Could blockchain change the nature of ownership in the museum? | #MW20-4s

Frances Liddell, University of Manchester, UK


‘Blockchain technology […] could be the next major disruptive technology and worldwide computing paradigm’ (Swan, 2015, p. vii). ‘Blockchain is an important and powerful new technology but ‘we don’t know what a blockchain can do yet’’ (Catlow et al., 2017, p. 21). ‘[Blockchain] may well liberate us from the tyranny of centralized intermediaries and trusted authorities, but this liberation could come at a price’(De Filippi, and Wright, 2018, p. 210). In 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz paid 10,000 Bitcoin for two Papa John’s pizzas and, in doing so, made the first proper Bitcoin transaction. Since this time, we have seen the rise in the hype around blockchain, a technology which ‘blockchain evangelists’ claim will bring a revolutionary alterative decentralised system for society in which we no longer need to rely on intermediaries such as banks (Swartz, 2017). But why does this matter and why should museums care about this technology? Based on the author’s collaborative PhD with the National Museums Liverpool, this lightning talk will cut through the hype to present how blockchain could impact the museum in relation to ownership. Specifically, this talk will highlight how cryptocollectibles (digital assets that are stored on the blockchain) could implement the idea of collective ownership between the museum and its audiences using the museum object as the central social agent.

Keywords: Blockchain, Ownership, Collective Ownership, Web 3.0

Blockchain is an open, decentralised and distributed ledger system which allows us to exchange tokens of value to each other without the problem of authenticity and without needing an intermediary. In other words, blockchain is like a large distributed database which tracks the exchanges of tokens taking place in its network. This recording of transactions creates a provenance for any token exchanged on blockchain, making each token identifiable, hence, we can prove its authenticity. In this respect, blockchain provides a way of maintaining authenticity in the digital sphere without needing a third party to validate the exchange. For instance, if we think of the way we exchange money digitally, we require a third party such as Visa or PayPal to check that the transaction is valid, but blockchain avoids this need.[1]

Through this proof of authenticity, blockchain produces artificial scarcity in digital objects and this transforms these digital tokens into rivalrous goods. A rivalrous good is an economics term which refers to things which are considered scarce and therefore hold value. This is in opposition to a non-rivalrous good which can be consumed by multiple parties simultaneously.

Authenticating Ownership

The formation of a rivalrous good is significant when it comes to proving ownership. Artists, galleries and collectors have started to use blockchain for this use where they now buy and sell art on the technology. The Maecenas Gallery, KnownOrigin, and Artory are examples of companies exploring how to use blockchain in the arts sector to prove ownership and authenticity in both born-digital and physical artwork. In these cases, artists can upload their artwork onto these platforms to sell their artwork as rivalrous goods through a blockchain. With their artificial scarcity, these artworks can be identified and tracked using the technology which can be used to attribute specific ownership.

Collective Ownership

As a decentralised technology, blockchain has also been used as a way of harnessing a sense of shared or collective ownership. For example, Resonate is a community-owed music network which uses a blockchain to create a fairer music system where users become co-owners of the platform. Cases such as Resonate use an open cooperative model of ownership which utilises blockchain to create a sense of shared ownership over commodities. Users become stakeholders, which encourages a stronger sense of shared stewardship or guardianship over the community. The SCARAB experiment is a similar example which engages in the concept of collective ownership using blockchain. Artists submit an artwork and receive a SCARAB token. For every 1,000 submissions, AI imaging technology transforms these submissions into a new artwork where the owners of the tokens  become collective owners of the artwork (SCARAB, 2020). In this respect, these crypto-tokens becomes the art and bind these different artists together under a collective (SCARAB, 2018).

Figure 1 The SCARAB Experiment

Shared ownership and guardianship resonate with the research of Janet Marstine, who examines the concept of shared guardianship in relation to museum artefacts. She argues that museums privilege ‘experience as the link binding people together through things’ (Marstine, 2017, p. 45). Shared guardianship derives out of this privileging of experience as this can highlight multiple stakeholders to a museum artefact. In this respect, shared guardianship moves away from the ‘Western legal understanding of ownership based on economic value’ and towards ownership which focuses on the relationships that are connected to the object (Marstine, 2017, p. 46). Hence, there is a focus on ownership which is more fluid and psychological in nature and this derives from the relational experience of the museum artefact.

Psychological Ownership

In developing this idea of psychological ownership, my research at the National Museums Liverpool (NML) explores how tokens on a blockchain might be used as a digital materialisation of this shared guardianship and fluid ownership. Working with a group of participants, we aim to transform objects from the NML collection into cryptocollectibles where each cryptocollectible represents the personal experience of the participant. We have investigated this through a co-created online exhibition which highlights different museum objects and possessions chosen by our participants. As figure 2 shows, each object is presented alongside the written personal experience of the participant.

An example of one of the museum's objects page in the online exhibition
          Figure 2: An example page from the online exhibition

Figure 3 shows our Testnet possessions gallery which draws from the blockchain to bring together the different cryptocollectibles for this project. The flower is a test cryptocollectible, the live version will show the museum objects displayed in the exhibition with the metadata about each cryptocollectible being drawn from the object’s exhibition page as seen in figure 2.

A screenshot from the possession gallery
                                   Figure 3: The Possession Gallery

Therefore, this research engages with the idea of privileging experience to highlight the psychological ownership of different stakeholders. Like companies such as the Maecenas Gallery, we use blockchain to create identifiable, artificially scarce tokens which can be used to prove ownership. The tokens in this project become a way of acknowledging these different owners and become individual and identifiable digital embodiments of personal experience which connect the participants to the objects. In this way, these tokens are not representations of legal ownership, instead, they represent psychological ownership. Similar to the SCARAB experiment, the aim of using these artificially scarce tokens is to bind these individuals together to form a sense of shared ownership. Thus, blockchain helps to digitally materialise the relationship among individuals that artefacts generate. Indeed, blockchain becomes a way of highlighting a sense of psychological ownership and also a sense of collective psychological ownership.

Therefore, we find in our project that the definition of ownership is changing to one that is focused on psychological perception. The term has become more fluid in nature as other ways of experiencing an object are recognised. Blockchain has the potential to be a tool in this process; acting as the instrument of visualisation of the different relationships an object can generate. And, in this way, blockchain has the potential to be much more than a digital money infrastructure –  it can support an entirely new way of thinking about ownership in the museum.

[1] For a detailed explanation on how blockchain works, see Drescher, 2017.


Drescher, D. (2017) Blockchain Basics: A Non-Technical Introduction in 25 Steps. Apress. Available at: // (Accessed: 7 November 2018).

Marstine, J. (2017) Critical Practice: Artists, Museums, Ethics. London & New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

SCARAB (2018) ‘CRYPTOCURRENCY AS ART’, Medium, 21 January. Available at: (Accessed: 12 March 2020).

SCARAB (2020) SCARAB, The Scarab Experiment. Available at: (Accessed: 12 March 2020).


Blockchain & the Arts Starter Pack

This ‘starter pack’ is designed for anyone who is interested in learning more about blockchain technology and exploring how it could be used in the arts sector and beyond. No previous knowledge on the technology is needed for any of these books.

Catlow, R. et al. (2017) Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain. London: Torque Editions & Furtherfield.

Gloaerich, I, Lovink, G, De Vries, P. (2018) Moneylab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, Amsterdam, Institute for Network Cultures.

Swan, M. (2015) Blockchain: Blueprint for a new economy, Sebastopol, CA, O’Reilly Media

Tapscott, D. and Tapscott, A. (2018) Blockchain Revolution. London: Penguin.

Furtherfield Art & Blockchain Resource Available at:




Cite as:
Liddell, Frances. "Could blockchain change the nature of ownership in the museum? | #MW20-4s." MW20: MW 2020. Published April 1, 2020. Consulted .