How Museums Can Join The Open Access Movement With NFTs


In our latest WAC Weekly, we had OpenGLAM’s Douglas McCarthy joining us to talk about museums’ digital open-access programs, and how NFTs may or may not fit into that.

How does digital “open access” benefit museums, and how could NFTs improve it?

In an article co-written with Bernadine Bröcker Wieder, McCarthy wrote about the copyright implications of NFT projects like the sales from LaCollection and the British Museum.

On the one hand, one of the promises of NFTs is to make digital artworks universally accessible and digitally ownable. But ownable by whom? We’ve discussed the messy copyright implications around NFT art before, but McCarthy adds another wrinkle to that when it comes to public domain works. In the article he writes:

“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.”

While the works themselves have either outlived their copyright or never been subject to copyright in the first place, the museums can argue ownership over digital reproduction. Museums will use this as part of their image libraries in an attempt to monetise those archives, and the way some museums have dabbled in NFT sales seeks to continue this status quo.

But as Douglas discussed in the talk, most of these efforts actually lose the museum's money. Talking about freedom of information requests on the numbers behind these libraries, he straightforwardly calls it “a failed business model”. The upfront investment in building these platforms is expensive, and the amount of time and effort spent on haggling over the image access exceeds whatever revenue the license generates.

A totally free, “open access” approach to the archive is better for museums’ social mission and their finances. The open-access approach fundamentally chimes with the stated purpose of most museums, who’ll use words and phrases like “education”, “contribution”, and “making connections” with the local community in their mission statements. When the majority of a museum’s collection is hidden away in a warehouse, a free and accessible digital archive is such a lifeline to artists, researchers in academia, and other museums.

And the open archive serves the business side as free marketing. As Linda Spurdle from Birmingham Museums Trust says of their move to open access: “Looking at the coverage we’ve had in the media, our marketing department estimates that we’ve had £100,000 pounds worth of press coverage. [Compared to £12,000 a year from the licensed image library.] That’s a lot of value for the organisation as a whole.”

Their image archive has been used self-serve by researchers and by image sites like Unsplash. You can think of that as a kind of “B2B” function between companies. In a “consumer-facing” context, we have an inspiring example from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In 2017 they launched their “Send Me” project, an SMS service hooked into their open-access API that would send people images based on their text messages, e.g. “Send me an image of something blue” or “Send me 🌎”.

Out of the SFMOMA’s 34,678 artworks, just 5% are able to fit in their galleries at any given moment. Send Me was able to select images from the complete archive to send to people who texted. In just its beta testing, Send Me sent and received so many text messages around the world that its number was blacklisted by mobile carriers who thought it must have been spam.

In just four days 12,000 requests had sent out over 3,000 artworks, more than what SFMOMA has room to display. Like the Birmingham case study, it’s one example of what museums can achieve if they’re ready to release digital copies of their archives to the public. Rather than use the NFT sale as an attempt to hold copyright, museums could use the potential there to build public-facing experiences and events that weren’t possible before.

What about the NFT as a record of provenance?

So just auctioning off an NFT isn’t the best use of every museum’s archive. With that in mind, what about the potential use of NFTs as certificates of authenticity?

Referencing his previous work with private collectors, McCarthy is sceptical. He thinks of the certificate of authenticity as a problem which is “handled reasonably well” by current solutions, whether they’re on paper or in code. While crypto maximalists might argue that the current system requires trust in a way that blockchains don’t, he points out that the trust in the art trade is supported by a long history of contract law.

Christiane Paul counters that the NFT is nothing but a certificate of authenticity if it doesn’t have some other use like a ticket or other utility. The administrative efficiency gain would be nice for individual museums — whose layers of paperwork could at least be packaged up as one item on-chain — but the benefit to industry-wide infrastructure would be huge.

We’ve touched on the ways in which back-office processes like annual memberships be made more efficient with Web3 tools, but this on-chain data would be as beneficial to researchers and academics as the open-access library. And where these open-access systems are vulnerable to issues like link rot — links not working because the data being referred to has been removed — decentralized storage solutions like IPFS and Arweave have built-in redundancy to mitigate that.

Not only would the NFT include a digital reproduction of the artwork itself — whether an image or a 3D animation — but it would include provenancial data from the piece’s first minting till the present moment. As we discussed last week with Elian Carsenat from UnCopied, new metadata standards would give curators and conservators a place to add the details of restoration and maintenance to the NFT that travelled with the piece over time. Whether that data sharing occurred over Ethererum, Tezos, or a bespoke permissioned blockchain that served the specific needs of the arts and culture sector is really up to museums.

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WAC Weekly is part of WAC Lab, a new program unleashing the full potential of Web3 for the arts and culture produced by We Are Museums in collaboration with TZ Connect and Blockchain Art Directory, and powered by the Tezos ecosystem.



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