This January Wikipedia will be celebrating its ten year anniversary, and it’s safe to say that in the past decade the editable encyclopedia has challenged the academic and cultural sectors in a number of ways. A recent post on Off the Wall has already discussed the shifting role that Wikipedia plays in academia, specifically noting its potential for historiography. For a while now I have been interested in digital history, having studied history and social studies education at the home of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. But it wasn’t until I shifted my focus to museum studies and collections management that I fell into the world of Wikipedia. I haven’t looked back.
In the fall of 2009, Jennifer Geigel Mikulay, assistant professor at IUPUI, and Richard McCoy, associate conservator of objects at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, integrated an experimental Wikipedia project into the museum studies course “Collections Care and Management.” Inspired by the nationwide “Save Outdoor Sculpture!” project of the 1990’s, Mikulay and McCoy hoped to remedy the lack of coverage of public art within Wikipedia by bringing the SOS! database into the 21st century. Wikipedia Saves Public Art, now called WikiProject Public Art (that’s its logo above), began by documenting the artworks on the IUPUI campus. Within the semester, students researched and wrote forty-two public art articles and the IUPUI Public Art Collection was organized and documented for the first time in its history. The resources of the project have continued to be used to document other public art collections in cities, college campuses, and public spaces such as the Indiana State House.
What I find to be most encouraging about WikiProject Public Art is the model it provides for sharing information about objects that are otherwise ignored, forgotten, or misunderstood. Now Wikipedia can be combined with the technology of smart phones to find and share information from anywhere at any time. For example, a visitor on the campus of IUPUI can pull up Google Earth and see a slew of “W” icons denoting Wikipedia articles about the artworks surrounding them. You can stand in front of John Torreano’s Mega-Gem and, in spite of its lack of label, learn about the artwork, its provenance, and the artist, all by accessing the Wikipedia article on your smart phone.
Museum exhibits are beginning to utilize this technology by implementing it in a number of ways such as in-gallery computers or iPads, QR codes,and simple labels prompting visitors to search for Wikipedia articles on their phone. The Brooklyn Museum’s Seductive Subversion exhibit is a recent example of Wikipedia and iPad integration. Staff updated and created Wikipedia articles on women artists in the Pop Art movement which visitors can now access oniPads in the gallery. Historical institutions have yet to tap into Wikipedia’s potential for on-site interpretation. Likewise, historians are only beginning to see Wikipedia as a viable community for sharing research. As the late Roy Rosenzweig, the founder of the Center for History and New Media, has said, “If Wikipedia is becoming the family encyclopedia for the twenty-first century, historians probably have a professional obligation to make it as good as possible.” The Wikimedia Foundation is currently funding an effort to train Campus Ambassadors who will assist professors in integrating Wikipedia into their curriculums. The first focus has been on United States Public Policy, which will help alleviate the backlog of updates that these particular articles require. While this is a start, museums and cultural institutions can certainly help fill the gap in the broader scope of historical topics in Wikipedia.
Other than the perks of interactive technology experiences, there are other implications for the integration of Wikipedia in historical exhibit spaces. Access to Wikipedia articles can help alleviate the museum educator and curator’s struggle over the depth of content to include on labels, providing a variety of levels of information for a range of audiences. Likewise, Wikipedia is a means for sharing the abundance of research that goes into preparing exhibits, much of which never reaches the public. This research can be taken out of the filing cabinets and shared with a much wider audience. By contributing new information to Wikipedia articles, cultural institutions are not only providing new content through in-exhibit technology, but are also increasing the accessibility to their collections with a global audience on the most widely used online encyclopedia. More practically speaking, at a time when museum budgets are continuing to tighten, Wikipedia is a valuable free resource, the only cost being the time it takes to update articles.
The process of contributing to Wikipedia articles will remain an important concern for museum staff. As a freely editable encyclopedia, Wikipedia is only as good as its contributors. For Wikipedia, cultural institutions are a largely untapped source of expertise in the field. I’m now interested in ways that museum staff can efficiently share their expertise and collections information on Wikipedia. GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) is a global initiative that is considering ways to streamline the collaboration between Wikipedia and the cultural sector. Some pilot projects have included individual Wikipedian-in-Residence programs, such as the British Museum’s project in May-June 2010 (shown above), and E-Volunteer programs like the one recently launched at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
It is my hope that museums, schools, and other cultural institutions will take a fresh look at Wikipedia as a tool for furthering their missions. By contributing to Wikipedia and integrating it into exhibit spaces, museums can combine technology and accessibility for a wide range of audiences. Each museum has unique information to share and should be considering ways that Wikipedia can be used to make it more accessible to their audiences, both in and out of exhibit spaces. There’s little doubt in my mind that Wikipedia will become increasingly relevant within cultural institutions as a tool for expanding accessibility to broader audiences.
~ Lori Byrd Phillips is a museum studies graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), a project leader for Wikipedia Saves Public Art, and the current Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on “Off the Wall,” the blog of the National Council on Public History from 2010 to 2012.