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NFTs, Defi, Metaverse… What Future for Museums? An Exclusive - Part 1


Dr. Sandro Debono

What can museums do to stay connected to the NFT generation? How can they prosper in the Metaverse? Can they cope with the transformative investment required? These are some of the recurring questions that come up in our conversations with museum owners and curators. We had the privilege to discuss these topics with Dr. Sandro Debono, a Museum Thinker, Culture Consultant, and Writer who provided us with insights, and foresight into the future of museums.

  • Dr. Sandro Debono: SD

  • Block Meister (Etienne Verbist and Joël Céré): BM


BM: NFTs have brought much disruption, controversy but also opportunities to the art world. In your opinion, what are museums' take on NFTs?


SD: By their very nature museums are conservative institutions, particularly those that are still "object-centered" collecting institutions. Having said that, museums are interested in NFTs, particularly because of the economic return which, in a sense, has proved the utility of blockchain. However, they are treading carefully since it is still something new. Indeed, there is a lot of experimentation going on but there is very little consensus about the way forward.


What museums have done so far is just scratching the surface. It's the tip of the iceberg of the possibilities that can be explored with NFTs. Beyond what Uffizi and the Hermitage experimented with last year, it is perhaps the Manchester Art Gallery that has experimented the most with its NFT edition of William Blake’s ‘The Ancient of Days’. With this project they looked to generate revenue that would then be invested in the community, in line with their ethos. But the thinking behind this process is still very much akin to that of a limited-edition print. You get a good quality picture of a painting, and you reproduce it. Instead of reproducing it physically you are reproducing it using NFT technology. That is very limiting in my opinion.


On the other hand, there is nothing stopping museums from collecting NFT artworks for their collections. In fact, there is more scope for museums to acquire NFTs and to open their collection to the NFT typology, which is about broadening the art form and exploring the full potential that NFTs bring to the table. At the end of the day, these are tools. NFTs as a medium has a different character. It's who is using that medium that will make all the difference. Beyond the hype that NFTs have created around them, the art market will react and says: "Ok, this is it!"


As an ex-museum director, with NFTs we're often talking of visuals. But there is much more potential to consider when seen through the lens of the multisensorial, because NFTs are not about just visual, they have much more potential. So, we're literally trying to replicate our behaviour, our way of understanding art in physical form, and transplanting it, copy-paste, in a virtual space. I think that is limiting. Now how much can we go beyond that ?


H&M, amongst others, took the plunge and created their metaverse store. There was a huge debate on LinkedIn about this project. Some vouched for it, others questioned its utility. Why should the retail industry go for metaverse when a simple website can do the job, perhaps even better? This is the question of utility that we need to ask and that ‘we’ also includes museums.


We should create virtual spaces, but we should not be tied down to how we behave in the physical world. We can fly. We can look at things upside down. We can move around 365 degrees. Virtual space is not fixed in time and space. The other side of the coin, on the other hand, is equally problematic. We can do that, yes, but how much are people comfortable switching to such an extreme experience?


BM: It is a valid argument: How much disruption can we take at once? Between technology, Covid and now geo-political instability, there are so many things that are changing our behaviours, especially with younger generations. And then you have museums, big buildings with paintings from the 18th century... What is the connection between younger generations and museums? Where do you see the future?


SD: The future when seen from the past, which includes our present has always been a compromise. It will not be a radical shift. Even if COVID nudged that. There is this very interesting research by Helen E. McGowan, an American academic, who has written a book about the future of work. It features a chart that shows the rate of technological advancement. It's exponential, going back from the 1800s up to our days. And then there's human assimilation. How much can humans absorb? It's just a straight line starting from the 1800, spanning over 2 centuries.


COVID has just put a small nudge in it. Zoom was there. Skype was there. We didn't use them. Now we're comfortable using them and you get people telling you, let's not meet in person, let's do zoom or do Skype. And sometimes you understand that you're going to meet up in person and it is not happening, because by default you thought you were meeting on Zoom. There is a measure of assimilation there.

Let’s talk about futures however. I underline "futures" as there is more than one future in sight and the one we choose to go for may be very different from where the trends are pointing towards. One of these futures is phygital. A curator or a museum director needs to understand the museum in terms of a multiplicity of sites and experiences of which the physical is just one. The other sites could be metaverse, YouTube, Facebook.... All of them are spaces. There could be museum spaces where you can actually create conversations across time and space. Now, whether you're going to use NFTs or something else, that is the future, but we cannot think of a physical space as a standalone and the rest going around it.


It is certainly the case that museums may never do away completely with the physical given that this is the traditional model that has become associated with this. But there certainly is potential for other parallel experiences of museum space and time. Gen Z and millennials are already comfortable with what we can describe in broad terms as phygital experiences. I firmly believe that the future of the museum idea will have much more to do with multi-platform experiences. The only museum I know of, which is working on this thinking is the ACMI in Melbourne (Australian Centre for the Moving Image).


There is much that still needs to be understood with regards to the digital materiality of NFTs. When you go to conferences and you hear people talk about NFTs, they will show you a screen and say “this is your NFT”. It is not. The screen is the exhibition space for your NFT and that NFT can feature in a broad range of “spaces”. That's the analogy. We haven't come to terms yet with phygital. How is it going to work? What is physical? What is digital? And how the two can connect and merge? As human beings, we do it already. We move from our mobile phone to our desk and back, but when it's 100 times bigger, we are still not comfortable with that yet.


This is the first part of an exclusive interview with Dr Sandro Debono. If you have questions you would like to ask, do not hesitate to contact us.