There are “artists in residence” at many art galleries and universities, the city of Adelaide has a “thinker in residence” program and Alain de Botton was even “writer in residence” at London’s Heathrow Airport! So, one of the ideas that I suggested in my closing speech at GLAM-WIKI (and I recall that someone in the audience scoffed at the time) was my hope that one day there would be a Wikipedian in Residence in museums.
What would such a project be?
A Wikipedian in residence could undertake any number of tasks, some which are more public-facing or others which are directed internally. For example, they might prepare a report of the applicability of the GLAM-WIKI recommendations to that institution or they might coordinate backstage pass tours. However both of these require a level of trust to have already been built up.
Perhaps the most immediately useful for the museum, least politically divisive for both communities and most empowering for Wikipedian would be for them to write articles about the notable items in the collection.
The advantages of this would not be limited to bringing awareness of items in the museum’s collection to a new audience (and potentially increased visitation as a result), but also a positive strengthening of the existing relationship between the museum and Wikipedia. Just like on other social media platforms, Wikipedians are already having a conversation about virtually every museum – so the museum might as well be a part of it 🙂
Furthermore, I’m willing to bet that there is an appropriately qualified local Wikipedian who would be willing to volunteer their time each week in exchange for access to curatorial expertise and all the usual benefits official museum volunteers receive (exhibition discounts, coffee, thank you events…). Museums already have lots of experience with volunteers, so why are there no museums with officially supported “digital volunteers”?
To alleviate concerns from the Wikipedia community about Conflict of Interest, the Wikipedian-in-residence would need to be open about their affiliation and would not be allowed to edit the article about the museum itself. Furthermore, the museum would need to make assurances that they, like everyone else in the wiki-verse, do not wish to assert editorial control over articles.
There are at least two things that I feel might be necessary prerequisites for such a project – one is specific notability criteria, the other is staff training.
1) Notability criteria
It must noted that the term “Notability” when used by Wikipedia is not synonymous with “significance”. My (possibly simplistic) understanding of a museum’s “statement of significance” is that it is a description of why an item is deserving of being acquired and preserved. This is not the same as Wikipedian notability which determines whether a topic merits its own article in the ‘pedia.
Therefore, every object acquired by a museum has significance, but not every object has notability. One of Winston Churchill’s half-smoked cigars might have recently sold for $7000 so it clearly has significance but that doesn’t mean that that specific cigar deserves its own article. Ancient roman coins might be worthy of preservation, but that doesn’t mean that every individual coin should have its own article.
Currently there are no Wikipedia criteria for museum objects – be they artworks, archaeological findings, pieces of technology or anything that fits a museum’s acquisition policy. There are a range of subject specific notability guidelines which determine the notability of books, movies, companies, websites and even “criminal acts”! However, there’s nothing that comes even close to outlining under what circumstances a museum object deserves its own article, despite the fact that some objects definitely do. For example, Wikipedia already has “Category: Collections of the Science Museum (London)” with eight object-articles in it, and there are all the other museums under the broad listing of “Category: Museum collections by country“.
The good folks at “Wikipedia saves public art” (led by Richard McCoy from the Indianapolis Museum of Art) have started discussing this and they’ve also raised the issue of what makes an artist notable.
I would suggest that a very good place for a Wikipedian-in-residence to start, in the absence of such criteria, is the shortlists that many museums have already created – the “highlights of the collection” glossy book for mass-appeal. For example, here are the books for sale in museums’ online shops listing the key items in the collections of the: British Museum, Louvre, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, V & A, Hermitage, Guggenheim, National Gallery of Canada, UK National Portrait Gallery, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Museo del Prado etc. etc.
I suggest that the majority of the items listed in these books are walk-up-starts to become Wikipedia articles in their own right precisely because they had to undergo a vigorous curation to make it into a glossy coffee-table book. Obviously, being in the museum’s own “best of” catalogue doesn’t qualify as an independent reliable source – but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb!
Taking account of the types of criteria that are used in the other specific guidelines, what do you think should be used as criteria for Notability of museum objects? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.
2) Staff Training
It is not surprising that many institutions are reticent about working with Wikipedia. As I said in my thesis, the approach of knowledge professionals to Wikipedia has been one of “vacillation between ambivalence and disdain”. Equally, Wikipedians are frustrated by the way some museums use dubious copyright claims to control the downstream use of their collection. So, before any Wikipedian-in-residence project could begin, it is probably worthwhile arranging for a local Wikipedian(s) to come in to the museum and deliver a half-day training session for senior staff on the ins-and-outs of Wikipedia. This would be less a practical training session and more of an exercise in building trust by demonstrating the mechanisms that Wikipedia has built for monitoring/controlling/improving the project.
For example, surprisingly few people actually know just how assiduously the Wikipedia community deletes articles which are copyright violations of other websites. Equally, not many people know that all revisions of every article are kept and can be compared and returned to at any point. Demonstrating these kinds of things to museum management would be important builders of trust before any in-residence project were to begin.
Are you from a museum that would like to receive such a staff-training session? If so, please contact me, your local Chapter, or the Wikiproject responsible for your area and I’m sure something can be arranged for you.