Sep 20, 2022

NFTs as a Museological Practice

Dr. Frances Liddell

One of the most common associations with Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) is the platform Opensea - an online marketplace for the buying and selling of NFT art. Marketplaces such as Opensea are important not only for supporting this exchange but also, in a broader sense, for supporting digital artists and the digital art market. When it comes to applying these tokens to museums and other cultural institutions, however, there is an opportunity to experiment beyond simply the exchange value. 

For example, since the ‘earlier days’ of web3 (2011-onwards), there has been a flourishing movement of experimentation in using blockchain as an extended artform. One such example is Max Dovey’s Respiratory Mining in which Dovey uses human breath to mine cryptocurrencies on the Monero blockchain - an exploration of the entwinement of human and computational labor and financial profit.

And not only are there individuals such as Dovey capitalizing on blockchain technology (and other digital media) as a medium, there are also new media cultural organizations and digital labs such as the Furtherfield gallery, the Center for Arts and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM), and Alt-w LAB developing as spaces that facilitate the exploration of this work. 

This use of blockchain as a medium highlights an important step towards adding cultural value to NFTs. Likewise, cultural institutions can be inspired by this idea when considering the use of NFTs as a fundraising or sales tool.

Cultural institutions have always tended to be risk averse when it comes to digital technologies. According to the recent Trends Watch from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), museums take a more conservative approach to digital technologies, using the luxury of time to watch and learn about which technology is worthwhile before engaging with it. This is unsurprising considering many cultural institutions are resource, time, and financially strained and consequently lack the opportunities to be spaces for high-risk innovation. 

But, in early 2021, there was a sudden change in perspective around NFTs. The hype and excitement around these tokens brought an influx of interest from museums and galleries. For example, larger institutions such as the British Museum and the Uffizi Galleries engaged in using NFTs as a sales device to sell tokenized versions of their collections. 

Similarly, smaller institutions also joined the excitement. Galleries such as the Whitworth created a reconceptualisation of their piece Ancient of Days by William Blake using multi-spectral software and expertise from the gallery. Then they sold this new work as an NFT to fund projects for their local communities.

William Blake 's(1757-1827), Europe Plate i: Frontispiece,The Ancient of Days, c.1827, is reconcepualised for the Witworth Museum's NFT collection.

Each of these cases use NFTs as a sales device. However, the Whitworth applied its mission statement into its process by engaging with academic expertise and using art in a social and community-driven way. This can be defined as the starting point of an NFT museological practice - an approach to developing NFTs that considers the values of a cultural institution and aims to embody them in an NFT campaign. The museological practice toward NFTs does not necessarily mean organizations should simply apply their profits from campaigns to fund social causes. It means they need to innovatively think about the ways NFTs can play a role in carrying out their mission.

Values differ from institution to institution; so this museological NFT approach will be unique to each project, and will require internal reflection on the part of the organization as well as strategic partnerships with web3 collaborators who share their values.

As the emerging field of NFTs starts to grow, this values-based museological NFT practice will become increasingly significant for cultural institutions if they want to create a project that is unique and reflective of the institution’s identity. After all, cultural institutions are producers of cultural value, and NFTs should be an extension of this idea.