Hack To The Future WFU students take Hackathon First Prize

It’s not often that you see Art History, Anthropology, Computer Science, and Law teaming up to innovate a cutting-edge project, but blockchain technology brought together these unlikely partners in a concentrated weekend of coffee-fueled experimental coding.

Will Caulkins (‘22), Caitlin Kelly (‘22), and Kristen Kovach (‘21) joined forces to find new solutions to urgent problems in the museum world. Not only did these Wake Forest scholars emerge with the “Best Blockchain Hack” prize, but their solution could point the way to the future of museums around the globe.

Participants at Wake Hacks 2021 were presented with a hypothetical situation: The Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University could have a group of archeological objects in their collection that were looted from Mexico. In the scenario, the museum contacted the Mexican government in an effort to repatriate the objects and open a dialogue. The history of the objects was acknowledged by the governmental representative; however they did not wish to repatriate the objects due to the burden of storage and conservation. How can a solution for this type of situation be assisted by new technologies?

The Art & Antiquities Blockchain Consortium (AABC) approached Wake Forest University for action-oriented research about the use of blockchain technologies for new cultural property ownership solutions. Over 70 students from across the country formed teams to tackle the project over a 24-hour Hackathon hosted by Wake University.

Professor Raina Haque, Law Professor of Practice of Technology, led the design of the project. She has long been passionate about the necessity of interdisciplinary approaches for the coming generation of jurists, and organized the Hackathon as a way to bring these disciplines together. She is currently teaching one of the first in-depth law courses in blockchain technology.

"It is important to bring groups with perceived differing expertise so they can sort of reset their notions of expertise and approach a real problem with a mindset that takes into consideration how reality truly exists... not neatly in the silos of enumerated disciplines," Professor Haque affirms. "With technology advancing at rapid pace, we want our future leaders to be pluripotent—ready and able to dive into frontiers with humble curiosity and vigorous holistic inquiry."

The winning project was inspired by the relationships between museums and indigenous people whose works they display in their exhibits. As a result of changing attitudes, museums and international cultural organizations have shown an interest in repatriating items from their collections. Blockchain technology creates a transparent, permanent record that can help with this process.

"The most meaningful part of the experience for me was the team of people I got to work with," says Kristen Kovach ('21). "Caitlin and I had worked together on a paper before, but neither of us had met Will before the Hackathon. During the event, we delegated tasks to each other and trusted each other to do our work well. I think that trust really paid off, obviously because we won, but also because it made the event very fun and laid back. I couldn't be happier ending up with this team."

“Several of us didn't know how blockchain ledgers worked before this hackathon,” Caitlin Kelly (‘22) said. “We also gained valuable legal knowledge as we worked through these issues.”

Working through the night, they saw that the benefits were not only economic, but social, political, and moral. Fractional ownership would enable a museum to collaborate with the origin country in caring for the object while respecting the culture from which the object originated.

"I could see blockchain technology transforming museum practices by making due diligence a much easier, more streamlined process," explains Kovach. "Blockchain would show each transaction that resulted in an object's change of title. Having a clear record of these changes can make a museum's job of checking provenance much easier."

It’s a complex solution to a complex problem, but at the end of a long day, the feeling of satisfaction is simple. What are the winners happiest about?

“Finalizing a product we are proud of,” Kristen Kovach (‘21) states with an exhausted smile.

Created By
Steve Morrison