10 Reasons your (small, or specialist) museum should engage with Wikipedia
So, you are involved in the running of a small, local or specialist museum. Staff numbers are low, resources are stretched and the collections are complex, hard to conserve and even harder to present to the public. To me, you are a hero of the cultural sector and I hope that I can help boost your efforts.
I’m Pat Hadley, currently the Wikipedian-in-Residence at York Museums Trust. Even if you’re only loosely connected to museums, heritage, art or culture, I hope you’ll still find some useful information below!
- Pat Hadley and Stuart Ogilvy in the YMT stores
1. Even small efforts can have big results
Big projects start with big plans. This has been the curse of institutions everywhere: pilot projects, grant proposals, stakeholder meetings. All this work before starting anything. Wikipedia doesn’t have to work like that. When you finish reading this you can go and upload a great picture of your museum’s most famous object and add it to a relevant article. There. You’ve incrementally improved the world’s most popular encyclopaedia with content relevant to your museum. From tiny acorns……
When Wikipedia runs bigger projects with the sector (we call it GLAMwiki – Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums with Wikipedia) there is always a mix of planned and serendipitous elements. Trepidation can come from the bewildering choice of ways your museum might engage with Wikipedia and an obsession with finding the most efficient. Instead of worrying, it’s often best to start with something small and easy and be receptive to the chaotic and often wonderful new connections that occur. What kinds of connections?
First, I want to reassure you of something….
2. You can demonstrate impact
Impact. Impact. Impact. Though this term is dangerously close to becoming a buzzword, there is always value in ensuring that our work makes a difference. GLAMwiki partnerships have done this. Repeatedly. In fact, the very first Wikipedian-in-Residence scheme – at the British Museum – demonstrated a click-through effect: good articles with links through to the museum’s own web-pages led to more web-traffic for the museum (data).
At the Thomas J. Watson Library, attached to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art a curator began posting links to their digitised books on Wikipedia. They now work with Wikipedians to check that these are useful (case study). Through this informal but open partnership they have seen an 800% increase in traffic to their site. In fact 50% of it now comes from Wikipedia
3. Connections to other GLAMs and other collections
Monet’s Water Lilies: this universally loved, intricately connected collection of paintings is now distributed among hundreds of the world’s major galleries. Until recently a round-the-world trip or expensive book habit was the only way to see more than a handful of these. Now dozens are arrayed a click-away on Wikimedia Commons (Wikipedia’s image hosting service). More significantly, curators, students and others can make their own connections and narratives between the objects. These might be encyclopedic connections – eg, the Tyrannosaurus article and even the Sallet (a medieval helmet) are illustrated images from museums around the world. Brilliantly, because of the way the content is licensed, all these images are freely available for you to use in your own work (you’ll have to check some details). So, you can write exhibition copy, books, or articles using images of comparable objects from Wikimedia Commons.
4. New audiences, new engagement
The impact figures above, demonstrate the raw volume of extra attention Wikipedia collaborations can bring – it is the 6th biggest website in the world. What can be even more exciting is knowing your collections are reaching new audiences in new ways. In the UK, tourist destinations are notorious for lacking the multi-lingual signage common in the rest of the world. For small museums the hopes of having multi-lingual signage or catering for those audiences is pretty low. However, Wikipedia exists in 287 languages and 49 of these have more than 100,000 articles (9 have more than a million!) and many are growing rapidly. For YMT, finding that the Coppergate Helmet itself has articles in German, Russian and Italian was a great bonus. Ichthyosaurs – the Yorkshire Museum has three key specimens – are covered in 30 languages. This includes an article in Simple English, written for young readers or those learning English as a second language.
It is crucial to notice the potential political dimension to this. Even the most beleaguered of Western GLAMs is likely to have better resources than many in developing countries. By giving access to content through Wikipedia museums can create opportunities for communities to document their own histories in their own languages, even repurposing material taken by former colonial powers. This was most dramatically done with the photographic archive of the Dutch Tropenmuseum.
5. The E-volunteers you never knew you had
Every collection has it’s mystery items. Something for which the label was lost or never properly completed. Despite their fascination, these objects are nearly always hidden away, perhaps even seen as shameful to the institution’s authority.
However, by sharing huge collections of images several institutions have had great successes finding that Wikipedians have enthusiastically annotated and augmented images – outstanding among these is the German Federal Archive who have had thousands of images enriched and reused as a result.
Targeted approaches also work well: British Library curators collaborated with a skilled Wikipedian to improve the St Cuthbert Gospel article. Starting from a short stub, the article was brought up to ‘Featured Article’ (highest) quality leading to it being featured on Wikipedia’s homepage and gaining 40,000 views.
6. Wikipedia’s content can enrich your museum
QR codes – love them or hate them – these square, scannable codes are one of the best current ways to help smartphone users connect with digital content. But writing the content, putting the labels in place and ensuring everything works is a big ask. A tool called QRpedia can eliminate some of the headaches: it takes the user directly to a Wikipedia article in their own language. For many galleries with well-documented object types (say natural history or social history) this content can provide very valuable contextual information that is often of very high quality. QRpedia has now been used at more than a dozen GLAMs worldwide and has even now covered the entire town of Monmouth in South Wales: Monmouthpedia!
7. You can share material that wouldn’t otherwise be seen
It’s hard to imagine any museum that could display all of its collections: storerooms, warehouses and basements hold far more than public spaces. Even the biggest and best funded struggle to make their stored collections available through digital catalogues (Rijksmuseum, Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum of Art). Although it is never to be mistaken for a digital preservation repository. Wikipedia and it’s sister projects can make digital material (media and books) available to the public in a way which is comparatively quick, easy and accessible to the public. It can even (because of the licensing) be repurposed and brought back into an institution’s own website. In fact, this is exactly what happened with the German Federal Archive – whose images were otherwise languishing unused.
8. You’ll be supported
What about help? Where does your museum get a Wikipedian-in-Residence or even talk about how to start? Well, the first stop is the GLAMwiki webpages. This will take you through some of the basic information. It will also help you find people in your area that you can talk to. In the UK this is a charity: Wikimedia UK who have an extremely helpful GLAM-coordinator Jonathan Cardy who can help find the best – and easiest – ways for your organisation to get involved.
Amazingly, unlike almost any major commercial, governmental or third sector organisation Wikipedia has virtually nothing ‘behind-the-scenes’. For all of the interrelated projects almost all the policy documents, help files and technical documentation are freely available online for anyone to see, and even discuss and contest. There is even documentation of many of the problems you’ve probably thought of: Why Wikipedia is not so great.
Nevertheless, both whilst working on Wikipedia and working with the real-life GLAMwiki team you will find people who really believe in the project and want to help improve it in partnership with you.
9. You nurture active engagement
Once content is available on Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons it is licensed in such a way that it can be reused in almost any way. As long as the source is acknowledged and the new material is licensed similarly. Though – as a cultural guardian – this might sound terrifying there has not – to my knowledge – been a single case of material donated by a GLAM to Wikimedia being used in an objectionable way. In fact, the reuse of material has overwhelmingly followed the patterns described in points 3, 4 and 5. It has gained detail, new audiences and in doing so, been engaged with by at least one e-volunteer: a Wikipedia editor. These people have probably had as active an engagement with the material as any volunteer documenting a collection in the stores and the results of their work are immediately publicly available across the world.
10. Whose culture is it anyway?
Most GLAMs are founded with a vision to disseminate, share or promote knowledge as well as preserve their collections. Wikipedia’s vision is simpler: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment.”
This fine ideal would have been inconceivable before the internet and is still difficult to get one’s head around. However, when one looks at the scale of the Wikipedia projects, it seems almost possible. Also, given the numbers of international and ideological barriers the internet has broken down, it is now impractical if not indefensible to make claims that any cultural material is the sole preserve of one group or location. Sharing it is still an enormous challenge and deep-rooted relationships still rely on being in special places with special objects. But one can only make a pilgrimage to a place one has known from afar: no-one can say who might turn up at your museum to see an object that they first connected to through a Wikipedia page, thousands of miles away.
I’ll leave you with a less formal Wikipedian maxim: Be bold! Go and 
You can find out more about Pat’s work at YMT on the project pages: tiny.cc/YMTwiki. His general site is pathadley.net or he can be contacted through twitter: @PatHadley
Pat Hadley, Wikipedian in Residence, York Museums Trust
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