August 19, 2010

The British Museum’s collaboration with Wikipedia

Posted at 8:38 pm in British Museum

I’m in two minds about the recently announced collaboration between the British Museum & Wikipedia to try & enrich the articles on the Museum’s artefacts i the online encyclopaedia. While improving of articles & providing images to supplement them is to be welcomed, I worry at the same time that the exercise may also end up pushing the British Museum’s own personal worldview as being an indisputable fact. There are many artefacts within the British Museum who’s ownership is disputed, but the institution always tries to gloss over this where possible, or falls back on the widely discredited Universal Museum argument to justify their current position.

Museums working with resources such as Wikipedia is a great idea – but only if they don’t use it to try & scrub out other versions of the stories that they are telling.

New York Times

Venerable British Museum Enlists in the Wikipedia Revolution
Published: June 4, 2010

The British Museum has begun an unusual collaboration with Wikipedia, the online, volunteer-written encyclopedia, to help ensure that the museum’s expertise and notable artifacts are reflected in that digital reference’s pages.

About 40 Wikipedia contributors in the London area spent Friday with a “backstage pass” to the museum, meeting with curators and taking photographs of the collection. And in a curious reversal in status, curators were invited to review Wikipedia’s treatment of the museum’s collection and make a case that important pieces were missing or given short shrift.

Among those wandering the galleries was the museum’s first Wikipedian in residence, Liam Wyatt, who will spend five weeks in the museum’s offices to build a relationship between the two organizations, one founded in 1753, the other in 2001.

“I looked at how many Rosetta Stone page views there were at Wikipedia,” said Matthew Cock, who is in charge of the museum’s Web site and is supervising the collaboration with Wikipedia. “That is perhaps our iconic object, and five times as many people go to the Wikipedia article as to ours.”

In other words, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Once criticized as amateurism run amok, Wikipedia has become ingrained in the online world: it is consulted by millions of users when there is breaking news; its articles are frequently the first result when a search engine is used. This enhanced role has moved hand in hand with Wikipedia’s growing stability (some would say stagnation). With more than three million articles in English alone, there are fewer unexplored topics, and many of the most important articles have been edited thousands of times over a number of years.

All of this means that in today’s Wikipedia there is renewed value in old-fashioned expertise, whether to provide obscure details to articles that have already been carefully edited or to find worthy topics that haven’t been written about yet. Mr. Cock, for example, estimated that there were thousands of British Museum objects (among the eight million total) that would be worth their own Wikipedia articles but don’t have them.

“Ten years ago we were equal, and we were all fighting for position,” Mr. Cock said. Now, he added, “people are gravitating to fewer and fewer sites. We have to shift with how we deal with the Web.”

Mr. Wyatt, 25, the first Wikipedian in residence, is a Wikipedia administrator from Australia. His position is unpaid, but Mr. Wyatt said the mission was worth subsidizing with his personal savings.

“There are two communities out there,” Mr. Wyatt said about his fellow Wikipedians and the staff at museums and archives. “There are things that divide them, but many more things that unite them.”

What unites them is each organization’s concern for educating the public: one has the artifacts and expertise, and the other has the online audience.

Dividing them are issues of copyright and control, principally of images. Wikipedia’s parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, is strongly identified with the “free culture movement,” which generally holds that copyright laws are too restrictive. The foundation hosts an online “commons” with more than six million media files, photos, drawings and videos available under free licenses, which mean they can be copied by virtually anyone as long as there is a credit.

That brought Wikipedia into a legal tussle with another prominent British institution, the National Portrait Gallery, when high-resolution copies of paintings from its collection were uploaded to the commons. A Wikipedia volunteer had cobbled the copies together from the gallery’s Web site, justifying his actions by noting that the paintings involved were no longer under copyright. Both the portrait gallery and the British Museum generate revenue by selling reprints and copies of pieces in their collections.

“Especially at a time like this, we can’t afford to sacrifice any revenue source,” Mr. Cock said.

And while Mr. Wyatt said he “would love a high-resolution image of the Rosetta Stone,” that shouldn’t be Wikipedia’s only goal in working with the museum. He said that there had been some extremism on his side of the debate: “ ‘Content liberation’ is the phrase that has been used within the Wikimedia community, and I hate that: they see them as a repository of images that haven’t been nicked yet.”

Getting permission to work with Wikipedia was not as hard a sell as he expected, Mr. Cock said. “Everyone assumed everyone else hated it and that I shouldn’t recommend it to the directorate,” he said. “I laid it out, put a paper together. I won’t say I was surprised, but I was very pleased it was very well received.”

He said he had enthusiastic support from four departments, including Greek and Roman antiquity and prints and drawings. “I don’t think it is just the young curators,” he added.

For both Mr. Cock and Mr. Wyatt, it was important that the relationship be about sharing information with the public, not about polishing the British Museum’s reputation on Wikipedia. The two agreed that Mr. Wyatt would stay clear of topics that could seem promotional — whether the article about the museum itself, or controversial pieces in the British Museum collection, like the Elgin Marbles, which the Greek government considers stolen property.

But, of course, an excellent article about material in the museum can help traffic, whether virtual or in person.

There were 7.5 million visits to the British Museum Web site last year, Mr. Cock said, a total that grew to 15 million if you counted all affiliated Web sites, though that counts people who have visited more than once. There were 5.7 million visitors to the museum, he said, many of whom presumably have also visited more than once a year.

The use of Wikipedia is on an entirely different scale — it is among the five most popular sites on the Internet, with an estimated 330 million different visitors a month and billions of page views a year. Visits to British Museum-related pages make up a small portion of those views: 586,919 visits in May, according to a tally made by Mr. Wyatt. He said improving the quality and number of those pages would draw more users, which is the point of his residency.

The “backstage pass” already is bearing fruit, Mr. Cock said by phone as he temporarily left the Wikipedians, curators and what he estimated were 20 laptop computers. One curator became a registered user at Wikipedia on Friday, and six Wikipedia articles were created, including brief ones about the Seax of Beagnoth (an Anglo-Saxon single-edged knife) and the Oxborough dirk (a large ceremonial weapon from the Bronze Age).

And just as the curators were being taught how to edit on Wikipedia, the Wikipedians were discovering how to learn from the museum’s staff: “A lot of the talk was, ‘How do we talk to a curator?’ ” Mr. Cock said. “The answer is just send us an e-mail. That’s what they’re here for. And if the answer goes up on Wikipedia, that probably means they won’t have to answer it again.”

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