Illustration by Melissa McFeeters
NFTs are taking over. Maybe. You have seen the headlines for months: What are NFTs (we like this explanation)? Are they the future? Are they humanity’s undoing? Is everyone getting rich but me? Should artists, galleries, and museums cash in?
We have come to the same conclusion as many in our field: NFTs have some serious environmental, economic, and ethical implications museums can’t ignore. But this is not another article about how good or bad NFTs are (but if you’re curious, here’s our research on that question). NFTs are driving a new wave of mass interest in art, culture, and collecting, so we can’t simply ignore them.
As makers of digital experiences in the cultural space, we wondered: Is it possible for museums to extract something of value from the exciting ideas around NFTs, without actually minting any themselves? What can museums learn from NFTs? Through our research, we landed on three takeaways from NFT mania that any museum should find useful.
First, people are hungry for new ways to connect, commune, and share online, especially around art. There is genuine enthusiasm for collecting and engaging with art in digital spaces.
NFTs facilitate the “rarity” of digital artifacts, environments, and even ideas in virtual space, and marketplaces allow people to share and sell works regardless of their artistic pedigree (or lack thereof). However, digital art doesn’t need a stamp on it saying it is one-of-a-kind for an experience to feel rare. Can museums create more spaces like this for people to feel like they are a part of a real community, where everyone is welcome and has a seat at the table? Artists are already creating participatory virtual spaces where visitors can engage with art in real time, such as Anti-Gone, and museums can and should encourage the growth of similar spaces.
Connections can also come in the form of collecting and curating. Venues like RareRooms give NFT collectors a chance to display their works in museum-esque virtual environments, digital galleries such as LIKELIKE go a step further with full-on interactive experiences, and Decentraland is an experiment in full-on virtual real estate. Setting aside the focus on “ownership,” how might museums experiment with more flexible, experimental, experiential online gallery spaces?
Many museums allow visitors to create their own collections, but most are glorified bookmarks: a place to save your own favorites for retrieval later. How might online collections expand their social features and focus more on social exchange, communication, and sharing? Could the next Mining the Museum exist in a purely virtual format, created by a curious teenager?
Second, transparency is fascinating. Anyone can see an NFT’s current and past owners and creators as a part of a long chain, as well as see the contents of another user’s entire collection. Part of it is bragging rights, part of it is a certificate of authenticity, and much of it is simply that NFT collectors have actively chosen to make marketplaces transparent because they believe that transparency is good.
Museums can take this fascination and run with it. Museums could take Everlane’s approach of opening up once-obscured data (the pricing of a garment), warts and all. There may also be opportunities to use a collection item’s provenance to tell fresh stories about old objects. Conversations around the value of objects, of what ownership means, and around museums as centralized repositories of culture are happening around the world; they are not always stories that museums are excited to highlight, but the demand from visitors is there.
Finally, NFTs are a case study in the intense scrutiny that comes with the launch and use of new technologies. The current media frenzy shows just how passionate people are about issues many museums are engaging with: climate justice, access, and transparency. Museums can, should, and will continue to engage with these topics. Simultaneously, museum technologists should take note: their next groundbreaking project might be scrutinized too, and it has to perform at a higher standard than, “Looks cool and accomplishes the primary goal.” Members of the museum community will demand more.
To get back to the question that museum CFO’s seem to be asking: No, NFTs should not be replacing your museum gift shop any time soon. That aside, there are opportunities to tap into some powerful ideas and genuine enthusiasm without compromising your mission, or what makes museums special in the first place—and that might nudge you and your peers into an exciting, slightly uncomfortable, but new space.
About the author – Brett Renfer & Hillary Cleary
Brett Renfer is a Creative Director and Hillary Cleary is a Project Coordinator at Bluecadet.