SMK blogs

SMK digital | 20.nov.2015

Wiki Labs – enriching art history on Wikipedia

Merete Sanderhoff, Curator and Senior Advisor in Digital Museum Practice

SMK and The Hirschsprung Collection are collaborating with Wikipedia Denmark to improve knowledge and resources about art historical topics in Wikipedia. Once a month, a group of art enthusiasts, Wikipedians and museum people meet up at SMK for Wiki Labs in order to learn about how to contribute to Wikipedia. This is to the benefit of all of us – including you.

Statens Museum for Kunst and The Hirschsprung Collection are publicly funded museums. This means that our collections belong to everyone, and that we are taking care of them on behalf of the public. In a digital age, we are working with new ways to be relevant to everyone in society – also to those who aren’t frequent museum visitors, or don’t have a special interest in art. How can our collections become meaningful to other people, and more people, than those who already visit museums?

Why are we working with Wikipedia?

Through the last couple of decades, museums all over the world have been digitising their collections, and many museums have also put these assets online so people can see what they contain. However, for many Internet users, being able to look at images of artworks is not sufficient – they need to also be able to take them and re-use them for new purposes. This applies, for example, to the many volunteers around the world who are writing, editing, and improving articles in the open encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wikipedia draws all of its images from the media repository Wikimedia Commons which, as the name indicates, is a ’commons’ – that is, the images in Wikimedia Commons are owned collectively and may be used by all. Because Wikipedia is an open encyclopedia, it is only allowed to use images that are free of exclusive rights such as copyright.

Wiki Labs

Museums hold vast amounts of digitised artworks which, due to age, are free of copyright restrictions. Traditionally, museums have kept their images behind paywalls. But today, where we have an Internet overflowing with images, more and more museums are arriving at the conclusion that if our images are to stand a chance of being discovered and used, they must be freely available on the Web. A range of museums around the world have in later years released their digitised treasure troves for free use. This opens up the opportunity that these images can also flow into Wikimedia Commons and be used to illustrate Wikipedia articles.

Wikipedia has 18 billion page views and 500 million unique visitors – each month. The open encyclopedia is available in 250 different languages, and contains 37 million articles. Museums that release their image collections have the chance to contribute to this enormous knowledge bank which grows with more than 1,000 articles a day on a global scale.

Museums hold valuable resources for Wikipedia in the form of reliable reproductions of the artworks in our collections, as well as in-depth knowledge about the objects and their stories. Internationally renowned museums like The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and The Getty Museum in Los Angeles have open collections that enrich thousands of Wikipedia articles, and lead to millions of page views featuring images from these museums (see more open collections). This has inspired our work at The Hirschsprung Collection and SMK. We have released high resolution images of artworks in our collections, and since 2014 we have held a series of events and workshops in collaboration with Wikipedia Denmark to learn about how we can best support the growth and improvement of Wikipedia.

User involvement – more than a buzzword

This autumn, we have held monthly Wiki Labs together with Wikipedians, museum people and others interested in writing for Wikipedia. For us as museums, it’s a fantastic way to meet people who are already writing and editing Wikipedia articles or have a passion and knowledge about art that they want to start sharing. Simultaneously, it provides us with the opportunity to talk about topical art historical issues and stories that ought to be created or improved, and to learn about how we can enrich Wikimedia Commons with our digitised collections.

Wiki Labs is just one of the places where we are collaborating with our users in enriching and meaningful ways. When we make an open call to participate in Wiki Labs, it is in recognition of all the people outside our museums who have valuable knowledge about art to share. Wikipedia abounds with proof of this, with its millions of articles on all kinds of topics from Michelangelo to microbiology. As public museums with educational obligations, we understand that we have an important role to play in supporting the knowledge creation taking place on the Web, and doing this by providing valuable raw materials: Trustworthy quality images of artworks, and reliable sources to new knowledge and understanding of art and its many stories.

Wiki Labs

Crowdsourcing is one of the buzzwords that prevail in many discussions of user engagement, and Wikipedia is often mentioned as one of the most comprehensive and successful crowdsourcing projects in the world. The term was coined in 2006, and since then it has been expanded on, as crowdsourcing has spread to all corners of the world and all aspects of society. A short and succinct definition says that crowdsourcing is “an online distributed problem-solving and production model” (see Daren C. Brabham, Crowdsourcing, MIT Press 2013). The problem that is being solved daily by Wikipedians all over the world is that of providing free access for everybody to the sum of all knowledge in the world. This is an enormous ambition, it’s work-in-progress, and it’s an ambition which Wikipedia has in common with the cultural heritage sector. Since the Age of Enlightenment where public museums were first established, it has remained our foremost task to disseminate knowledge about art and cultural history to all, thereby functioning as important educational institutions in enlightened and democratic societies.

The Internet has provided entirely new possibilities to fulfil that mission, with greater reach and impact than ever before. Because Wikipedia is the most comprehensive and commonly used source to knowledge for the citizens of the world, it is a selfevident place for us to put our collections into play. When we hold Wiki Labs, it is to facilitate that people outside the museum can write better articles about the topics that preoccupy them because they gain access to trustworthy images and source materials. In this way, we contribute to making art and art historical knowledge available and useful to many more people than we can ever hope to reach through our own museums and websites. As a colleague of mine recently said, “Crowdsourcing at its best is when institutions facilitate that users can help create something they want and need for themselves”.

Recently, museums have been criticised for selling out, trying as they are to fulfil growing expectations from the public of digitally enhanced experiences and engagement opportunities. The rethorical question we are hearing from critics is: Has the audience become more important than the art itself? (For insight into the current Danish debate, see for instance - both in Danish). The response to this must be phrased as a new question: If the public is not engaged in the art, why then would they want to support our endeavours to preserve it? User engagement on different levels offers ways to create relevance for the public, to give people opportunities to engage in ways that make art and cultural heritage meaningful to them. And the stuff that means something to you, that’s what you care about and take good care of.

We’ll meet up for the last Wiki Lab of this season Friday 27 November at SMK. Everyone is welcome – please bring your laptop, along with ideas for what topics you want to work on. You can keep track of our shared work and discussions in the Facebook group Wiki Labs Kunst (in Danish):

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