WFU Hackathon to explore blockchain’s potential in tracking art objects

In 2005, hundreds of earthenware pots and other pre-Columbian artifacts from ancient West Mexico became part of the collections of Wake Forest University’s Museum of Anthropology. The objects donated to the collection included 162 complete ceramic vessels, ceramic figurines, greenstone beads and necklaces, an obsidian spear and arrow points, knives and grinding stones.

An effigy bowl from this Western Mexican Collection is one of three cultural objects inspiring a Blockchain challenge in the upcoming Wake Forest Hackathon March 6 and 7. Others include a Fijian oil bowl discovered by the 18th Century British explorer Captain James Cook, and antiquities from sites in Southwest Niger.

In its fourth year, the WFU Hackathon is organized and hosted by Wake Forest computer science students. Undergraduate and graduate students nationwide are invited to participate in this year’s remote event to explore ways that blockchain technology can aid in the historical tracking and restitution of cultural property. Blockchain is a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult — if not impossible — to change, hack or cheat the system.

What the students discover may help museums and art collectors worldwide.

Software development hackathons are 24- to 72-hour marathons of coding to rapidly plan and test potential solutions to a specific problem. Students focusing on the blockchain track of the WFU Hackathon will choose from among three hypothetical challenges based on cultural objects in collections housed in Wake Forest’s Museum of Anthropology. Each scenario suggests a source community has expressed a desire to explore ownership rights to cultural artifacts. Teams will explore how new relationships can be established to include all stakeholders as well as new ownership models and participation.

“The most important information for interpreting a museum object is its provenance – the history of its creation and ownership of the object,” said Andrew Gurstelle, academic director of Wake Forest’s Museum of Anthropology. “For this next generation of museum leaders, widely accessible and immutable technology could provide a new level of transparency of where an object has been and where it will move in the future.”

Gurstelle is one of several experts who will address topics related to technology, cultural heritage objects and legal concerns at speaker sessions Saturday and Sunday morning. A full schedule is available on the website.


Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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