Wiki World Museum Tour: part 1 Denver

As recorded in last week’s “Wikipedia Signpost” newspaper, several Wikimedians and I recently attended the “Museums and the Web 2010” conference in Denver, Colorado. Please do have a read of the detailed explanation of what we did there at the Signpost article. Little did I know late last year when I proposed a presentation session to Museums and the Web that it would result in the organisers David Bearman and Jennifer Trant (twitter) inviting me to put together a hit-squad of Wikimedians for a full-day session. Thanks to them for their support and also to Erik at the Wikimedia Foundation for backing me on this. Thanks especially to the unflappable James Owen who has also recently been promoted to “Director of Volcano Relations”.

Ⓒ Conxa Rodà, used without permission, fingers crossed she doesnt mind :-)

One of the breakout sessions during our workshop.

My personal feeling about Wikimedia’s appearance at the event is that this represents the second or third step on a much longer road. The museum community recognises the need to know what Wikipedia is all about, and vice versa. This does not mean that either community groks the other yet, but the recognition that we need to is the biggest breakthrough of all. There are likely to be many projects resulting from contacts made in Denver on an individual basis but at the sector level Wikimedia has “stood up, waved and introduced itself” at the most important party in town.

Here are a couple of things that I personally learned in Denver about Museum-Wikimedia relations:

1 – Museums are searching for the “Wikipedia Application Form”
Whenever a museum representative proposed a potential collaboration activity or asked for clarification on a particular policy it appeared to them that we were being evasive when we typically responded with, “yes, you could do that” or “that might work”. Other collaborative partners can sit down and nut-out a contract detailing all contingencies. In the Wiki-verse we cannot achieve such certainties because of the lack of central control of the projects. In fact, as one museum representative put it to me – museums find it confronting to talk with Wikipedia as they have not usually met anyone as loosely structured as themselves. 🙂

This is about as close as there will ever be to having a Wikipedia application form :-)

This is about as close as there will ever be to having a Wikipedia application form 🙂

Whilst it is true that there will never be “an application form” for GLAM-Wikimedia partnerships there are many ways we could be lowering the risk factor for them. This is one more reason why I am so keen to see the Chapters professionalise as it will mean there can be an official contact the museum can call to talk through the inevitable problems. Simply having a local phone number and a business card will do the world of good in our outreach efforts.

2 – Erik Moeller can wax lyrical when he wants to 🙂
Here is the last half of his impromptu call to action immortalised on film. I think he was channeling Ghandi – “be the change you want to see in the world” and suchlike. Onya Erik! Here’s the video.

3 – External Links is an issue on which we are talking at cross-purposes
The very first thing that many GLAMs wish to do with Wikipedia is to add links back to their own website. The very first thing that many Wikimedians say to GLAMs is “stop spamming Wikipedia with your website”. This contrast is borne of museums’ misunderstanding Wikipedia’s culture and Wikipedians’ misconstruing the GLAMs’ intentions.

When Wikipedians says “external links” we mean the specific section at the end of any article that is akin to a bibliography of web-links. When museums say “external links” they mean inbound links to their website(s). What this differentiation hides is the fact that whilst Wikipedia’s external links section is kept deliberately short (see the EL policy for the reasons why) Wikipedia will take as many linked footnotes as we can get. So, generally speaking, GLAMs are asked to please refrain from adding external links but highly encouraged to add as many inline citations (a.k.a. footnotes) as you wish to the facts in articles. The more footnotes an article has the better the quality the encyclopedia – as per our “verifiability” policy.

Case study in what not to do. This is the full edit history of “user: Paeolography room” who was active for 40 minutes in 2008. The contributor making these edits failed to:

  • Create a personal user account. Instead, they created a “role account” – that is, one username for their whole organisation. Wikipedians are individuals, not companies.
  • Create a user page and introduce themselves. The userpage is a “red link” this means that they have not made any attempt to say hello and explain who they are and why they are on Wikipedia – this makes them faceless. If they had, then people would have been able to converse with them and potentially work with them.
  • Make a couple of test edits in the sandbox or fix a spelling mistake or any of the kind of edits you might associate with someone interested in improving the encyclopedia. Instead, the only edits this user has made are to the external links sections of articles related to their organisation. This effectively makes this a single-purpose user account – to add links and nothing more.
  • Make a couple of edits and then wait and see what happens. All of the edits were made in quick succession rather than trying out their approach on a small scale first to see what others would say and then engaging with them when they do.
  • Leave an edit summary. None of the edits have a description of the purpose of the edit. An edit summary is strongly advised as it gives other editors coming later an understanding of what you were attempting to do, even if you didn’t necessarily succeed. Again, it gives the editor a “face”.
  • Tailor the edits for purpose. All of the edits add the same link – to the organisation’s home page – rather than tailoring the links to specific sections of the external website that might be more relevant to different subjects.
  • Be humble. The edits didn’t merely add the external link but the first few also added the description “this collection is the best resource in the western world”. Whilst that might possibly be true, you wouldn’t say that to your own colleagues in the industry so why would you say that to the world on Wikipedia.

Not surprisingly, another editor came along afterwards, found one of the edits, looked up the editor’s userpage (and found it didn’t exist) then looked up the user’s edit history and in rapid fire removed all of their contributions. As it says on the subsequent discussions about these edits this resource is indeed a valid and useful one and could potentially be incorporated in the various articles, but not in this way…

You can read more detailed discussion about external links and much more besides at the help page: “Wikipedia: Advice for the Cultural Sector” (also known as WP:GLAM). It is equally true that Wikipedians are becoming increasingly harsh to new editors and has never been exactly welcoming to experts… So, I don’t mean to suggest that the blame for this problem should be entirely directed in one direction. As a friend of mine put it recently, “It’s a place written and vetted by expert Wikipedians, not experts”.

The sign attached to the artwork The big sweep outside the Denver Art Museum

The sign attached to the artwork "The big sweep" outside the Denver Art Museum

4 – Ask and you shall receive

The day after our event in Denver the representative of the Museo Picasso in Barcelona – Conxa Rodá (who took both the “model projects” and “big sweep” photographs used above with permission) – wrote a blog post about what she had seen and learned. Here it is (Spanish). Twenty four hours later she informed the Denver audience that a Barcelona Wikipedian had contacted her museum asking if he could help out in some way. I’m delighted with this as it illustrates two points nicely:
1. there are Wikipedians everywhere who are willing to work with GLAMs if they are given the opportunity; and
2. using an institution’s existing communication platforms (especially its blog) is a good way to draw people from the wiki-world into the real-world.

5 – Seeing Wikipedia as a form of “social media” is both a good and bad thing
If a museum does wish to undertake projects with the Wikimedia community it is often managed out of the social media office – by the same people who run the museum’s Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Youtube accounts. This is the most logical place for it to be and these are the staff members who are used to dealing with external communities, each of which has its own norms and structures. So far so good. However there are some subtle differences that bear clarifying:

  • To see Wikipedia alongside Twitter or Facebook is a good thing as it recognises the importance of engaging the community. HOWEVER, in Twitter and Facebook the community exists for its own sake whilst for Wikipedia the community is there to serve the purpose of building a better encyclopedia. Therefore, community members are valued in Twitter and Facebook on the basis of who they are and how many friends they have and how interesting their status/events are. On Wikipedia, a community member is only as valuable as their contribution to the greater project – in whatever form that contribution might be.
  • To see Wikipedia alongside Flickr or YouTube is a good thing as it recognises that content is king. The better the content the more it is seen, re-used, engaged with, etc. HOWEVER, Flickr and YouTube are publishing platforms where others can choose whether or not to engage with your content. Even then their options to engage are to comment, tag or make their own multimedia in response. On Wikipedia, publication is the first step in the process but after that it is not possible or even desirable to control the original publication. This is the difference between releasing your band’s new record at the shops and inviting the fans into the mixing studio.

6 – Both the museum sector and the Wikimedia projects are having difficulty structuring their data for third-party use
One of the frequent requests made of Wikimedia was easy and automated export/import datasets. For example, to have multimedia metadata update in Wikipedia automatically when more/better information is uploaded on the museum’s catalogue. Not surprisingly, if a museum is going to place multimedia in Wikimedia Commons they want to make sure the metadata/captions are as accurate as possible. If/when the museum updates its information (which they do all the time) they want to make sure it is accurate in third-party websites too. However, if they have to manually check each Wikimedia Commons entry too this is both inefficient and a waste of money (in the form of staff time). Equally, they would like to know if/when Wikimedians change their original metadata.

On the other side of the coin, one of the things that was debated amongst the museum representatives (and it apparently has been many times before and will continue to be debated for a long time hence) was the idea of the universal item registration number – effectively an ISBN for museum objects. This would be extremely useful for the sector. A single identifier  would also assist any downstream users to reference a particular object easily. Not surprisingly though, the devil is in the detail and no one wants to let go of their in-house cataloguing system.

Each of these things are technically feasible but for a variety of cultural and organisational reasons none is likely to eventuate any time soon.

7 – Museum folks know how to edit Wikipedia when they want to
Ever heard of a “spinney bar“? Wikipedia now has a footnoted reference (here’s the diff) to the fictitious multi-year in-joke at the Museums and the Web conference. As we say on wiki: “Thank you for experimenting with Wikipedia. Your test worked. Please use the sandbox for any other tests” 🙂 So, since we’re playing, I have decided to make a point of my own by testing the policies of an art museum – fair’s fair in love and art.

The Guggenheim Museum in New York is possibly the spinniest museum in the world – a single spiral ramp departing from a gorgeous atrium in the centre. The museum has a policy of no photography of the building from inside. It is, after all, copyrighted to Frank Lloyd Wright. Not that this stops the myriad tourists who, upon reaching the top of the ramp, try to take a photograph down through the central core. This leads to a never-ending dance, Benny Hill style, of the security guards chasing tourists and new tourists behind them. So, if you are not allowed to take a photo of the atrium, what about a photo of a diagram of the atrium? Here therefore, is a photograph entitled “Self-portrait with the Guggenheim Evacuation Map”.


The security guards even yelled at me for taking that 🙂
Are we even now – a Spinney Bar for a Spinney Museum?
(By the way, if you’re interested in re-imagining the Guggenheim space, there’s a competition on right now to do just that: “contemplating the void: create your own Guggenheim intervention“. Applications close on May 14.)

p.s. Bonus points go to the Dutch contingent at Denver. Whilst many individuals were stuck there afterwards because of the Volcano, they were the only ones to make a blog about it. The imaginatively titled:

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7 Responses to Wiki World Museum Tour: part 1 Denver

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  2. hahnchen says:

    That role accounts are prohibited is a very poor policy. We are dealing with institutions with communications departments, they operate as one.

    More than one person may be dealing with Wikipedia, they will all be pursuing a single goal, employee turnover and movement may mean that the work is passed on to others.

    The correspondence between Wikimedia and these institutions should not be fractured across scattered user pages, but at a central location. Different accounts acting towards the same goals should not be discredited for sockpuppeteering or vote stacking, given that our current policy forces this situation.

    The role account prohibition was formed at a time before Wikimedia even considered collaboration with cultural institutions. We need to reach out, and role accounts are a practical and pragmatic way forward.

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