Who Owns History? Arkive and the Decentralized Museum
Culture wars over American History. Historiography with Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson. A shared ledger for humanity.
Whose History Is It Anyway?
Nothing animates our culture war like a debate over American history. We debate Confederate statues and flags. We debate the historical definitions of privacy and “well-regulated militia.” We debate whether to reconsider American history through the lens of slaves. We debate whether our national heroes - Washington, Lincoln, FDR- should be judged by their achievements - the Revolution, Emancipation and the New Deal - or their crimes - owning slaves, Sioux mass execution, Japanese internment.
It’s easy to write these debates off as political games. But for meaning-making animals like us humans, the truth is that history does matter. A war over our history is a war over our identity. It’s a war over whether the things we define ourselves by – our nation, our state, our family, our traditions – are worthy of celebration or condemnation.
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There’s a classic line that “history is written by the winners,” but in a free society, that’s only partially true. History’s first draft might be written first by the winners, but it’s written again by each generation. It is revised, reimagined and reinterpreted with each retelling.
And, of course, the idea that there is only one history is a mistake of our imagination.
The world is not a single story unfolding before our eyes. History is not even “one damn thing after another.” It’s everything, everywhere all at the same time. It’s grand struggles and quiet moments. It’s not a single, unbroken arc. It’s a billion little lines of string that converge and diverge in a massive web.
Historically, we have lacked the technology to reflect the scope of history. There are only so many stories that can fit in a book and so many books in a library. There are only so many items we can put in a museum exhibit. And, frankly, there’s only a limited amount of memory in the human mind. So we cut out a lot of the details. We pick a few names and dates worth remembering. We learn a few grand theories – the economic forces of Marx, the progressive determinism of MLK, the collective myths of Harrari – and we say: that’s history.
But there’s an alternative way to look at this.
In Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope and her troupe of well-meaning government bureaucrats create a Time Capsule. They aspire to “perfectly encapsulate” life in their town of Pawnee. So they start loading it up with the basic items you would expect.
Diaries from a staffer’s mother that testifies to life in Pawnee. Menus from a popular diner. A meticulously researched history.
But things go off the rails when a citizen shows up and demands that the book Twilight be included. Leslie, eventually and reluctantly, agrees.
“What happened to a perfect encapsulation of life in Pawnee?”
“Well, for that guy, life in Pawnee is him and his daughter reading that book.” Leslie replies.
To really understand history, we have to understand the people who experienced it. So why aren’t the treasures of actual people the best way to capture that?
This was the insight Tom McLeod had while building his first start-up, Omni.
The startup was part of the 2010s trend in on-demand-services. It offered customers easy access to on-demand storage. Tom thought the typical customer would store their excess furniture or clothing.
But soon, the Omni warehouse was full of an array of more fascinating treasures. Early comic books. Works of art. Sports memorabilia. It was, he recalls, like his own private museum. They took professional photographs of each item. Soon collectors were storing items with them so they could share these professional photos. Sometimes Tom would just wander through the warehouse and explore the items.
It might not have captured the grand moments of history, but like Leslie Knope’s Time Capsule, Omni was storing something meaningful. They were capturing the things that the people of their community valued most. That gave him an idea. But we’ll come back to that…
For the first time in history, we actually have the technology to record and store collective experience. We have created 90% of all of humanity’s information in the last two years. And every two years, the amount of information we generate doubles.
When a person died in the 20th Century, we would be left with photographs, their possessions and their letters. Today, we have their cell phone. It comes complete with their location history, purchase history, messaging, photos, content consumed, searches made and social media interactions. We have an up-to-date archive of almost every person on the planet.
Yet, this sea of data creates its own problems. With so much information about the past, how do we sort through a sea of noise to find a narrative signal that our brains can grok? Which stories get told and which get consigned to the Great Unread Folder in the Cloud?
Cabinet of Curiosities
Answering this question has long been the work of historians and archivists at museums and universities. The lineage of curation dates back to the 17th century. For the gentry of late-Renaissance Western Europe, curating a collection was a status symbol. The aristocrat would collect rare plants and animal fossils. They might add art from local artists or antiques stolen from ancient civilizations. They would assemble these collections in “Cabinets of curiosities.” These “cabinets” would sometimes open their doors to scholars and publishers. They were the first museums.
But what good is a status symbol if it is kept private from the world?
Eighteenth century aristocrats began opening their collections to “respectable” members of the public. These showings were still held in private. But the idea of demonstrating cultural heft by publicizing collections began to gain steam. And soon, other institutions wanted in on the game.
When Sir Hans Sloane, one particularly prolific collector of 71,000 items, died in 1753, he bequeathed his collection to Oxford. The British Museum was born. Not to be outdone, Revolutionary France put the former Royal Collection on public display at the Louvre in 1793. The Smithsonian was commissioned by the US government in 1846.
The museum was maturing from a private showcase of the wealthy to a public institution. The wealthy and powerful used museums to showcase cultural artifacts for the edification of the unwashed masses. – provided those masses agreed not to touch anything. And, to be honest, that’s the ethos that still guides most institutions. A panel of learned experts collects and curates the artifacts that they deem most significant. Then then put them on public display for the benefit of the common folk.
Today, these learned experts are – not surprisingly – a relatively homogenous bunch. From a 2019 study of art museums by the American Association of Museums and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we see that although museum employees skew surprisingly female, they remain overwhelmingly white.
This kind of homogeneity is a problem in any field. But it’s especially problematic for institutions shaping our collective culture and history.
So how would a different type of institution work?
For that, we need to go rejoin Tom McLeod on his walk through the Omni warehouse.
“Figuring out what matters for ‘history’ reminds me of the debate between ‘high art’ and ‘pop culture,’” Tom told me in a recent conversation. But, he pointed out, people think about it the wrong way. Beethoven was just the Beyoncé of his day. The Beatles are, after all, a far more important cultural influence than the classical composers of the 60s. The museums of the present and future need to start reflecting that.
So Tom wondered, what if a community could come together online to collectively decide which artifacts were most representative of a time, a place or a theme? Wouldn’t a representative community do a better job of capturing the diversity of stories that make up our collective “now”? If the goal is to capture the experience of the crowds, doesn’t it make sense to turn to the wisdom of the crowds?
That’s the idea that originally drew Emily Slade, Arkive’s Chief Community Officer, to the project. What she saw was that, for the first time, online communities could be infused with capital, to actually curate culture. Community plus capital equals cultural heft. As she told me, “If you harness the potential and power of really creative people, and give them a little bit of structure, anything is possible.”
So that’s what Arkive is doing – they are building a community to curate a more representative, more authentic museum collection. The group recently raised ~$10M of funding from Offline Ventures and TCG Capital among others. They have also opened free applications for members to join the curation community. In the future – like other museums – Arkive will offer (NFT) Memberships representing a donor’s status within the community. Unlike those other museums, Arkive Memberships will be finite in number. They will also be re-sellable. This ensures that status within the community can appreciate with the community’s growth. It encourages both early adopters and speculators to fill the community’s coffers.
With these resources, the community sources and then votes on proposed acquisitions to their collection. Each "season" of the DAO has a theme for acquisitions. Their first theme, When Technology Was a Game Changer, has already guided the acquisition of two pieces: the original patent for the first programmable computer, the ENIAC, and Seduction, a seminal 1985 photograph about how technology commodifies the female form.
Decentralizing the Museum
Decentralization is core to Arkive’s approach.
Certainly, the community curation is a decentralization of the classic museum model. But it goes deeper than that.
Any community runs the risk of concentrating power and groupthink over time. So Arkive plans a hydra-like design to keep it endlessly renewing. The community will incubate sub-communities with their own collections. Imagine the BTS Fan Community curating a BTS Museum. Or Pawnee, Indiana curating their collective history through their own possessions. This fractalization of curation communities ensures that no single community solidifies into an arbiter of taste. It prevents Arkive from becoming the thing it was designed to replace. Rather, Arkive will grow as an ever-changing network – renewed each time a new curatorial community bubbles up.
The collection itself is also intended to be held decentrally without a permanent home. Instead, the community will vote on loaning out pieces to be displayed in the places where they believe they can be the most impactful. For example, the ENIAC patent will be displayed at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. The group will only periodically assemble and curate their collection for displays at cultural expositions like Art Basel in Miami.
Geographic decentralization has many purposes. It ensures items are displayed where they are most impactful. In doing so, it can make those works more valuable. But it also protects the collection – and any politically sensitive items they may garner – from seizure. This follows an example set by digital collections on the blockchain. USC’s Shoah Foundation, for example, has started storing archival footage of Holocaust survivors on the blockchain. Doing so protects it in perpetuity from seizure or destruction.
The Business of History
I asked Tom about how the group could square its cultural ambitions with its business obligations. This seems critical considering the hefty fundraise Arkive just completed.
Tom’s answer is that Arkive’s business value lies less in its collection than in its community.
Their work will demonstrate the power of communities to curate. And this, in turn, will be powerful marketing for their core business offering of Curation-as-a-Service.
Imagine, Tom explained, a digital community that has already curated the world’s foremost collection of street art. Then imagine that you are a tech company moving into a new campus who wants to decorate your office with that aesthetic. You could turn to the Arkive community, provide them with your budget, and allow the community to curate a collection for you. It would be like having the Board of the MoMA on retainer as your personal decorator.
Investor and Web3 thought leader Li Jin is fond of calling Web2 digital feudalism, where power accrues to institutions. She contrasts that with the more egalitarian vision of a commonly-owned, communal Web3. Rather than YouTube, Li writes, value should go to YouTube creators. Rather than Instagram; Instagram influencers. Arkive is proving that the metaphor can and should extend to historical curation, as well.
If Arkive is successful, it will represent a new horizon for Web3, and yet – oddly – a perfect extension of blockchain’s core ethos. After all, what is a museum, but a historical record? And Arkive is doing nothing so much as building a shared, trustless record built by a community rather than a gatekeeper. Like the blockchain itself – it seems like a simple idea – but its democratizing impact on culture could be profound.
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