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Should museums be dabbling in NFTs?

25 October 2021

From the November 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

The British Museum is one of several leading museums selling non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of works in their collection. But what are the institutions really selling – and do they understand what serious buyers want?

Bernadine Bröcker Wieder

For those following some of the coverage of the digital art market and the boom in non-fungible tokens (NFTs), it’s tempting to say that museums should have nothing to do with what seems like a fad or a bubble. This view ignores what NFTs really are and what they mean to serious collectors – and how much this has in common with the idea of the museum itself.

If you speak to the biggest crypto collectors about what they would like to do with their NFTs, the word they use – and they mean it as a verb – is ‘hodl’. It derives from ‘HODL’, an acronym that stands for ‘hold on for dear life’. Over the past five years, crypto investors have held on to their assets despite the volatility and speculation all around them. On forums such as Reddit or Twitter, they advise each other to keep calm and hodl. Of the Bitcoins available to buy today, 79 per cent are held by long-term investors who consider them ‘digital gold’, with only 21 per cent held and traded by speculators. 

Since 2013 (but mainly over the past two years thanks to standardisation and technological advances) cryptocurrency hodlers have found an alternative focus for their long-term investment strategy: the digital creative economy. Their holdings (which have sometimes increased in value by 1,000 times when converted to fiat currencies) now make their way into supporting artists, creatives and metaverse real estate: the ‘long term’ that resonates with this culture. 

Despite the existence of a generational divide and a lack of common language, ‘hodling has a lot in common with the traditional mindset of museums and collectors. Institutions preserve cultural assets through pandemics, art-market speculation, shady dealings, popular disinterest and even civic upheaval. And museums, on the whole, reject calls for deaccession even in the darkest moments, believing that the long-term value of their holdings for humanity supersedes any short-term gain.

When an NFT by Beeple that was stored on the Ethereum blockchain sold for $69m at Christie’s early in 2021, the wider world took notice. But when the buyer, Metakovan, talks about what he wants to do with Everydays: The First 5000 Days, rather than selling it for profit, he discusses collaborating with the artist to set up a virtual museum the public can access through virtual tickets. To Metakovan, these 13 years’ worth of doodles are priceless – representing an era.

Like it or not, history is often shaped by the artefacts and opinions valued by the masses. The subject matter of Beeple’s works may not resemble the offerings in a Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale – calling to mind instead the populist, satirical, controversial commentary of, say, Jan Steen, Honoré Daumier or William Hogarth. 

Museums will undoubtedly need to deal with NFTs in some capacity, even simply in the form of donations (as was the case of the ICA Miami and the gift of CryptoPunk 5293 from one of its trustees). Some like to jump to the conclusion that museums are sitting on a treasure trove of ‘NFT-able’ digital assets because of their large collections of art, culture, pop and design. 

At Vastari [an online platform that connects private collectors with public museums], we have noticed that the institutions we work with are reconsidering decades of pumping content on to the internet for free. Monetisation using blockchains and NFTs, when done right, allows for the circulation of the asset while also generating income from it. Funds have already been raised for the Uffizi, the Hermitage, the Whitworth (a project Vastari was involved with) and the British Museum, with more projects undoubtedly coming forward soon.

But I would stress: if these museums do not clearly define their internal attitude towards digital assets, observers will easily jump to the conclusion that they are selling a high-priced equivalent of a low-value collectible souvenir, or even a fractional share in the original object. What, therefore, is the long-term benefit for hodlers of these tokens?

For museums looking to get involved in this technology, simply dabbling with the minting and selling of JPEGs is indeed not advisable. Instead, they would need to master an authentic voice and business model – and understand the skilful conjuring of transparency, timestamping, FOMO (fear of missing out), community and creativity that drives this new wave of technology. 

Bernadine Bröcker Wieder is the founder and CEO of Vastari and Vastari Labs.

Douglas McCarthy

When the British Museum recently announced its intention to sell NFTs of prints by Hokusai, many seemed surprised, intrigued or somewhat bemused. ‘Museum Twitter’ lit up with passionate threads, heated discussion and sarcastic memes. The British Museum, however, is not the only venerable institution to enter this voguish domain. This year the State Hermitage Museum, the Uffizi Galleries and the Whitworth Art Gallery have also sold NFTs based on their collections.

In May, after the Uffizi sold an NFT of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo for $170,000, its director Eike Schmidt said, ‘It’s not a change of direction in terms of revenue, it is an additional revenue.’ In July, the Hermitage reportedly earned $440,500 from auctioning NFTs of five masterpieces by Giorgione, Leonardo, Kandinsky, Monet and Van Gogh. The museum’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, said that the auction was ‘an important stage in the development of the relationship between person and money, person and thing’.

At first glance these ventures seem to encapsulate the ethical tension between museums on the one hand democratising access to their collections and, on the other, financialising them as assets in NFT marketplaces. Take a moment to reflect, however, and you might conclude that they are entirely in keeping with normal museum practice. To understand why, we need to make a brief detour into copyright.

Like many museums around the world, the British Museum, to take just one example, uses copyright to restrict reuse of its digital collections. It claims new copyrights when it makes digital facsimiles of public-domain works in its collections – works in which copyright no longer exists, or never existed in the first place – just like the Hokusai prints from which the museum is now minting NFTs. Do these digital facsimiles actually qualify for copyright protection? The relevant law is complex and lacks international harmonisation. 

Claiming copyright in these digital surrogates allows museums to erect a legal scaffold upon which restrictive reuse policies can be built. It enables their attempts (however vain they may be in practice) to monopolise the supply, publication and monetisation of digital collections. Image supply and reproduction fees can be ruinously expensive and the negative effects of such restrictive policies on authors and academics – especially those working in image-focused research fields such as art history – are well known. 

According to the website of LaCollection, the British Museum’s commercial partner, ‘Each NFT is associated with a certificate of authenticity, signed by the art institution that owns the original artwork.’ This statement will raise the eyebrows of many art historians. The Great Wave was the first print from Hokusai’s series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei), of which around 5,000 impressions were printed. It has since become one of the most reproduced and well known images in the world. So the notion of buying a ‘super rare’ editioned token of the Hokusai print is rather odd.

To market limited-edition NFTs of public domain works is to confect scarcity where none exists. Prints of The Great Wave are held in museum collections all around the world and several of these institutions offer high-resolution digital files of The Great Wave freely available for download and unrestricted reuse by anyone, anywhere – no strings attached.

The massive energy consumption of Proof of Work (PoW) blockchains, currently used as the basis for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – and for the time being Ethereum, upon which most NFTs are based, deepens the ethical conundrum for museums, running counter to their stated intention of reducing their carbon footprint.

In 19th-century Japan, the right to manufacture and disseminate printed works was called zohan (possession of blocks). Museums selling NFTs of their collections today have unwittingly revived zohan on 21st-century blockchains. The price of a Hokusai print in 1842 was fixed at 16 mon, approximately the cost of two portions of noodles. At the time of writing, bidding on the British Museum’s first NFT of The Great Wave has surpassed £6,000. If Hokusai were alive today, he would surely be astonished.

Douglas McCarthy is co-editor of the Open GLAM Medium publication and collections engagement manager at Europeana.

From the November 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.