Preparing for the aftermath of COVID-19: our cultural heritage is at risk

Preparing for the aftermath of COVID-19: our cultural heritage is at risk

Can the blockchain help secure Museum collections?

A 2011 survey by ICCROM/UNESCO has revealed that up to 60% of Museum collections are endangered globally. Storage overloads, poor conditions for conservation, budget constraints contribute to risk factors. 95% of Museum’s collections are kept in storage. Billions of objects are kept away from public sight. One in four Museums have incomplete documentation systems. One in ten museums or less, have made their entire collections digitally accessible with pictures and metadata. Barely 0.1% of museums disseminate metadata in a usable format (such as CSV, XML or JSON).

As of February 2021, COVID19 has already had an unprecedented impact on tourism worldwide, placing further pressure on heritage conservation. 90% of countries have closed World Heritage Sites, with immense socio-economic consequences for communities reliant on tourism. Further, 90% of museums closed and 13% may never reopen.

An economic crisis may still be ahead of us, undermining public government’s ability to finance conservation – placing many Museums in a situation where the risks are multiplied (civil unrest, fraud, corruption, …) and resources already strained are diminished (time, budget, money). In such challenging environment, the risks for objects in storage to be destroyed or illegally sold is increased tenfold.

To prevent such threats, the periodic inventory of collections is an essential process: maintain accurate descriptions, pictures, scientific documentation; verify identification and markings; check if the collection database is up to date; ensure physical security of objects. In a budget-constrained situation, databases and backups can be lost too. Even harder to spot, data tampering is the act of deliberately modifying (destroying, manipulating, or editing) data through unauthorized channels.

Every one of the 25 collection management systems listed in Collections Trust and Wikipedia use a relational database, vulnerable to data loss or tampering. Only one new entrant, Arteïa, offers native protection against data tampering using public blockchain technology . Some institutions have used GitHub as a tamper-proof and long-term archive for their collections metadata: Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) , The TateThe Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) , the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Carnegie Museum of ArtCooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum , The Metropolitan Museum of Art. These GitHub repositories have all been preserved in the Arctic Code Vault, a very-long-term archival facility 250 meters deep in the permafrost of an Arctic mountain – so their conservation is as safe as it can be. Unfortunately, there is no simple way for the ordinary citizen -other than a computer-savvy ‘geek’- to query such data or metadata.

Sadly, they are often incomplete. Even when the collections database is made public, the object’s metadata is not systematically linked to the object’s picture. A vivid example is the French Museum’s JOCONDE database, which is accessible as open-data in a reusable format (CSV, JSON, XML), but the other digital assets (low definition or high-definition pictures) are distributed separately on each Museum’s web site – if at all.

Some Museums are more affected than others. Museums in Africa are in extreme situation of difficulty. The National Museum of Mali, for example, had to cope with a long sequence of negative events since 2012 (Mali security crisis, political instability, COVID-19 …)

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