Is the Future of Museums a Decentralized One?

The startup Arkive thinks so

Brandenburg museum
In Brandenburg, the Museum Thirty Years' War and the District Museum.
Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images

To read about a museum in 2023 is to become aware of some of the decisions that informs what you see hanging on the walls and otherwise on display. Not everything in a museum’s collection is on display, and sometimes the provenance of the works seen there can be fraught with historical tension. All of these debates prompted one technology company, Arkive, to explore the idea of a decentralized museum.

Last year, in a conversation with TechCrunch, Arkive founder and CEO Tom McLeod explained the thinking behind his company. “When we set out, we asked, ‘What if the Smithsonian was owned and curated by the internet?’ and that’s what led us to launch Arkive,” he explained. “We are hell-bent on building a vibrant community that’s part of defining historical significance.”

To date, the company has made several acquisitions, as dot.LA reports — including a patent for the early computer ENIAC. However, it sounds like Arkive’s appearance at this year’s SXSW led to some tension between the company’s supporters and those who were more skeptical about its mission.

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ARTnews reported on a recent panel, titled “The Decentralization of Art As We Know It,” where Arkive’s founder was among the panelists. The article cites the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sarah Wambold, who asked about Arkive’s structure and how it compared to that of a museum. “Museums are non-profits, they are mission-based organizations set up for the public good, which is why they have tax-exempt status,” Wambold said — and went on to ask what Arkive was doing to benefit artists.

Based on ARTnews‘s reporting, Arkive’s McLeod sounded as though he was trying to leave himself and his company some place to evolve. “I think in a long view we are starting to reassess things that we thought might be great might not all be there,” he said at one point. And it seems like we may be waiting a little longer for a definitive answer on what a next-generation museum will look like.

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