History museums in a wiki world

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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 untappedsource 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

Guest reviewer 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

8 thoughts on “History museums in a wiki world

  1. Great summary of the utility and necessity for members of the "cultural" sector to contribute to Wikipedia. The GLAM-sponsored wikipedia nutshell provides useful information– It will be interesting to chart the growing acceptance of wikipedia as a resource as the medium comes of age– but you are right that it entirely depends upon the strength of its peer-review. What do you think would happen if traditional cultural authorities opted to ignore wikipedia completely?

  2. It’s so tempting. Why not just outsource museum labels and catalog descriptions to the wisdom of the wiki-crowds? No salaries. No need to print wall texts. Put out the art and a note: look it up on Wikipedia.

    But it would be wrong… Wikipedia entries are not museum catalog entries, or exhibit labels. Too long, generally not written very well, too general, not written for the exhibit, but for the art or artifact more generally.

    So let’s think about some partial steps. Have the museum staff create or edit the Wikipedia entry, and then… the note: look it up on wikipedia!

    But why not another partial step: Wikilabels! We don’t need to use Wikipedia – we can set up our own wiki for our collections and displays. A chance for everyone to help write the labels for exhibitions, or to better describe collections in storage. The curator becomes wiki editor, balancing the wisdom of the crowds with his or her sense of what should be said and how it should be said. We are all wikipedians!

    You could make this easy, and interactive, and a teaching tool: a display screen and keyboard in front of the art. Read the wiki entry, look at the art, change the entry on the spot. Tell us what you think, what you feel. There might be some very interesting reactions, more immediate, less mediated, more about the art or artifact, less about knowledge brought to it. Look, read, look again, write.

    Some museums have experimented with crowd-sourcing their artifact displays (have you voted for your favorite NMAH car yet, or for your favorite stamp? Did you help the SMAA pick an object to fill in the open-storage gap?). Helped the Liberty Science Center learn to cook? No one has displayed the Wikipedia entry raw, as far as I know.

    And why not Wikiregistrar! Some museums have opened up their catalog for assistance from a select few outsiders. Many have experimented with Flickr Commons to gather information on images – though moving that information back into the museum’s database turns out to be tricky. One might imagine a wikified version of Omeka…

    But museums are cautious creatures. They have expertise, and they want to share it, for the most part, on their own terms. Curators are experts, specialists in their collections, and in their field. While there have been a string of articles over the past two decades decrying the curator’s loss of clout in the museum, they are still the trusted sources of information for museums. (Just like the Encyclopedia Britannica used to be….) The trick will be finding the balance between sharing knowledge, inviting participation, and encouraging appreciation and learning.

  3. @Adina – Thanks! I think that many traditional cultural leaders likely are already ignoring Wikipedia, similarly to the academic sector. But as the years pass, its becoming slowly more respected as the gateway to knowledge that it is. There have been many, many improvements to the way that articles are assessed and edits are checked, and its just the beginning! With all of these new tools, the typical argument about the inaccuracy of Wikipedia will eventually become a moot point. It's certainly far from perfect but then, many studies have found that nothing is! I think it will be a slow change in thinking, but one that's already starting to take hold, especially in college classrooms.

  4. @Steven Thanks so much for your great thoughts! I think that the wiki in general is an inspiring tool for exhibit interactives, and should certainly be considered as a way to encourage visitor involvement in the construction of knowledge – for sure. I do feel that utilizing Wikipedia itself, in different ways, is important. I think that it can be used for larger projects and programs that can reach out to communities as a way to build the 21st century research and technology literacy skills that are so important. By having visitors, in a more formal, planned way, research and contribute museum content to Wikipedia, it benefits the visitor, the museum, and the wider public who now has access to new information. While a personal museum wiki would be great for an on-site museum interactive, it won't show up first in a Google search, so won't have as much impact for a global audience who might just be Googling for information. As you said though, it's partial steps.

    I also agree about the balance that's necessary. It's the issue of control vs. accessibility. I could write an entire article just about that. Maybe another time :).

  5. Nice post, Lori! Thanks your good description of our work documenting public art here in Indianapolis, and elsewhere.

    I enjoyed reading this post and the ideas you have generated.

    However, I want to clarify how I see it being useful relative to Steve Lubar's comment. I do not think Wikipedia is the right tool for recording responses from museum visitors. While this is interesting to many, what I think would be tremendously useful is to get museum patrons to help research background and historical information about artworks and to help document them using a variety of digital imaging techniques.

    Using Wikipedia to create highly accurate and interoperable descriptions of artworks, biographies of artists and histories of manufactures and fabricators for unique artworks and those made in multiples or editions would be extremely useful to cultural institutions on a global scale. I can imagine a time when, for example, we agree on canonical descriptions for many artworks, artists, and manufactures and fabricators.

    In the end, I see Wikipedia as a tool and a way for us to learn to work collaboratively and to understand what it means to create knowledge collectively and then give it away (important final outcome!). Due to its framework, it may not be the ideal tool to do this for all artworks, but clearly we are learning how to work more effectively and openly.

    I can't help but image a time when we have an open and shared knowledge center for the world's cultural property.

    – Richard McCoy

  6. Great blog post Lori, exciting to see the buzz about this blog!
    @Adina – I do think many “cultural authorities” are choosing to ignore it, primarily those who are more “old school” in their work. We’re the next generation; it’s just part of life now, and a new educational tool. These “authorities” often pride themselves as welcoming the future and using new technologies, well, this is one of those technologies – and it’s FREE unlike most of the investments museums and institutions make.

  7. (I actually tried to post this earlier, but, the system timed out and I had to re-write it, boo!)
    I also wanted to write a few comments regarding some of the things that Steve Lumar brought up.
    -No one wants to oust museum staff. I’m a museum consultant who works closely with the head curator of a major museum that is working on their inaugural exhibition. While the curator I work under smirks when “Wikipedia” is mentioned (as seen with many “old school” curators and museum/educational people), I see my work in Wikipedia as a way to bring awareness about obscure art, artworks that people see every day but *don’t* see and beyond. I work to not only bring awareness, but, encourage people to participate and also inspire ownership among public art that is often forgotten by the public.
    -Most articles are poorly written, when some are better than anything you’ll see in a high school text book, in some published papers, or more passionately written than anything on the Discovery Channel. I do hope that conversations like this, and the attention people like Lori are receiving regarding their work, will help to alleviate the poor writing, lack of research/sourcing, etc, that is seen in Wikipedia. I hope that eventually that will be an outdated stereotype, with more well written and researched articles than anything else. If you see something questionable – change it! Make an account, make that edit and get involved!
    -I do believe that most visitors to museums would rather “Google It” than take a seat at the cozy leather couches we often provide and flip through man-handled “gallery copies” to research that pretty painting they saw, let alone buy a book or go to the library. Wouldn’t it be better if when a guest searched for “Peacock Room” and a Wiki created BY the Freer-Sackler came up with the first hit being the Peacock Room instead of Wikipedia entry about Whistler? I’d love to see that, but, it seems institutional Wiki’s haven’t really taken off. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the Smithsonian Commons project.
    -Liam Wyatt (wittylama) was the British Museum’s Wikipedian-In-Residence, starting a trend that is now being seen throughout the world (hi Lori!). He created numerous articles for the museum’s collection which are quite popular on Wikipedia and taught staff and scholars about how to embrace and utilize the simple technology. It’d be great to see this take place in more places, and I hope to see other MAJOR institutions like the Met, Smithsonian, etc, take place the reigns in this. (Anyone want to fund me? ;) )
    -I’m a curator at heart and part of me has that “old school” love for curating – I own my research darnit and I never get the credit I deserve, etc. However, I’m 30 – I’m the future of curators, having put together my first show when I was 26 and having a passion for it ever since. As people who love to learn and educate, I believe embracing technology like this, and coming to terms with sharing our passion for research is going to be pertinent to keep museums relevant and inspiring in the future. Researching and providing information about topics I’m passionate about on Wikipedia has been just as rewarding as working in a museum or writing a publishable paper. I also believe that Wikipedia, and other technologies, will allow curators to keep THEMSELVES relevant and important to museums, the public and the conservation of knowledge.
    So happy to see these conversations taking place!

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