lag behind innovation, they risk alienating their donors, visitors and supports who expect a more immersive and digital experience.

If you look at what Gary Vee is doing in the space, you can see the potential NFTs have for museums. Not only do people buy VeeFriends, as his NFT collection is called, but the NFTs also give owners exclusive access to events such as VeeCon, gifts, and even a chance to meet Gary Vee in person. With a little imagination, museums could come up with their own ways of providing unique experiences and value. For example, they could give NFT collectors special access to their museum, dinner events, or souvenirs. 

While no museum is using NFTs for their full potential, there is proof that some of the most prominent museums are beginning to embrace NFT art. 

  • Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery recently sold an NFT version of William Blake's "The Ancient of Days."
  • The British Museum unveiled a plan last year to mint and sell NFTs that represent 200 Hokusai artworks
  • ICA Miami invested in a Cryptopunk NFT
  • Florence's Uffizi minted a digital version of Michelangelo's "Doni Tondo" and sold it for $170,000
  • Russia's Hermitage Museum talked about auctioning some of its masterpieces as NFTs

But with all these big-time players leading the way, there's still an observable hesitance from the museum industry regarding NFTs. Some people are still unconvinced about their value and longevity, while others are worried that they'll take away from the "real" art experience. 

Holding back on the prospect of investing in NFTs isn't without reason. For example, copyright and legal issues are legitimate concerns when there's no physical ownership. The volatile and ever-changing cryptocurrency market is also a big factor to consider, as the prices of NFTs can go up or down at any given time. 

Despite these challenges, museums need to remember that they're in the business of collecting art for public display – and that's something that NFTs can help them with. 

Museums Need to See The Potential 

Museums should start dealing with NFTs because it's a completely new market that's still largely untapped. By getting in on the ground floor, they understand how this technology works and how it can be used to their advantage. 

Not to mention, there's a lot of money to be made in the NFT market. In March 2021, Beeple sold an NFT art piece for $69 million – the third-highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. If that doesn't show the potential of this industry, we don't know what will. 

A New Way to Collect and Preserve Art

Museums typically acquire artworks through donations or purchases, which can be long and complicated. In some cases, it can even take years before the artwork is finally acquired. 

NFTs will speed up this process as they provide a new way for museums to collect art. For example, they can buy an NFT representing a certain artwork and then add it to their collection. This is a much faster way to acquire art, and it doesn't require the same amount of resources or workforce. 

But more importantly, NFTs will help museums preserve art for future generations. As we've seen with traditional art forms, there's always the risk of deterioration – whether it's due to natural causes or human error. 

With NFTs, art can be stored digitally and doesn't have to be displayed in a physical space. This will help preserve the artwork for future generations and ensure it will never be lost or damaged. 

Opening a Revenue Stream

Like any other business, museums need to generate revenue to stay afloat. NFTs provide a new way to do this, as they can mint and sell digital versions of their artworks. 

This is a great way to generate additional income, which may cover the costs of running the museum or for acquisitions. This revenue stream is completely passive, which means that museums continue to generate income even when they're closed to the public.  

Reaching a Wider Audience

NFTs offer a way for museums to reach a wider audience. With traditional art, there's always the challenge of transportation and storage. For example, it may not be possible to transport a large painting or sculpture to another country for display. 

With NFTs, museums can mint a digital copy of the artwork and send it to another location for display. This eliminates transportation and makes it possible for artworks to be displayed in multiple locations simultaneously. 

What's more, NFTs can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection. This allows museums to reach a global audience, which is essential for their long-term success. 

Final Words

Some museums are still on the fence about digitizing their collections and whether to embrace NFTs or not. While there's no doubt that this new technology comes with its fair share of challenges, it's also clear that there are strengths that museums can capitalize on.

So, the question is: will museums catch up and join the digital world? If they want to stay relevant in the digital age, they must pay attention, whether they like it or not.