Blockchain technology, participatory governance and the museum of the future

Sandro Debono PhD

"If what I say now seems to be very reasonable, then I will have failed completely. Only if what I tell appears absolutely unreasonable have we any chance of visualising the future as it really will happen.”
Arthur C Clarke

Let me get the record straight. I am no prophet and was never one. Predicting the future is fraught with pitfalls and unknown variables. Acknowledged predictions can be frowned upon as ridiculously conservative over time and yet predictions proved right in the future can seem so far fetched now as to be laughed and scorned upon.

I firmly believe that the future museum institution to aspire to might be:

  • led by a curator or a museum director who negotiates rather than sets the yardstick for meaning. He/she would explore a bottom up approach to the programming and collections management strategies while trying to bridge with a broad range of identities which together make up his communities
  • including a co-creative approach to programming and reach out to various strata of the communities. By acknowledging his/her communities as co-creative peers he/she shall strive to create a polyphony of identities that go beyond the needs of history and the nation.
  • a co-owned museum space run thanks to a shared management model where museum audiences have a voice and “own” the museum institution. This would truly mean that the new museum institution is truly polyphonic and a powerful, effective tool for social cohesion.

Where does blockchain technology come into all this? What predictions may we explore for blockchain technology and its application in the museum world? How may blockchain technology bring impact to the sector and how can this change the sector’s landscape?

Blockchain technology is undoubtedly the next revolution for the museum world. The sector is indeed exploring possibilities and potential uses in response to financial needs and the obligations required for museums to run smoothly and develop effective programming. The bigger, universal museums seem to be eyeing the platform with anticipation. Less is known as to where the smaller museums stand albeit these hold much more potential for growth given their less cumbersome management and operational models.

Orhan Pamuk’s A Modest Manifesto for Museums published in recent times, positively asserts the potential ambitions of smaller museums which, according to Pamuk himself, ought to present the stories of mankind to reveal the humanity of individuals. Museums as this new Neo-Humanist institution can certainly benefit from the intelligent application go blockchain technology. Pamuk’s vision holds the potential to inform, shape and define the museum of the future and there is much in his manifesto that shares common ground with blockchain. Pahmuk’s insistence on the ‘stories of individuals’ as being ‘much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity’, his underscoring the challenge of museums to tell ‘the stories of the individual human beings’ and to ‘recreate the world of single human beings’ underpins a humanocentric institution that values the singular within a collective which has much in common with the value of the singular irrespective of his or her net worth, in blockchain technology.

There is more tangible evidence of change in the museum world beyond Pamuk’s manifesto. I firmly believe that the participatory museum as presented by Nina Simon in her 2010 seminal publication stands to be the one best prepared to maximise on blockchain technology. This model has common ground with the ways and means how blockchain empowers individual members of a community to act, process and create assets, be they financial or data. In the case of participatory museums these assets can generate knowledge and inspiration thanks to participatory and co-created projects, audience empowerment and the rethinking of the museum as a public space for social debate. The vision has now morphed into the OF/BY/FOR/ALL movement launched by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, previously also led by Nina Simon, over the past months. Incidentally, among the twenty-one museum institutions to join the first wave of the movement’s research programme, there is only one European museum. The Americans carry the day at this point.

Indeed, it is clear that the latest developments in the museum world have much in common with what has been happening with blockchain technology since its inception in 2008. They are in essence, participatory, and explore the ways and means how assets and resources can be shared or acknowledged as owned by a collective rather than managed by one authority who is set on defining value to be then accepted and acknowledged in a seemingly dogmatic way, albeit grounded in knowledge and connoisseurship. When taken in context, this may be very much indicative of the future, as alignments are forged and common ground is articulated.

It is highly likely that institutions that embrace this ethos will be ones that maximise the use, development and application of blockchain technology not only for funding purposes but also for management, decision making and the day to day running of the 21st-century museum.

Cover image mock-up of the square in front of the future MUZA museum in Malta, courtesy Malta Tourism Authority