A Conversation with Susan de Menil, Co-Founder of AABC and Cultural Heritage Thought Leader
The topic of repatriation and restitution has become a daily occurrence in many of the world’s top news stories. Museums, in particular, are undertaking new pathways to open up conversations around their collections which in the past have often been fraught with inaccurate knowledge and lack of transparency. The need for accountability is becoming urgent. The hope is that museums can start to utilize technology, partner with communities and take a straight-forward approach when creating a dialogue about their objects, hopefully leading to a time of healing and resolution.
Kim Bush, CultureTech’s Partner Liaison, recently interviewed Susan de Menil about her vision for the Art and Antiquities Blockchain Consortium and the role it could play in changing the notion of stewardship and what it means to care for a collection.
What began your initial interest in creating AABC?
Serving as executive director of the Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston, Texas, for fifteen years, I became immersed in the world of cultural property and its stakeholders. One of the forward-leaning tenants of the BFC project was stewardship. Over time, I realized that there were several intractable issues surrounding cultural heritage and objects. First was the matter of mine/yours with all repatriation conversations seeking to be resolved in a zero-sum game fashion with a winner and a loser. Additionally, the matter of provenance research related to antiquities and cultural objects was challenging and often imperfect. Finally, the lack of equitable resolutions related to these objects seemed a central underlying problem.
In 2019, I learned about blockchain technology. It was a lightbulb moment for me. Blockchain is an encryption technology that creates an immutable ledger and allows for shared rights. Developed by two scientists, Haber & Stornetta in 1990, who to quote Amy Whitaker, “wanted to secure the past and safeguard our knowledge of it” in the then coming digital age. It seems to me this technology, now closely associated with cryptocurrencies and NFTs might assist in providing a governance structure, transparency, a way to increase the stakeholders at the table moving the conversation from ownership to stewardship.
What impact would you like to see AABC have on current museum practices?
Our vision at AABC, which is a 501(c)3 not for profit organization, is to provide a helpful set of governance standards and related technological solutions that assist museums, collectors, auction houses, and source countries in finding new outcomes and paradigms for the ongoing and ever more prevalent repatriation matters throughout the world.
For many institutions, the lack of transparency around repatriation and restitution can be attributed to various factors- lack of resources, fear of bad data, etc. What are the hopes that technology can potentially aid in this process?
Blockchain and related technologies can assist in creating a registry of property that can be appended but not altered, provide proof of authenticity and provenance as well as creating a method for bifurcating ownership, exhibition rights, support for economic development and a framework for additional rights participation.
Who is the AABC Community?
The AABC community includes source countries, universities, scholars, museums, college art museums, auction houses, collectors, lawyers and technologists. This collective community will be the thought leaders for solutions and applications that will assist in new methods of solving these problems. The community of stakeholders assisted by AABC will help to replace siloed conversations with innovation.
What do you feel are AABC’s biggest challenges?
Education. We are working to help community members and stakeholders appreciate where the intersection of antiquities and cultural objects and technology exists and why it provides new solutions. AABC is committed to publishing papers, participating with universities and museums in workshops and creating programs that will build understandings of blockchain technology and the issues of cultural property.
Tell us about one of your collaborations and what important takeaways there were for AABC?
AABC designed a yearlong interdisciplinary collaboration with Wake Forest University and the Wake Forest Law School. The academic departments of art history, anthropology, computer science and law worked with AABC to create curriculum for each discipline with the central idea coming from a set of objects in the Lam Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest. The collaboration culminated in a 24-hour hackathon with a specific blockchain track. Scenarios provided to the hackathon participants were again referencing the studied objects. The winning team was then incubated to further develop their proposals and create a white paper. Blockchain for Social Impact provided the guidance and collaboration for the incubator. AABC continues to work with the Lam Anthropology Museum on further pilot projects.
University museums with the mission to educate are a vital community member for the AABC work. Much has also been learned about shaping the technology to assist in providing conversation infrastructure between museums, source countries and the legal professionals.
Are you optimistic that nations with antiquities and cultural heritage objects to protect and share will want to participate in the initiative? How can they help?
I am very optimistic that nations will want to participate in this new conversation. Since 2018, and through various movements over the subsequent five years, it is clear that new methods and ideas must be sought for the repatriation and restitution subjects throughout the world.
Openness to understanding historical narratives and education on the importance and context of these objects (including the moral imperative that culture must support the human condition) make me believe we will see encouragement.