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There are many ways in which museum directors and developers can use NFTs. Valuable items in museum collections, as well as in libraries and archives, can be tokenized for their safekeeping and to reduce the risk of them being stolen and sold illegally. The tokens also allow museums to prove their ownership and the authenticity of their assets. Having an asset logged on a digital database is a perfect solution for museums as they are then able to not only digitise their collections but also manage and monitor the rights and licences to their assets in the digital space.

NFTs can also be used to establish the identity of visitors and record their demographic details, such as their age, gender, domicile, and ethnicity. They can also be used, over time, to track an individual’s performance on a series of interactive displays as well as the frequency with which interactive displays are used by visitors and for how long. Museums can also play a role in educating the public about the positives and negatives of NFTs and how to buy and sell them.

In September 2021, Iconic Moments, a web3 platform, was launched as the first NFT marketplace specifically focused on the museum and heritage industry. Their goal is to help museums engage new visitors digitally and to enable them to bring their exhibits and collections to life using blockchain technology. Their future plans include releasing NFTs that tell the stories of museums and their collections, with proceeds from the sale of the NFTs being used to develop the collections and cover operating costs. In addition to raising revenue, the metadata on the NFTs could elaborate on the social benefits of preserving heritage. The connection to the museum is also important, as an NFT is not just an inert JPEG file but a little piece of a museum that is owned by someone.

But there is more to a museum NFT than just commoditising its collections. NFTs can also help to bridge the gap between the museum audience and blockchain through personal connections. Adding extra metadata to the NFT helps to facilitate a deeper connection so that it acquires personal values in relation to an object rather than being just an image or a commodity.

One of the most exciting opportunities in the NFT space is holographic NFTs (holo-NFTs) that act as 3D digital representations of artworks, artefacts or specimens. Holo-NFTs also elevate a 2D collection into a more immersive 3D rendering that leaps off the screen using Augmented Reality (AR) technology. At the forefront of this innovation is The Morpheus Project, a platform developed to showcase holo-NFTs from artists and heritage institutions around the world. This platform was created by London-based immersive technology company Perception Codes, whose work in Desktop AR has already gained them a reputation for driving innovation in the heritage sector.

The Morpheus Project allows museums and galleries to digitise their content and exhibit their work holographically. The newly created holo-NFTs can then be used as virtual learning resources that can be accessed by a global audience. Holo-EFTs have the potential to expand a museum’s online presence, improve accessibility, and generate engaging and immersive user experiences, without being confined to a single location. In addition, artefacts that are too fragile or too heavy to transport can be included as holo-NFTs in travelling exhibitions. Holo-NFTs thereby promote equality of opportunity by giving people around the world access to 3D representations of artefacts that they can admire and learn about even though those artefacts may be thousands of kilometres away.

Similarly, the repatriation of artefacts, currently a hot topic in museums, can be achieved in a win: win situation by the retention of holo-NFTs by the institution that is relinquishing its ownership of the original artefacts. A further benefit of 3D digital representations is that they can be added to and adapted digitally to introduce new layers of understanding and new perspectives that enrich the viewer’s experience and accommodate changing points of view.

The ecosystem for 3D NFTs has never been more developed than now. The introduction of mobile phone 3D scanning capabilities means that anyone can potentially create 3D digital models. Additionally, most smartphone apps are now made for Virtual Reality (VR) and AR technologies, which means that there is a great deal of interesting 3D content available online, unlike a few years ago when the 3D digital ecosystem was relatively undeveloped.

Digital technology has the power to transform the role of museums and enable them to utilise their collections and assets in new and exciting ways, but there are also risks. Copyright is an important issue, and it is important to be clear about what the museum is actually giving away. By selling an NFT of an artefact, specimen or artwork, there is no transfer of physical ownership, and buyers need to understand that. NFTs are commercialising aspects of a museum’s collection but in a non-traditional way that steps away from mementoes sold in museum shops and engages clients with 3D representations of the real collections. But trading in the crypto-world also exposes museums to ethical challenges. For instance, the anonymity of crypto sales often means that it is difficult to know where the money is coming from.

Holo-NFTs are the ideal solution for institutions looking to forge ahead into a digital future. The idea of digital representations of physical assets is not new, nor is the use of unique identification techniques.  When these concepts are combined with the benefits of tamper-resistant blockchain technology, smart contracts, and automation, they become a potent force for change. This technology needs to be used by museums, science centres and art galleries so that they can generate further interest in, and connections with, their collections, as well as revenue, without compromising or losing their physical assets.