Digital

Does Blockchain Have A Place In Museums?

Three ideas for museums to employ blockchain technology.

blockchain in museums
DMM.PLANETS Exhibition by teamLab in Odaiba, Japan

By this point, most people are familiar with Bitcoin, one of many cryptocurrencies that represent the first major innovation of blockchain, a decentralized technology that enables transactions that are transparent, safe, efficient, secure, and immutable—and perhaps most importantly, that does not require a middleman like a bank or a credit card company. Digital coins might be the most well-known application of blockchain in our current popular consciousness, but any industry that depends on technology could leverage blockchains to its advantage. Arts and culture are no exception.

Put simply, a blockchain is a chain of blocks that contain information. The information each block contains must sequence accurately with preceding and subsequent blocks in the chain; as such, it is almost impossible to change the information in a block once it has been recorded. At its core, blockchain offers a new way of tracking information across a decentralized network of devices, making data publicly-verifiable and increasing its security (more here if you’d like a tutorial). This has broad implications for transactions of all kinds, financial and otherwise.

With many cultural organizations grappling with 'how exactly to integrate technology in authentic and innovative ways,' blockchain could have a meaningful impact on the operations and management of a museum.

Initial adoption of blockchain technology in the arts has largely revolved around cryptocurrency and the art market. Verisart authenticates art transactions using the bitcoin blockchain; Paddle8 recently merged with The Native, a Swiss technology company that will enable the online auction house to accept cryptocurrency payments; and Maecenas is building a global art blockchain market where users can buy digitized shares of valuable artworks.

While the above ventures may be intriguing, blockchain has the ability to play a more industry-wide role when it comes to cultural institutions that are heavily dependent on workflows and technology. Museums and systems that underpin them especially stand to benefit from the integration of this new technology.

Blockchain could solve some of the big problems that these institutions are increasingly facing, including the “digital dilemma” outlined in Culture Track ’17. With many cultural organizations grappling with “how exactly to integrate technology in authentic and innovative ways,” blockchain could have a meaningful impact on the operations and management of a museum, and perhaps bring more value in the long term than something superficial like digital labels in galleries. Here are a few ways museums could incorporate blockchain:

blockchain in museums
Día Mundial del Arte

I. Blockchain For Collections Management

Any museum with a physical collection needs to track objects’ movement, whether that movement is internal or external. When objects leave the museum as loans to other institutions, whether they are part of an exhibition that is traveling or as a one-off long-term loan to another museum, object tracking can get complicated and expensive. Art insurers capitalize on the risks that come with transporting a work of art—most objects owned by museums are insured for total loss—and museums pay a premium because of what could go wrong when an object is moved. To mitigate some of those risks, museums often send couriers to accompany works as they are being moved, making them even more expensive to ship—especially in an international context.

Shipping giant Maersk started tracking cargo using blockchain last year, and recently announced a joint venture with IBM to develop a global trade digitization platform that will enable more transparency and security when shipping internationally. A shared record that provides access to secure data in real time would provide assurance that objects are safe and stable while in transit; art insurance costs would decrease, and museums would not have to send couriers to accompany works in transit. And with smart contracts enabled by blockchain, costs would come down and all parties involved have a greater sense of trust and security. In the case that something goes wrong, those contracts would protect museums and expedite claims payments.

Of course, there is no way to completely eliminate the risk of the unknown, especially when transporting delicate and centuries-old objects, but employing blockchain technology would certainly increase security in transporting objects. Martin Bijl, a former head of restoration at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, told the Financial Times in a recent article that art in transit “almost always” is damaged as a result of “a human mistake.” Blockchain could decrease human error with more checkpoints and accountability while objects are in transit. This could lead to more cultural diplomacy and collaboration among institutions.

II. Blockchain For Donor Management and Gift Tracking

As more and more museums seek to connect with younger generations, they must embrace their values in order to gain their trust. Millennials expect transparency, and when they are choosing a cause to align themselves with, impact is a priority. Culture Track ’17 found that, for all generations surveyed, the number one reason they would not give to cultural organizations is “other causes have greater impact.”

What if museums could easily prove donor impact? It would not only solve the problem of transparency, but it would enable donors to align their arts-giving with other causes they care about. If they are interested in education, they can give to education efforts at the museum; if they care about healthcare, they can direct funds to artful healing programs; if they care about the environment, perhaps there is a sustainability effort that funds can be directed toward. And they would know that funds were being used as intended.

Blockchain technology can enable museums to track and designate gifts in real time using a secure, universally accessible digital ledger. Imagine tracking your donation to a museum using an app that is constantly updated. It would be much more transparent than an acknowledgement letter, and help museums foster trust among younger generations.

A shared record that provides access to secure data in real time would provide assurance that objects are safe and stable while in transit; art insurance costs would decrease, and museums would not have to send couriers to accompany works in transit.

III. Blockchain For Provenance Tracking

This last method would require a broader, more systemic change that would have to go beyond a singular museum’s walls, but there are several promising applications of blockchain to object provenance (an object’s authenticated record and history of ownership).

Deloitte developed ArtTracktive, a service that traces artworks via some of the same blockchain technology that Maersk and IBM are rolling out. The principle is the same, but it is not limited to physical movement of objects; it is a record of provenance that records interactions with a work of art between all parties involved. Of course, there would need to be an accumulation of data to populate a digital ledger that tracks the provenance of all works of art; Codex has partnered with auction houses as a strategy to quickly populate that digital ledger.

Once recorded, it is almost impossible to change the information in blockchain technology. This is what makes the blockchain so secure, and that’s especially relevant for object provenance because most major lawsuits around provenance originate because of an incomplete or inaccurate object record. If provenance were tracked using blockchain, museums could be certain of an object’s provenance prior to acquisition.

Very few museums have experts on staff that are devoted to the study and authentication of provenance, either because they can’t afford to hire one or because they don’t think they need one. But the ability to access a secure digital ledger that houses objects’ provenance would allow more institutions to accept donations or pursue acquisitions with confidence.

The above three ideas are a few ways that museums could employ blockchain technology; this is really just the beginning of thinking beyond the “bitcoin bubble.” But the broader implications of blockchain for transactions of all kinds, financial and otherwise—security, transparency, authenticity, efficiency—could only benefit museums.

Natalie Lemle, Founder/Principal, art_works
April 5, 2018

Natalie works at the intersection of art, business, and community. She is the Founder of art_works, a Boston-based art strategy consultancy.