Following the adventures in Denver I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak in Indianapolis about Wikimedia, museums and especially about public art because Indy is the home of the “Wikipedia Saves Public Art” (WPSPA) wikiproject.1
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before in this blog, WPSPA, in my opinion, is best-practice for museums engaging with the big, scary thing that is Wikipedia if they want to produce some fantastic results for all concerned. It has taught new methods and skills to the students in the initial pilot project raised awareness of their particular subject-area both locally and internationally, and created a replicable model for other groups who might wish to follow in their footsteps.
Many thanks to Richard McCoy from the Indianapolis Museum of Art (WP, Twitter) and Jennifer Mikulay (WP, Twitter) from Indiana University-Purdue University Indiana (or IUPUI for short) for having the temerity to propose and follow through with the project. It has not been without its hiccups but their perseverance and willingness to engage in good faith with the Wikipedia community has set this project apart. Two students – Lori Phillips (WP, Twitter) and Sarah Stierch (WP, Twitter) – also deserve special mention for enthusiastically doing so much of the ground work setting up templates and taking photos etc. All four of them showed me a grand old time in Indy and all the good local watering-holes. I can’t thank them enough for their hospitality!
For this (Northern-hemisphere) summer, the WPSPA team have taken inspiration from user:Poulpy who is setting out to catalogue every public sculpture in Paris for the French-Wikipedia! Take a look at: “liste des oevres publique de Paris” and click on some of the arrondissements. Have a read of Poulpy’s blogpost on his work here (translation). To that end they are going to try their hand at some list style articles to create a complete listing of all public art in a given geographical area. Wikipedia lists are a great way of scoping-out a topic area as they a) give an indication of how many things already have an article about them, and b) because they have a finite-ness about them that an encyclopedic entry does not. This is why there are so many more featured quality lists than there are featured articles – it’s easier to know when they’re finished!
Unfortunately my audio recording of my presentation itself is not very clear but you can get an understanding of what I said to the audience during the formal proceedings from my slides here on slideshare. As with the slides from all my presentations, these are listed on my website here.
Some of the particularly interesting things about Public Art and Wikipedia are “freedom of panorama” and “notability”:
1. Freedom of Panorama
The US has a very strong commitment to Public Domain in its law. On the other hand, frustratingly, the US has no concept of “panoramafreheit” (that is to say, freedom of panorama). The stance of my own country, Australia, is the reverse – we have all-rights-reserved “crown copyright” but do allow freedom of panorama. This means that unlike Australia and the UK among others, in the US, one is not free to take photographs of in-copyright artwork that is in a public place (sculpture, fountains, even architecture). Only the artist has the exclusive right to authorise photography. As a result, Wikipedia may only present photographs of these works in quite limited circumstances by using our strict definitions of Fair Use. In many other language editions, notably the French and German, photographs claiming Fair Use are not permitted at all.
Given the legal situation in the US and other countries with no freedom of panorama, I would like to see a day when artists themselves choose preferred photographic representations of their art work and release them under a free licence. Undertaking this pre-emptive action would avoid having their work represented poorly or not at all in Wikipedia or other places. The current problem for both Wikipedia and the artist is that if Wikipedia is to have an illustrative photograph of a recent public artwork at all, it is obliged to publish only a reproduction whose quality is low enough not to impinge on the commercial viability of the artist’s intellectual property.
In short, unless artists from countries with no freedom of panorama legislation (such as the US) give Wikipedia a photograph of their public artwork, Wikipedia must intentionally use a “bad” photograph or none at all.
I have a running joke with Richard McCoy about the notability of public art: he argues their notability is almost inherent and I argue that the notability of public art is highly contestable … but I must admit I think he’s won me over.
I originally argued that art – especially public art – is often commissioned to be intentionally boring and uncontroversial. Remember the jibe about “destroying a piece of corporate sculpture” in Fight Club? Further, many pieces of public art attract popular criticism: “Is that art?” Surely then, if the definition of “art” is so famously controversial, then it must be impossible to say that each piece of public art should eventually have a Wikipedia article. However! Both of these points of mine are irrelevant to the criteria for inclusion in Wikipedia. In fact, a lively real-world discussion about whether something is art, is itself grounds for claiming notability in Wikipedia. For example, “Bucket of Rocks” and pretty much anything by Marcel Duchamp. For non-art examples of notability generated through banality, see the deletion debates for “Balloon Boy” (which stayed) and Corey Worthington (which didn’t).
Richard’s point is that each piece of public art has by definition, at least three different references: the commissioning documents (probably in the local archives/mayor’s office); some form of public announcement of its unveiling (often a newspaper article); and in America at least the “Save our Sculpture!” Database record. So, irrespective of the quality or importance of the work (recalling that notability for Wikipedia ≠ importance), each commissioned piece of public sculpture is thrice-noted and therefore notable.
Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA)
I was also fortunate enough to be able to get a “backstage tour” of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. They are not only a fantastic art museum in their own right but they are at the forefront of innovative web activities too. (I’ve previously blogged about these here). In the physical galleries, I particularly like subtle touch of placing sofas with coffee tables with art books strewn across them – really makes you feel at home and comfortable enough to enjoy your surroundings rather than merely trying to sidle past a series of canvasses. Not only this, but the public gardens are a flâneur’s dream.
Being able to get “behind the scenes” at the IMA underscored to me just how much important work in art museums goes on with little public awareness. I am specifically referring to the research and preservation department – everything from investigating the manufacturing processes of African wooden sculpture, properly preserving centuries-old Tibetan clothing or removing stains on the backs of Dutch masters. All of these require highly skilled staff, time-consuming processes, specialist equipment and a constant awareness of industry best-practice.
It is these best-practices that large art museums like the IMA help to develop. Whilst I was there presenting to the staff, I suggested that sharing the professional expertise of large art museums could be a unique way for them to leverage the platform offered by the Wikimedia projects. Yes, certainly collaborating with Wikimedia projects about the content of their collection is something I would love to see, but where an institution sees itself as a leader in a particular field of professional practice then sharing of that knowledge via Wikimedia projects could be particularly valuable.
- Photographs of particular procedures or equipment (e.g. infra-red art photography) placed in Wikimedia Commons. (See also my previous post “low-hanging GLAM fruit“).
- Re-purpose internal guides/manuals for WikiBooks (Wikipedia’s sister project which creates textbooks) so smaller museums have access to best-practice (e.g. “how to clean antique textiles”)
- Collate reading-lists and reference resources to be used as the “Bibliography” and “External Links” sections of relevant Wikipedia articles.
- Publish “grey literature” to the institution’s website, even if hidden deep down, so that it can be used as a reference for more technical statements added to Wikipedia.
- In the tradition of “Wikipedia’s Vital Articles“, put together a list of “most important” things in a professional subject area and working with the relevant Wikiproject (in this case Wikiproject Visual Arts) to try to:
- Ensure there is a section about of techniques in already existing articles about materials e.g. a sub-section about the process of illumination in the article “illuminated manuscript” (which exists) or the process carving in the article “marble” (which does not);
- Create stubs for any remaining redlinks;
- Make sure there’s a reference to the professional application in more “domestic” topics e.g. dry cleaning
This one is actually already underway at “list of 100 art concepts that Wikipedia should have” if you’d like to help.
In all of these examples it’s important to remember that nothing should go on Wikipedia that isn’t footnoted or at least footnotable – so if you’re from a professional cultural institution has some particular knowledge that is otherwise obscure, please put it on your website in some form so Wikipedia can reference it. The criteria for inclusion of any fact is verifiability, not truth!
1 I’d like to thank the IUPUI Conference Fund for making this visit possible.