Lori Byrd Phillips is a museum studies graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and the current Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. She recently received a full scholarship from the Wikimedia Foundation to participate in Wikimania, an international conference located this year in Haifa, Israel.
When I first started my graduate program in museum studies I would never have thought that Wikipedia would become such an important part of my research and experiences within the museum field. Over the course of the past two years, however, I’ve come to understand the potential of Wikipedia as a collaborative learning tool and as a means for increasing accessibility to museum content. The discussions within the museum field surrounding trends in collaboration, accessibility, and technology solidify my feeling that Wikipedia has an important role to play in the future of museums. The Museums & Society 2034 report points to a future that includes a creative, collaborative renaissance stemming from a technology-savvy society. IMLS encourages museums to provide tools for communities to learn important 21st century skills, including collaboration and media literacy. The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition describes key trends in museum technology that will promote visitor interaction and accessibility. Wikipedia can serve to answer the call of each of these trends.
I have had the opportunity to work with both the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Wikipedia-related projects. I am currently the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum, where I am coordinating a content donation from the museum to Wikimedia, including images as well as institutional research. The collaboration is not about driving traffic from Wikipedia to the museum’s website (though that is a perk), but about benefiting a much wider, global audience through the sharing of content. Through the Museum Apprentice Program, we developed a program that allowed middle and high school students to contribute information to Wikipedia. The students worked in teams to research iconic museum objects, learn Wikipedia with the help of detailed guides, and create a total of five new Wikipedia articles. The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s E-Volunteer program
It is through programs such as these that I believe Wikipedia can prove valuable for the museum of the not-so-distant future. Community programming can utilize Wikipedia in order to combine collaborative, 21st century research skills with an efficient method for sharing collections information. Museums are being called upon to be increasingly accessible, but digitization efforts can be time consuming for staff. Museums are also expected to offer educational services to their communities, including opportunities for digital literacy. Wikipedia is one of the largest collaborative digital communities in existence, and will only continue to become more relevant in the coming years. By providing public programming opportunities that use Wikipedia to teach 21st century research skills, museums can also digitize their published collections information in a way that is not time consuming for already-overburdened staff. In addition to this dual-benefit for museums and those participating in such programs, the wider global community benefits through increased access to the museum content that is added to the encyclopedia. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the potential of mobile phone applications, where geolocation programs or QR codes can link to Wikipedia articles from within exhibits and provide deeper levels of information for visitors. Sounds like a win-win-win (…-win?) situation to me!
Many are still concerned about Wikipedia’s level of reliability, but in actuality the information in Wikipedia is extremely well vetted, not to mention well referenced. In recent years, automated systems have been developed that greatly reduce vandalism, making this much less of an issue. Another concern is the museum’s lack of control over contributed content. However, more often than not your contributions are made even better, not worse. One of the greatest benefits of Wikipedia is the ability to update information and easily maintain accuracy. In my opinion, the benefits of sharing professional expertise and collections information on Wikipedia far outweigh the often overinflated issues of reliability and control.
Others feel that engaging with the Wikipedia community can be intimidating, especially due to the various policies that are in place to maintain accuracy. Luckily for museums, a Wikipedia community known as GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) provides resources to assist with the collaboration between Wikipedia and the cultural sector. Through the centralized efforts of the GLAM initiative, institutions around the world have begun to coordinate with Wikipedia in more purposeful ways, including the British Museum, the Palace of Versailles, and the National Archives in Washington D.C. Wikipedia certainly has an important role to play in the future of museums, both as a means for increasing accessibility and as a learning tool for our communities. It has been inspiring to see how the encyclopedia has already become an indispensible tool for some institutions in the cultural sector.