Hoxne Challenge

[This is part of a series of posts from my time as “Wikipedian in Residence” at the British Museum. If you would like to assist in this project (or just eavesdrop), please contact me to join the regular mailout list and receive news first. The project’s homepage is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:GLAM/BM]

Yesterday was the “Hoxne Challenge” – an attempt to see what can be achieved if a Museum and Wikipedians work together on a specific topic in a focused effort. This culminated on Friday with an on-site tour and intensive collaboration session between Wikipedians and the relevant experts at the British Museum.

[Two of the more than a dozen gold bracelets found in the hoard: 1994,0408.20]

We chose to focus our attention on the article “Hoxne Hoard” – the largest hoard of late Roman silver and gold discovered in Britain to date. It’s a fascinating collection of beautiful objects that lay hidden underground from approx.407 AD until uncovered in 1992. The collection was brought to the British Museum and the definitive scholarly work on the subject was published less than three months ago. If you would like to know more about why we chose this topic and who were the Wikipedians and experts that assisted in this challenge please read the event page.


  • In the time since the announcement of the event (just over a week ago) the article has grown from barely more than a 2Kb long stub[1] to a 45Kb fully fleshed out article.
  • There have been over 400 intermediate edits in the last week by over 30 different authors adding in nearly 80 footntotes.[2]
  • Pageviews for the article have quadrupled since last month already.[3] Granted, many of these hits are from the editors themselves, but I don’t think their engagement with the subject (at such an intense level too) should be discounted from the statistics.
  • “Hoxne Hoard” is now the 6th largest referrer of traffic from Wikipedia to the British Museum website whereas in April it was 27th. Wikipedia as a whole is comfortably the largest (non-search engine) generator inbound traffic to the British Museum.
  • The museum even changed the front page of their highlights website to display the most prominent item from the hoard – the “empress” pepper pot in quiet recognition of our efforts.[4]

[During the backstage workshop part of the day, looking at some of the items normally in storage. In this case, some of the roughly 100 silver spoons and ladles.]

Metaphorical significance:

I recently read this amusing piece by Shane Greenstein (Professor of Management and Strategy at Northwestern University) discussing the current relationship of the British Museum and Wikipedia – which he calls a “treaty”:

“This little treaty did not involve a humiliating victory, nor a revolutionary coup. Rather, it is as if the peasants from the kingdom of the Web stormed the venerable palace and then, perched at the entry to the throne room, acted in a civilized way.  Both sides sat down to have a beer together…

Wikipedia needs the experts too. Perhaps this is a precedent.”

Perhaps it is indeed… Now, compare Wikipedia’s relationship to the GLAM sector with the metal detectorist community’s relationship to professional archaeology.

In Britain at least there has been for decades a dedicated community of people who go out into the fields and search for buried gold from former civilisations – it is their hobby and they are volunteers. Traditionally, there has been a feeling of ambivalence and disdain between them and the professional archaeologists (and the feeling has been mutual). Yet over the last decade, especially with the leadership of the Portable Antiquities scheme based at the British Museum, the two communities have come to recognise each other’s strengths and build a productive relationship rather than fighting for – literally – buried treasure.

The Hoxne Hoard is a perfect example of this relationship. The professional archaeologists would never have found this hoard had it not been for the diligence of metal detectorist Eric Lawes in 1992. Equally however, Eric was one of the first detectorists to leave his find untouched and call in the archaeologists (rather than dig it up himself). This choice to work with the professionals changed the course of not only the history of this hoard and our understanding of that period but also the relationship of the amateurs and the professionals. Both communities saw how valuable it could be if they worked together. They had come to a treaty and whilst the relationship is not perfect they try to see each other as allies rather than enemies.

I think that there is much similarity between the original finding of the Hoxne Hoard in 1992 and Wikipedia’s work on the same subject at the British Museum 18 years later. This is Wikipedia’s first time we’ve sat down with the experts a tried to build a mutually-beneficial relationship.

The British Museum is Wikipedia’s Hoxne Hoard. It is our treaty. From here on out Museums and Wikipedia should see each other as allies even if our relationship is sometimes rocky.

[Some of the coins not on display brought out for our viewing, and photographing, pleasure. They have a particularly interesting story to do with their spread and subsequent clipping.]

So did the Hoxne Challenge work?

The event was billed as a challenge as it was the first time that we’ve tried this methodology for the creation of content in Wikipedia. We’ve run our own editing drives and mini-competitions amongst ourselves, but never before (to my knowledge) have a group of Wikipedians been able to sit down in the same room with all the relevant experts and all of their publications.

What went well:

  • We found that although it took a little time to get rolling, working 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 with a curator on a particular subsection (e.g. historical background, scientific analysis, coins…) was quite effective. Dividing up the article and then bringing the pieces back together is an effective way of working.
  • It took the curators a while to get used to the Wikipedians’ insistence that everything they mention needs a page reference from their book but that’s all part of the learning about each other’s academic culture.
  • Also, we found it very effective to bring the article up on the big screen to work together on the overall flow and structure of the article. It was effective to go from focusing on the detail then looking at the overall then going back to the detail again.
  • By the end of the day we now have an article that is not only good by Wikipedia’s standards but also the relevant curators feel that it is an accurate and well rounded representation of the subject. For sure there are things still to be done to get it to FA status but we know that it is not missing or misrepresenting anything major – something that is hard to tell as an amateur.
  • Working in the same room as each other builds a sense of camaraderie much more effectively than working remotely. As long as volunteers feel respected rather than exploited this is a good way to build community spirit – something Wikipedia often lacks.

What would we do differently:

  • One Wikipedian suggested that more homework was required on the part of the attendees so we knew the subject area better upon arrival. Because of the recentness of the major publication on the Hoard not many libraries have copies. This made it harder for people to pre-prepare.
  • As a very practical thing, we would probably have been better off with monitors on the tables rather than only laptops. What you might lose in portability you gain in ease of multiple people viewing the same page.
  • Methodologically, when we came to the end of the day both communities were expressing a desire to leave the article overnight and to come back, by themselves, to read it again afresh. So, whilst editing as a group is effective for getting the bulk of work done, it does not fully replace the need for work by yourself. It therefore might have been good to arrange for a follow up meeting in a fortnight.

One more thing…
Did you know that the British Museum is now linking back out to Wikipedia when there is a feature quality article on one of their collection items? This is an important recognition of the quality of Wikipedia’s best work but the people who should know good quality when they see it!

The current FAs are Dürer’s Rhinoceros and Disasters of War and you can see the external links at the bottom of the page here and here respectively. Not only is this a link but the phrase used is: “See also the feature quality article about <subject> in Wikipedia.”

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5 Responses to Hoxne Challenge

  1. says:

    Great summary of the feedback given and lessons learned.

    I think it’s pretty tricky to create workshop events that work well with such varied participants. There were some real characters amongst the Wikipedians and equally strong willed experts from the BM. I was impressed that the curators gave so much of their time on the day and left motivated to make further contributions themselves.

    Congratulations on another successful event (and nobody broke anything either, phew).

  2. BabelStone says:

    I must admit, I was a little doubtful before the event, but although I wasn’t able to attend in person, I do think it has proved to be a successful exercise. I hope that other institutes will follow the BM’s example, and open up both their treasures and their expertise to Wikipedians. And of course, many thanks to Liam for organising the event, and dealing with everyone with such diplomacy and tact!

  3. Erik Moeller says:

    Fantastic work by everyone involved! Thank you, Liam, for making this happen, and for documenting it so carefully. 🙂 This surely demonstrates beyond all doubt the value of having “Wikipedians in residence” at cultural institutions.

  4. Lori says:

    Congrats on yet another successful event. It’s such a thrill to see things going so well, with such great, quantifiable results. I found the treaty-analogy blog post very amusing and enjoyed seeing you dissect it more here.

    This may be a stretch, but this post caused me to liken you and your efforts to those of artist Fred Wilson. Specifically his 1992 show “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society. While the underlying themes of what you’re doing are quite different, I feel like you’re both pioneers from different fields (art and Wikipedia, respectively) coming into the otherwise closed-off museum world and attempting to work together to change the conversation in a mutually beneficial way.

    If you haven’t heard of Fred, you can read about Mining the Museum here:

    Click to access 1083.pdf

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