In between the Luf boat and the Benin Bronzes, the debate surrounding museum repatriation swirls ever-more urgently, as cultural institutions, under the glare of restorative justice, have been called upon to return historical artifacts that were looted in the shadow of war or colonialism. Vitally, though, the issue surfaces a more elemental question: who really owns the objects in museums? As Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki, on the verge of receiving Germany’s store of Benin Bronzes, put it in a press statement, “Culture is a living thing. Yes, the objects are from Benin, but today, they are global.”
That same line of inquiry is one that Frances Liddell pursued as a doctoral student at the University of Manchester from 2018. But her MBA research, rather than offering facile answers, scales the question of ownership into a whole new dimension — that being the blockchain, where the concept of possession, through NFTs, seems newly elastic. “Blockchain definitely disrupts and challenges ideas around authenticity, ownership, and authority,” she tells Jing Culture & Commerce. “If we own a token, do we have a sense of ownership over an object?”
The outcome of Liddell’s work is Crypto Connections, a research project she launched in collaboration with the National Museums Liverpool earlier this year. Its goal? To examine ownership through the lens of personal connection by allowing individuals to lay claim to a tokenized object in the museum’s holdings, not through any fiat or crypto exchange, but by simply stating their personal attachment to the item. All NFT artifacts can be tracked in the Possessions Gallery, which is embedded with a smart contract and accessible to anyone with a linked crypto wallet.
Currently arrayed on the platform are objects selected by a pilot group of participants who also each submitted a personal possession to the project, effectively “diversifying the narratives of museums,” says Liddell.
Participant six, for instance, picked the Egyptian Book of the Dead for its “profound and amusing” qualities, and in turn, offered to the gallery a fruit bowl designed by C. Ogilvie that likewise bears both existential dread and delight. This individual now owns the associated NFTs. “It’s about this idea of personal connection being translated to a digital object or NFT,” Liddell adds, “and having that create a bond between the museum and the audiences it serves.”
Though a medium (or asset) that’s gained traction for its high-profile players and even higher returns, NFTs here offer a shared and communal experience that — apologies to Beeple — is priceless. For museums, that could translate into greater community engagement and increased accessibility, with the possibility for monetization. Of course, as Liddell points out, some knowledge of the blockchain on the part of museumgoers is required, though there’s every likelihood for such a project to help institutions in “acknowledging and recognizing communities” as being key parts of the museological orbit.
In fact, objects in Crypto Connections may sit in the collections of the National Museums Liverpool, but according to Liddell, “the museum doesn’t technically own the token.” Digital ownership here is intended to lie with visitors and participants — which cracks open another set of questions surrounding ethics, copyright, and how much authority within the museum might be granted to the holders of these collectibles. “What does that token mean?” she asks. “Can that person then have some form of decision-making process in the museum? Does it mean that they’re some form of member of the museum?”
Crypto Connections doesn’t solve for these equations; instead, as a proof-of-concept, it casts light on the complexities of cultural ownership and the potential for NFTs to reframe that conversation. And as a blockchain outing by a cultural institution, the project departs from the mere minting, selling, and buying of tokens to weave NFTs into visitors’ very human connections to artifacts. How better to extract “other forms of value” from NFTs, as Liddell puts it, while educating and engaging the museum public in a way that encompasses not one, but all.