New Systems for Documenting Public Art

I’m Richard McCoy (@RichardMcCoy), an art conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), writer, and Wikipedian [[User:RichardMcCoy]]. Thanks to Liam for letting me guest-post on his blog.

1904 postcard of the Statehouse by the Detroit Photographing Co.

1904 postcard of the Statehouse by the Detroit Photographing Co.

For the past two years I’ve used Wikipedia as a teaching tool in my IUPUI Museum Studies Collection Care & Management course; last year I co-taught this course with Professor Jenny Mikulay [[User:Jgmikulay]].  In that class we challenged our students to document 40 artworks on and near the campus of IUPUI and publish their research in Wikipedia and Flickr. Together we created the IUPUI Public Art Collection and launched Wikiproject Public Art. The project received local, national, and international attention. Also, last spring, after we participated in Wikimeda@MW2010, Jenny organized Wiki Culture Conference at IUPUI, which brought Liam to Indianapolis for the first time, and got us thinking about future possibilities and collaborations.

I was excited to teach the IUPUI class again this semester (on my own) and take on another important final project. This year we set out to document 39 public artworks inside and around one of IUPUI’s most prestigious neighboring buildings, the Indiana Statehouse. The State Capitol building, in its Italian Renaissance revival splendor, houses the Governor of Indiana, the Indiana General Assembly, and lots of important public artworks.

Google Earth view of the Statehouse with public artworks indicated by thumbtacks.

Google Earth view of the Statehouse with public artworks indicated by yellow thumbtacks.

To kick off this year’s project I colloborated with IUPUI School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) Professor Andrea Copeland [[User:Andrea Copeland]] to bring Liam back to the IMA and join Adrianne Wadewitz [[User:Awadwit]] for a night of lectures at the IMA called Wikipedia & the Cultural Sector, which was co-sponsered by the IUPUI SLIS Program, Museum Studies Program, and the IMA. The lectures were recorded and soon will be available on the IMA’s website.

After this great kick-off event, the 21 students (19 graduate & 2 undergrad) in my course spent the past month examining, photographing, researching, and writing about their assigned artworks. A big part of this project is the students’ climb over the steep learning curve to become proficient using Wikipedia & Flickr. Though these services are complex, they are no more complex than other digital asset management system (DAM) or content management system (CMS) like TMS or EMu which new museum professionals often have to learn to use quickly when they are first getting started in the field. The reason why we use Flickr rather than Wikimedia Commons to host all the photographs is because, unlike in many countries, US law does not have a “freedom of panorama” copyright exception.  For artworks, even if permanently installed in public places, any publication of an image of an in-copyright artwork is subject to the approval of the copyright holder. We therefore use Flickr for the image collection and rely on “fair use” to minimally illustrate each article.

Richard and grad student Stephanie Herrick examining the bust of Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh by Daniel Edwards (1996)

Richard and IUPUI graduate student Stephanie Herrick examining the bust of Indiana Governor Matthew Welsh by Daniel Edwards (1996). Photo: Tricia Gilson.

This project was designed as a practical teaching tool that would produce tangible and useful results about art at one of the State’s most important cultural institutions and also serve as a model for other educational programs to document collections of artworks in Wikipedia. I was fortunate to have Lori Phillips [[Uses:HstryQT]] work as the class’ teaching assistant to help develop the logistical framework for the Statehouse project. All of the documentation exists within Wikipedia and will remain as an example for other users and classes.

The act of documenting artworks using Wikipedia & Fickr raised awareness about the collection of art at the Statehouse, some of which were made by important artists more than 100 years ago, and others that are only a few years old. Perhaps the simplest way to gauge the results of this project is to Google the words “Indiana Statehouse Art.” Before we started our project, this resulted in only a few minor links, now there is a page of links about artworks in this collection.

Here are some highlights from this year’s project:


Having articles featured on the Main Page of Wikipedia can bring anywhere from 1500 to 7500 visitors to an article, which, no matter how you figure it, is more attention than many public artworks get in an entire year.

An important point to remember about this project is that, while the students are now finished, in many ways the project has just gotten started. My experience with Wikipedia shows that over time these articles will continue to grow, bit by bit, and their overall quality will continue improve.

Now that I’ve been involved in two major public art documentation projects, I know there’s a lot to do and a lot that could be done in documenting public art in Wikipedia. What if, for starters, every university in the world used this project as a way to document public art on their campus? Or if every city had its entire public art collection documented using this method? Not only would we bringing information important artworks to light–artworks that surround us and often go neglected–but we could be bringing a new group of serious researchers and photographers to Wikipedia.

Over the past year a team of scholars and students have been developing a number of excellent resources to make it easier for anyone to document public art using these tools.  All of this information is contained within Wikiproject Public Art. There’s a lot happening with this project, so I want to take a moment to show some of the highlights and invite everyone to get involved with it and help it truly become a global project.

Without a doubt, Wikipedia is ideally suited for documenting public art because of their accessibility and openness for creating and sharing information in a collaborative environment. Here’s hoping that this project continues to grow into a truly global effort.

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