In times of war, it’s not only people who get caught in the crossfire, the shared history of entire civilizations does too. Items held in museums, from paintings to artifacts and sculptures, allow us to see ourselves through the lens of history. As bombs continue to decimate Ukraine it’s time to use the technology we have to protect and preserve cultural artifacts as much as possible. 

By using the cryptographic technology that supports NFT’s, we could turn cultural artifacts into digital collector's items that can be observed, shared, and enjoyed for generations to come. 

There’s a reason why invading armies always single out a nation’s culture; it shapes and informs who we are and how we view ourselves. Take it away and you undermine our sense of self, even our right to be. Take enough away and it’s easier to absorb and remake what remains. 

Virtually every dictator has tried to smother an opponent’s uniqueness, with the Mongols taking the idea to new depths when they destroyed thousands of years of history and culture in their assault on Baghdad. As the legend goes, they threw so many books into the Euphrates that a soldier was able to cross them on horseback. 

The Nazis ransacked Europe’s museums and galleries during WWII, in Libya historical sites were vandalized, looted, and destroyed, while Serbian forces specifically targeted their opponent’s churches during the Balkan campaign. The Taliban meanwhile used high explosives to eradicate virtually every trace of the statues of Buddha at Bamiyan. 

We’re seeing it happen once again during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where the Kuindzi Art Museum in Maripol, a site dedicated to one of the country’s most important painters, was devastated by a Russian bombardment, as was much of the work of celebrated Ukrainian artist Maria Primachenko, burned in an attack on Ivankiv, at an immense and irreplaceable loss to the nation. 

It’s hard for me not to take this personally. Growing up in Syria, I spent much of my childhood in the National Museum of Damascus, home to one of the world’s greatest collections of cultural artifacts. This beautiful museum was threatened during the civil war; the contents only survived because its curators scattered it to secret locations in order to keep it safe. If they hadn’t, the loss to Syria and the world would have been devastating. 

At present, the only way to engage with cultural artifacts is through museums and galleries, however, in wartime, these become tempting targets and a veritable supermarket for thieves taking advantage of the chaos. 

Today, the only truly safe place to preserve our cultural heritage is online. To make our shared culture preservable, we need to make it shareable; NFTs finally give us this ability. As well as a technology that creates a secure provenance and indestructible proof of ownership, they also offer the chance to create a digital alter ego of potentially every artwork, cultural site, and artifacts in the world. 

That way even if they’re lost, their power remains, protected digitally and guaranteeing that at least part of them survives. This is something that every culture should get behind because every culture has suffered from it; Japan’s Honjo Masamune sword (lost presumed destroyed), Egypt’s Pyramid of Menkaure (irreparably damaged by dynamite) The Jules Rimet World Cup (stolen and presumed melted down for gold) The treasures of the Incas (looted and lost) - the list goes on and on. 

Imagine if you could seamlessly examine the original Amber Room in Catherine Palace, one of the greatest lost treasures, just as it was before the Nazis painstakingly removed every panel never to be seen again? 

NFT’s alone will not preserve culture. Yet their ability to transform cultural heirlooms into collectible, ownable items will. An NFT issued by a respected gallery will not only provide a necessary safety raft for museums and researchers. They can make our shared history accessible to a digitally-native generation. 

That’s why the governments and private individuals lucky enough to own them, should preserve versions of their most prized cultural artifacts digitally. Once we see serious collectors, governments, galleries, and museums getting on board, the momentum to continue will build. With ordinary people buying these NFTs, instead of an elite class of patrons supporting centralized repositories, regular people will deservedly become the custodians of our shared history. 

This choice has got to happen soon. Who knows where and when the next major cultural loss will be? A year or two ago I doubt many would have predicted Ukraine.

About the author:

Hussein Hallak is the founder and CEO of Next Decentrum.