Museums and Wikipedia

This is a copy of a blog post I wrote for the University of Southampton Digital Humanities blog:

Today, the Museums Association published the new issue of Museum Practice. This month the magazine focuses on Wikipedia, and I contributed an article providing practical advice for smaller museums. The journal is behind a paywall, but the Museums Association have kindly agreed to let me share a draft of the article here at the Digital Humanities blog.

The final article (and much neater version!) can be viewed at the Museums Practice website, alongside the rest of the issue, which is a fantastic resource for those interested in cultural heritage and the web:

Wikipedia for Regional Museums

Nicole Beale

From its humble beginnings in 2001, Wikipedia has grown exponentially, and to date (May 2013) the multi-language website boasts over 4 million articles, with 19 million named user accounts.  The site is one of the most visited on the web, coming 6th in Google’s ranked list of most popular websites (in 2011, Wikipedia achieved 410 million unique visitors), beaten only by Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, Live, and MSN. The key to Wikipedia is that anyone can create and edit content, but all content must be evidenced with sources, modelled on the original format of the paper-based encyclopaedia form. Participation numbers are high; currently there are 300,000 active Wikipedia users who have edited more than 10 times, and nearly 130,000 users who have edited something on the site within the last month.

The large museums, libraries and archives are engaging with the Wikipedia community on a piecemeal basis; setting up projects at an organisation level to reap the benefits of this great resource. But how can smaller organisations engage with Wikipedia? The larger institutions have specialised IT teams and dedicated marketing departments. What if you are part of a small team of staff and volunteers?

There are plenty of examples of projects and events that can be adapted to suit regional, and specialist museum needs, and the needs of the communities that they serve. This article brings those examples together in one place and lists four things that you can do right now, and four things that you can plan for the future, to better use Wikipedia to support the work that you do.

Four things you can do right now

Task 1. Become a Wikipedia Editor

Wikipedia’s greatest challenge is motivating readers of content to become editors of content. The site has a huge readership, but the percentage of users who are actively contributing to the site is very low. The sustainability of Wikipedia relies on contributions from people like us, who can improve and augment content, creating links and references to the objects, buildings, events and archives that we hold.

Wikipedia may have lots of information in it, but it has always been conceived of as a place that people pass through. It is a conduit, through which a user gets to further information and knowledge. Wikipedia cannot hold all of the knowledge in the world, but it could link to some of that knowledge. There is information that can never be in Wikipedia, but that is within our museums’ collections, or our archives, or our libraries’ shelves, and this is where you come in.

The biggest contribution that any one person can make to Wikipedia is to sign up for a user account and to edit an article. Wikimedia, the organisation behind Wikipedia, can provide training for members of your organisation to start to contribute to Wikipedia. The Wikimedia project to provide Wikipedians-in-Residence is the best place to begin to request training. These individuals are highly motivated, and skilled users and advocates of Wikipedia. Generally based in large galleries, museums, libraries and archives, they can be contacted through the Wikipedian in Residence website. I can’t recommend this option enough. I recently organised a visit to our university department by Andrew Gray, then British Library Wikipedian in Residence, along with representatives of the Southampton Wikipedia community. The workshop that they ran was inspiring, as well as being practically useful.

Task 2.  Use Wikipedia referencing structure

Wikipedia has a strict rule, all articles must be validated. This means that any content on Wikipedia must have recognised references to evidence the veracity of claims being made. These references can take many forms, and present a great opportunity for regional museums. To find out what kind of an influence Wikipedia has in your museum’s area of expertise, use this online tool to visualise page visit figures for Wikipedia articles: Not only is this a great indicator of people’s browsing habits in your area of interest, giving you hints as to which articles to add useful references to, but this can also be used as a way to bring traffic to your own online resources.

Take for example a museum based in Southampton, Hampshire. When we use the stats tool to search for articles about two similar heritage buildings in the city, we find that the article “Medieval Merchant’s House” was viewed 4 times more often than a page about “Southampton Tudor House and Garden”. The lesser viewed page has less information on it than the Medieval Merchant’s House. The lack of information means that there is a lack of links out to other websites. Using this information, staff from the Southampton museum could perhaps contribute to improving the Tudor House page by providing more information about the history of the house, creating references to relevant Historic Environment Records, or related Tudor objects in the county’s online collections database.  These references are links, and will help people to find this Wikipedia page, or to find the linked websites through this Wikipedia article.

Task 3. Engage with your local Wikipedia community

Chances are that in your area there is a group of Wikipedia editors (Wikipedians) who meet regularly. Most cities and larger towns have Wikipedia chapters meeting and deciding on locally-focussed drives for editing. These groups generally welcome support from other organisations. Check the UK Wikimedia chapter website to find out whether there is a group meeting near to you.

You could offer to host a Wikipedia meet-up at your museum, or run a Wikipedia event. One of the most popular forms of Wikipedia events is an editathon. An intensive editing session where a group meets and focussing on a topic for improvement in Wikipedia and together adds and edits content. In May 2013, the University of Oxford, Bodleian Libraries ran an editathon for Wikipedia pages relating to Queen Victoria’s Journals. The day-long event incorporated an exhibition visit, with a talk and an editing session; Introducing participants to the Queen Victoria Journals online resource. Check out the Wikipedia Loves Libraries pages for more information on how to get involved in editathons.

Other types of events that you could support through your museum include competitions that result in improving records. Wiki Loves Monuments, was awarded the Guinness World Record of the world’s largest photographic competition, with entrants from all over the world taking part in international and national awards, but there is currently no UK based branch of the competition. Now that’s an opportunity!

Task 4. Get to know GLAMWIKI

The GLAMWIKI project aims to create relationships between Wikimedia and galleries, libraries, archives and museums. The group runs events, including an annual conference, and is a great support network, as well as source of inspiration for project ideas.

Four things you can do in the future

Task 1. Enable Wikipedia to use your museum website

If you work on your own museum website, and you have a collections database that is accessed online, you might want to consider adding to any objects the option to copy Wikipedia Citation Code. This is a short snippet of Wikipedia styled code that allows anyone writing a Wikipedia article to easily reference a particular piece of online content. The Powerhouse Museum is a great example of this. Read Seb Chan’s excellent blog post on how it works.

Task 2. Engage with Wikipedia in your own museum

Increasingly, museums are using Wikipedia inside their buildings. Ways to do this include using Wikipedia articles to supplement labelling for exhibitions. Tablets displaying related Wikipedia content can be set up next to display cases. Or locations of Wikipedia articles in the form of URLs can be displayed allowing visitors to use their own mobile devices to scan quick links.  QR tags, as used by Derby Museum and Art Gallery, are a quick way to do this, although they are not the most attractive option!

Task 3. Link with Wikipedia outside of your museum

The hugely successful MonmouthpediA project embarked on a large scale attempt to improve content relating to Monmouth on Wikipedia, and involved the use of signage throughout the town that linked to particular articles using QR tags. Since the project started, over 550 articles have been created, and there are over 1000 QR tags up within Monmouth.  You could try this approach on a smaller scale, providing heritage buildings of interest with QR tagged signage.

Task 4. Host a Wikipedian at your museum

The Wikipedian in Residence programme is ongoing. You could consider having a Wikipedian work with your museum for a few weeks to encourage Wikipedia use and improve coverage of particular topics of interest.


Despite their global successes, the Wikimedia team is friendly and responsive to individual contact. There is often Wikimedia funding to set up projects, so if you have an idea, contact them.


Urban Variation Conference

Last week Gareth and I travelled to Gothenburg in Sweden to present at the Urban Variation conference.  The conference website is here:  The conference was organised by the Early Modern Town Project team (find the University of Gothenburg project website, here; and was attended by a multidisciplinary crowd of academics and professionals.

We met people interested in a huge variety of approaches to the Early Modern town. Topics presented included: the architectural traditions of city development, the spreading of language across countries through urban environments, the use of surveying to better understand the make-up of the city, and the relationship between the structure of a city and economical and socio-cultural factors.  There was much food for thought over the three days, particularly as we are planning an excavation at an Early Modern site ourselves this summer!

Our Presentation

We were at the conference to talk about the Re-imagining the British Memorial Project, an initiative to develop training methodologies for local history groups wishing to use new technologies to record church memorials. You can read more about the project here:

The Technology Session

The conference organisers had placed our presentation in a day-long session that explored how technology could contribute to the study of the early modern town, and there were some fascinating talks covering other technologies.  I won’t describe them all here, as there is going to be a publication available soon, but you can read through the abstracts here:

Presentations in the session included a project using a motion-sensing Microsoft Kinect alongside open source to create a reconstruction of a church interior, a description of the challenges faced by geophysical prospection in urban environments in Sweden, the use of RTI to record graffiti on Swedish churches with a view to creating a comprehensive database of transcriptions, and the use of Unity for exploring the historiography of the interpretation and records of an archaeological site through a 3D reconstruction.

Gareth stands behind a table in a lecture room. In front of him is a camera on a tripod. The camera is set up to take a R.T.I. and so there is also a flash gun, a pool ball and a remote control on the table.
Gareth explaining the mechanics of the RTI set-up.

Highlight RTI Workshop

In the afternoon, Gareth and I ran a workshop on using Highlight RTI to record details of structures in the urban environment.  We showed examples of related RTIs and had a troubleshooting Q&A for those planning to use the technique for their own research.

Thank-you to the Early Modern Town Project

The trip was fantastic and we’d like to extend a huge thank-you to the Early Modern Town Project who made the visit possible.

Follow the Project

The Early Modern Town Project is planning to develop a communication network based on the initial conference, so do visit their website to keep up to date with further work:


This blog post is available also on the ACRG website:

Charging for Digital Content

Waiting their turn for tickets
Flickr Commons - National Library of Scotland -OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN ON THE BRITISH WESTERN FRONT. Refreshments at a horse show. Waiting their turn for tickets

The Web Science Doctoral Training Centre organised another fantastic talk for us last week, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts that came out of it here.

We spent an engaging afternoon listening to MaryAnn Johanson of FlickFilosopher introduce what she felt were some of the key issues coming out of the increase in popularity of sites that invite bloggers to contribute free content.  Thanks MaryAnn!

MaryAnn had some really interesting points to make about (amongst many other things) the difficulties in making money through maintaining sites such as e-zines, and this prompted some thoughts around the disparities between our feelings around the value of content produced online and the value of content produced offline.

I have been thinking recently about the differences between the expectations that museums have of engagement achieved off line and online and MaryAnn’s visit helped me to clarify some of these thoughts.

Undervaluing digital content

Firstly, I think it’d be useful to try to understand why we undervalue digital content.  Very often we expect digital content to be made available freely that, if compared to its real world counterpart, we would normally expect to pay for.

MaryAnn talked about the fact that the notion of the long tail does not work for many instances: for example, the blogger asked to contribute content to a large online news site, will not be paid, but will instead be offered exposure on that site.  Very few referrals will actually result from that content. Over on one of my favourite comic blogs (Septagon Studios) there is a great discussion of the way that e-comics can attempt to walk the tightrope of the long tail.  There is a lot here that rings true with museums and galleries’ adoption of social media more generally.

So often for those creating content online, the effort expended far outweighs the benefit received.  And yet this artificial model of contributing to reap huge rewards still seems to prevail.

How to revalue content

But, and I suppose this is secondly, I am really very interested in how we judge the worth of the digital content.  If the website asking for the content is gaining benefits, through the means of the long tail, then this is only sustainable whilst the content remains free.  Is there a model that could work where the content is paid for? Is the long tail only useful when sites reach a certain size (like the tipping point that we hear so much about?)?

If digital content is being undervalued, then how can we change this?  Is there a way to modify people’s opinions of very high quality journalistic blogs to understand that they are as valuable as printed papers?

One fellow web science believer mentioned Flattr as a potential alternative for attracting revenue for digital content.  This made me very happy as I have been following this Swedish company for a while and have been very excited about the potential for museums and galleries of this personalised method for funding organisations. I read a real food-for-thought post all about Flattr way back in May (I finally found it after much Googling – other search engines are available) – Flattr and why paying for free stuff is stupid  

The article provides a really interesting perspective (and not one that I share incidentally).  But it does make you think about the reasons that people blog.  The article ends with “The content isn’t the product… it’s free marketing.” Really? Is that why people blog? I am relatively new to blogging, but it seems to me that its a bit of both.

I started this blog to encourage conversation around the topics that I am interested in (and as an outlet for thoughts that I very frequently won’t have time to follow up in my academic life).  Consequently, the network and the contents are of equal importance to me.  Is this article just highlighting the problem; that we are undervaluing the content that is being created online? Or is it just that the kinds of blogs that this article talks about (like mine I think) are so far from the high quality editorials that excellent journalists like MaryAnn share that it is not relevant to this argument?

Museums, Galleries, Blogs and Expectations…

The thing that I am interested in ultimately from all this has to do with expectations.  Are we expecting too much from blogs?  Museums and galleries are starting to use blogs as an additional avenue for engagement, but are we approaching this all wrong? There are so many different types of blogs; this brings to mind the excellent diagram that Beth Kanter posted on her blog ‘What Color is your Non-Profit’s Blog?’, and it is so often that museums and galleries use the wrong model for the outcomes that they are wanting to achieve. Or worse still, they start a blog without any clear outcomes.

Could spending some time thinking a bit deeper about the value of the content that we are putting into our blogs as museums and galleries help to ensure the successful uptake of those blogs by the audiences that we want to engage with, as well as contributing to the design of more realistic targets for those blogs? So many thoughts, sadly, not enough time to pursue them!