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.


Wikipedia for Higher Education

On the 28th May I spoke (only for two minutes!) about possible mechanisms for including Wikipedia a bit more in our research practice and teaching and learning practice at the University of Southampton.  The talk that I hijacked was given by Dr. Les Carr (who knows much more about Wikipedia than I do!), as part of the regular Digital Economy lunch seminer series that the team here organise.  Their website can be found here:

I only spoke for a few moments, but I did reel off a number of examples, so I thought it might be useful to put the notes together here so that any of you who would like to follow up on them can do so more easily.

Wikipedia is a fantastic opportunity to curate some of the huge amount of content that exists on the web that relates back to, or hails from, our HE institutions.

A way to curate the web!!!

There are masses of data out there that are either totally undiscoverable, or discoverable, but for which the link back to the originating institution is not obvious.  Whenever we speak about Wikipedia, we tend to do so in terms of updating pages about famous alumni, or the key ‘University of…’ page for our own university.  We don’t tend to think of the other related pages; loads and loads of other content that is just as relevant to our institution, but does not have a clear link back to us.

So I took a look yesterday morning at the options for managing that content a little better.  Wikipedia is crowdsourced, and universities are educational institutions, and so it seems to make sense that we should be setting up numerous opportunities for facilitating crowdsourcing within our universities.

There follow a few examples of how we could improve our relationship with Wikipedia.  I should point out that I’m not saying anything new here, just pulling together a load of stuff from elsewhere into a sort of short review.

If you’re interested in the use of Wikipedia for research, I am not going to go into this here, but Wikipedia does host a page linking to papers and articles about that topic: 30 or so doctoral theses and over 1000 papers:

Potential uses of Wikipedia for HE

Firstly, get an idea of what the current situation for your institution is.  Without needing to do something technical, there are a few online tools that you can easily use to get an overview.  Although I would recommend asking someone with the technical knowhow to use the Wikipedia API and scrape out the data so that you know that you have an accurate picture.

Decide why you want to use Wikipedia

One option is to find out how often your pages are getting visited.  e.g. How often the University of Southampton page on Wikipedia get’s viewed (average of 400 a day for May 2012):

To find out what the current situation is, searching (cluster) for institution mentions on Wikipedia will give an initial idea of the kinds of content that exists.  In the instance of the University of Southampton:

The usefulness of DBpedia cannot be underestimated.  There must be alot of potential to improve Wikipedia presence of an organisation by looking at the DBpedia graph and identifying gaps.  For example, the DBpedia graph for University_of_Southampton shows that we have lots of content relating to alumni, but not much relating to our faculties/academic units:

Wikipedia as an index for the Web

<slightlyannoyinglecture>What is Wikipedia good for? Its not just for broadcasting about our institution’s research or for claiming ownership for prrevious students, its about improving the content that the resource holds generally, and contributing to improving the resource discovery.  Many many people use Wikipedia as an index of the web, and so it seems crazy that we would not see this as an opportunity to help to pull together all of this disparate information into one place. </slightlyannoyinglecture>

Mechanisms for improving the University+Wikipedia relationship

One approach could be trying to get Wikipedia into the university:

Using Wikipedia for educational exercises:
An example of a project:

Then, there is the option of taking the university out into Wikipedia:

If you’re worried about conflict of interest, you could contribute an open educational resource to Wikiversity instead:

Using Wikipedia to improve university resources internally and externally:

Using Wikipedia (DBpedia) to improve our own website:

Using Wikipedia at an organisational level to improve Wikipedia:

Curator requests for the British Library Wikipedia pages. Universities could do the same with their pages; particularly those relating to research themes, research groups, disciplines, and individuals:

A university could create faculty/research group based pages similar to this, and then improve those at a departmental/research group level:

Take an event-based approach:

Using an event-based approach to improve Wikipedia content seems a successful way to add lots of content very quickly. Its a good way for university experts to contribute to Wikipedia generally (I’m always thinking from a Humanities/Social Sciences perspective, hence this example, but the options are endless). The World War I editathon coming up in the middle of June is organised by the UK Wikimedia Chapter. :

Or take Wikipedia onto your campus/into your library/etc.:

Around campus (I’m thinking: next to buildings with an interesting history, portraits of important donors hung in corridors, or reminding local people who walk through the area of past events and current research): Monmouthpedia; the firrst Wikipedia town. Uses QR tags. This project is doing many things: Improving Welsh Wikipedia; Increasing awareness of noteable places and people; Geotagging so that Wikipedia apps can be used by visitors.

Within the library/archive/canteen: The British Library uses QR tags to link to pages within Wikipedia.  Pages such as ‘Domesday Book’ are linked to from the real world.

Outreach activities. 

Its all outreach really, but here are some activities that seem to lend themselves particularly to be referred to as outreach:

Wikimedia is doing a great job of seeking out outreach opportunities.  Find a summary of Wikipedia’s work to improve expert outreach: A nice example of science outreach from the Wikipedia page:

“Driving public interest in peer-reviewed research.Darren Logan, a scientist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, worked with the Wikipedia community to write an overview article on Major Urinary Proteins and take it through the review processes to Featured Article. As a result of being “Today’s Featured Article” on 2 August 2010, the article received 37,000 hits in four days. Its many footnotes included links to papers published by Logan and colleagues in peer-reviewed journals. Some of these were in open access journals including PLoS One and Biomed Central. The open licences for these papers meant that figures could be copied into the Wikipedia article. It also meant that Wikipedia’s general audience could follow the links and read the original papers themselves.” (From:

We should be seeking out collaborations. An example of a cultural partnership – the ARKive project, by Wildfire charity and Wikimedia:

Education related projects – Some good ideas here (, including:

  • Wikilounges for students – giving advice on informed use of Wikipedia,
  • University of Bristol’s paid internship,
  • PARTICULARLY COOL –> Wikipedia for sharing good practice with colleagues (University of Exeter Economic Classroom Experiments),
  • Imperial College London’s student Wikipedia society:

Things you can do RIGHT NOW

Not sure where to start? Do these things first to get your Wikipedia adventure underway on your way:

  1. Join the Wikipedia education mailing list:
  2. Find a Wikipedia article that you can edit and have a go!
  3. Plan to write a Wikipedia article about your area of expertise.  This is an invaluable experience.  Before you begin, read this: A useful guide for experts to using Wikipedia – its an open access article, so there’s no excuse not to take a look!: