Defining Open Authority

An attempt to illustrate, define, & discuss the intersection between museum
authority & participatory digital culture. | Ask me about museums & Wikipedia.

2 years ago 420 notes Wikipedia museums AAM publications

To Wiki or Not to Wiki

I am happy to share this article that I wrote for the Display Case column in the September/October 2011 edition of the American Association of Museum’s Museum member magazine.  You can find the hard copy on p.23 as well as in their digital edition. It is reprinted here with permission.

A special thank you to Elizabeth Merritt for first offering me the chance to post on the AAM Center for the Future of Museums blog, which led to this incredible opportunity, and to Susannah O’Donnell for her editing savvy. I’m incredibly appreciative to Modupe Labode and Jennifer Geigel Mikulay for their patient and thorough reviews which helped me make the article the best that it could be.

With 400 million unique visitors a month, Wikipedia is currently the fifth most visited website in the world. The online encyclopedia spans 281 languages, with more than 3.5 million articles in the English Wikipedia alone. It’s not just a way to find information, but to share it with a global audience.

Yet, in spite of this astounding reach, most museums keep Wikipedia at arm’s length. You might occasionally use it as a starting point to find basic information, but if your museum is like most, there are probably numerous concerns about contributing to a Wikipedia entry. Is it reliable and credible enough? Is institutional integrity at risk in an environment in which control of information is shared? What museum professional has the time to learn the codes, policies and inner workings of the Wikipedia community?

These are good questions, but misunderstanding, prejudice and outdated criticisms should not overshadow the benefits of distributing cultural knowledge through Wikipedia. More institutions should look to it as a means for freely sharing institutional resources.

Museums as diverse as the British Museum, Palace of Versailles, Picasso Museum of Barcelona, Toulouse Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Smithsonian Institution and National Archives have already begun collaborations with Wikipedia. Many of these institutions are partnering with GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums), a Wikipedia community that provides assistance and resources for the cultural sector. Pilot projects have included systematic article improvement, article translations, image content donations and implementation of QR (Quick Response) codes in exhibits.

In Indianapolis, I have worked on three projects that address museum apprehensiveness about Wikipedia while demonstrating the significant value of digital collaboration. A Wikipedian-in-Residence partnership, Wikipedia-based public art project and volunteer Wikipedia-contributor program all demonstrate how contributing to Wikipedia can directly advance a museum’s mission of increasing accessibility of its collections and resources.

Museums can first override their concerns about Wikipedia’s reliability by taking a proactive approach: using their expertise to improve the encyclopedia’s content. The Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis—a position that I currently hold—has collaborated on many such initiatives. Inspired by the first Wikipedian-in-Residence project piloted by Liam Wyatt at the British Museum in 2010, the Children’s Museum’s residency in early 2011 included a content donation of research and images. Middle- and high-school students in the Museum Apprentice Program worked in teams to research noteworthy museum objects and create a total of five new articles for Wikipedia, including an entry about the museum’s iconic Reuben Wells steam locomotive. As they created new articles, students worked behind the scenes with museum staff, honed their research skills, and learned about the importance of citations and neutrality within an encyclopedia. At the same time, curators chose institution-owned, copyright-free photographs that filled a need on Wikipedia. All told, this donation was intended not just to drive traffic to the museum’s website, but to disseminate material to a wider audience.

As an on-site liaison between the museum and Wikipedia, a Wikipedian-in-Residence makes it easier for museum staff to maintain the accuracy of their contributions. In the case of the Children’s Museum, curators were highly involved in choosing content and verifying information throughout each phase of the project. By working closely with the Wikipedian-in-Residence, curators became more confident about the reliability of digital information. They learned about Wikipedia’s processes for maintaining quality of articles, including a stringent Featured Article nomination process, patrols that monitor recent changes and the ability to protect articles known to be controversial.

Museum professionals are often concerned about their lack of control once information is contributed to Wikipedia. But sharing control of content can motivate local and global museum audiences to become involved in the continued stewardship of collections. By joining the Wikipedia community, museums can more readily maintain collections information in real time and in a virtual public space. Adrianne Wadewitz, a teaching fellow at Indiana University and a leading contributor of featured content to Wikipedia, has argued that “more often than not, your brilliant contributions will be made even better, not worse.”

This is certainly the case with WikiProject:Public Art, one of many WikiProjects that aims to expand coverage of a particular topic (in this case public artworks) within the encyclopedia. The project provides resources for finding, listing and creating articles about public art in Wikipedia. Led by Assistant Professor Jennifer Geigel Mikulay and Indianapolis Museum of Art Conservator Richard McCoy, museum studies graduate students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) created the project in 2009. The students worked together to research and write 80 articles about individual artworks and to organize the IUPUI public art collection and the Indiana Statehouse public art collection within Wikipedia. The resources developed for the project are still used to document other public spaces, college campuses and public art collections in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee, Wis.

As more museum experiences are moving online, the concept of an “E-Volunteer” is especially intriguing to museums seeking to engage their virtual communities. The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has used Wikipedia as the foundation for a volunteer program that encourages research and creation of articles about IMA artworks. The program, which I helped develop as a volunteer within the museum’s conservation department, uses resources created through WikiProject:Public Art to teach participants how to edit Wikipedia. E-Volunteers can use the IMA’s on-site resources to create more in-depth articles in the online encyclopedia. E-Volunteering can provide enriching, participatory experiences for a museum audience that may or may not be local, including those who are active Wikipedia editors. By tapping the already existing Wikipedia community to crowdsource, (i.e., invite the Wikipedia community to collaborate) on content contributions, an E-Volunteer program is every museum’s answer to “Who has the time?”

The potential for contributing museum content to Wikipedia is endless. Wikipedia’s interconnectivity with other Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook and Qwiki, where information is automatically aggregated from Wikipedia, further increases this level of accessibility. Additionally, the proliferation of mobile phone applications such as geolocation programs and QR codes allows Wikipedia articles to be accessed from within exhibits, providing deeper levels of information for on-site visitors. By adding content to Wikipedia, museums often extend their reach further than they realize.

Discussions within the museum field about trends in collaboration, accessibility and technology suggest a bigger role for Wikipedia in the future of museums. AAM’s Museums & Society 2034 report points to a future that includes a creative, collaborative renaissance stemming from a technology-savvy society. The Institute of Museum and Library Services encourages museums to provide tools for communities to learn important 21st-century skills, including collaboration and media literacy. The New Media Consortium’s 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition describes key trends in museum technology that will promote visitor interaction and accessibility. Wikipedia answers the call of each of these trends as a collaborative online community and as a global platform for expanding access to museum content.

Museum professionals should overcome their intimidation by or indifference towards Wikipedia and instead consider how their institution can contribute. For museums, Wikipedia will only become increasingly relevant as a means for expanding access to institutional resources for our communities, both on-site and online. We all know that every museum has unique resources. Why not share them with the world on Wikipedia?


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