Physical to Digital: Exploring the Rise of Online Museums and NFTs

We recently read an article from Rolling Stone about how the future of museums is in NFTs and digital exhibitions. Our current age is one of ever-changing technology and ways to reach a greater audience. Many museums are having to find ways to adapt to the rapid changes or get left behind as they slip behind the curve. But will these technological advances be the best way to display and showcase our favorite art and artifacts? Or will this online transition “overshadow” what museums were originally supposed to do?

Museums have always been at the forefront of showcasing art and cultural artifacts to the public. In recent years, the rise of technology has opened up new possibilities for museums to engage with their audiences and provide new ways to experience their collections. One area that has garnered much attention in the art world is the use of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and digital exhibitions. NFTs are a type of digital asset that use blockchain technology to certify ownership and authenticity. They can be used to represent any type of digital asset, including art, videos, music, and even tweets. NFTs have gained a lot of popularity in the art world as a way to sell and collect digital art, and they have the potential to revolutionize the way that museums collect, display, and sell art. Museums have been using these NFTs to create digital exhibitions that can be accessed online. The exhibitions of which could feature a mix of physical and digital artworks, allowing museums to showcase a wider range of works and reach a global audience. Digital exhibitions have also been used to showcase works that are too fragile or valuable to be displayed in person. This gives visitors a closer look at works that are normally behind glass or in storage.

Museums will now have the potential to create virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) experiences through improved technology as well. By using VR or AR technology, museums could create immersive exhibitions that allow visitors to experience art in a whole new way. For example, a museum could create a VR exhibit that allows visitors to walk through a virtual version of an ancient Egyptian temple or an AR exhibit that overlays information and multimedia onto physical artworks. 

More and more we find museums seeing their digital presence and experience as an integral part of their engagement, access, and education. The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the way that museums operate, with many institutions shifting to online exhibitions as a way to continue engaging with their audiences while physical buildings were closed. 

The Museum of Fine Arts was amongst those leading the way with their “Museum of Fine + Digital Art Online” project that began in the spring of 2020. Their main focus was to display the work of their permanent collections and allow visitors to interact with the pieces through an innovative application of blockchain technology and artificial intelligence (AI). The museum’s CEO explained how this process works in his article stating: “The idea isn’t to replace traditional museum viewings; it’s to augment the experience”.

We see more bold experiments like this such as the Museum of Modern Art’s Machine Hallucinations. The project, launched in June 2020, uses blockchain and AI technology to explore three themes critical to the way humans understand the world and our place in it — privacy, history, and the future. Exploring these three issues through a series of immersive, interactive experiences ranging from a crypto-art marketplace to an augmented reality gaming zone provides a new kind of accessibility for audiences and enables the museum to connect with new audiences and redefine its definition of a museum. Not to mention the major financial boon that the project led to through the sale of the NFTs created through the collection, allowing the museum to more comfortably get through the pandemic. 

This shows that digital exhibitions and fully online exhibitions can also be more cost-effective for museums than traditional physical exhibitions. The cost of shipping and installing artwork, as well as the cost of maintaining and staffing physical exhibition spaces, can be significant. The transition to a fully online experience was the difference between life and death for some museums during the pandemic, and a reason why they are able to come back to have such a resurgence as we go out of it. 

While the upsides seem unending, the transition to the virtual world does not come without drawbacks. While the availability of online doing allows museums to reach a greater global audience, there will always be those who have no access to the internet or the necessary technology to fully experience digital exhibitions or NFTs. There is the factor of authenticity as well. The use of NFTs to authenticate artworks can become problematic as it relies on the integrity of the blockchain and the ability to prove ownership. If the blockchain is hacked or ownership cannot be proven, the authenticity may be called into question. This leads to the next problem of security, digital exhibitions, and NFTs are vulnerable to security breaches, such as hacking and cyber attacks. While museums may cut costs of putting up physical exhibitions, museums will have to redirect those excess funds to make robust security measures to protect their digital assets. 

The use of NFTs and digital exhibitions have the potential to revolutionize the way that museums engage with their audiences and showcase their collections. As technology continues to evolve, I say we can expect to see more and more museums utilizing these tools to provide new and exciting ways to experience art and culture.


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