The role of crowdsourced material in museums has always been a difficult theme for me to navigate. As someone pursuing an advanced degree in art history in the hopes of working in museums, it often puts me in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, I totally acknowledge that museums are inherently elitist institutions that are not accessible to large groups of the population, which is a huge issue. On the other, I have put a lot of time and resources into getting a degree that I hope will help me land a job in one of these institutions. I think museums and cultural institutions do need to fundamentally change the way they engage with their audiences and the public at large, but I’m not always sure that crowdsourcing information is the best way to achieve that goal. Obviously it is harder to change the overarching issues: how museums are funded, who has access to art history courses and certain disciplines from an early age, who has access to higher education, the entire unpaid internship system that so much of the art world relies on, entrance cost barriers, the list can go on. In many ways it’s easier to have visitors submit a selfie of them with a work in the collection and print those or highlight them on the museum’s Instagram story than to address those larger systemic issues, but those posts still neglect the fundamental issue we as a society have with these institutions. It often seems to me to be more of a way for museums to stay relevant in an increasingly digital world than a way to really alter their relationship with their audiences.
There are definitely instances where digitally crowdsourcing information is beneficial. I find that it tends to work better in smaller institutions that are already more tightly interwoven into their communities than huge ones such as the Metropolitan. Crowdsourcing is a way for these smaller spaces to connect with and and learn from their publics in a symbiotic way. In class we talked about how local historical societies or preservation groups can rely heavily on crowdsourced information because some people do have inherently have more knowledge (perhaps local elders, or folks who have been in an area for generations have old letters, simply remember buildings that have been torn down, or have kept old family photographs). In bringing up this example I hope I can highlight that I am not against crowdsourcing knowledge, but that I am wary of incorporating it into museum programs without regard for the expertise that certain individuals do already have. Museum education and public programming departments exist for a reason in order to facilitate this type of engagement already. I also think it is necessary to distinguish when it is used with the true aim of achieving greater accessibility versus when it is a catchy marketing tool to appeal to the “digital masses.” If the goal is to increase accessibility then I think we as a field need to have the much harder and more complicated discussion of how the entire structure of the discipline needs to change rather than just how works of art are chosen for an exhibition or what the label says (although I agree these do show inherent power). This has been a ramble, and for that I apologize. Let’s turn to an example of where I think crowdsourcing of information does have a lot of pros, Wikipedia.
Wikipedia as an example…
Wikipedia is an online source that everyone has probably used at some point before. It’s great for quickly learning about a topic or finding other “more reputable” sources. This week we looked at it as our “digital tool” and discussed the pros and cons of working with the platform. I haven’t edited anything on the site before or participated in an edit-a-thon, but it is something that I’ve been interested in. I’ve heard a lot about Art+Feminism edit-a-thons which strive to improve Wikipedia’s content and coverage of gender, feminism, and art related topics. They host events and dialogues to train and facilitate editing and the creation of new pages.
An interesting thing I learned about Wikipedia this week was the way you have to build your presence as a contributor on the site. Although it is tempting to dive right in and create a new page for someone/something, a classmate recommended that to begin you should simply add citations to or edit the writing of existing pages. In this way, the editors of Wikipedia (volunteers who have a bit more authority than us lowly contributors) will start to know your contributions and will be less likely to delete your work. One way you can add in information is using Citation Hunt to address gaps in what information needs to be supported by citations.
I thought I’d make a few attempts at editing this week. I had initially wanted to create a whole page for a wonderful artist I recently spoke with, Mikael Owunna, but after my peer’s comments I thought I’d start with a few minor edits. I ended up adding a bit of information to South African artist Zanele Muholi’s page. I added one recent exhibition and one more collection their work is in.
You can see here that I added that they have work in the Tate Modern museum in London. This is a major collection to be in so I wanted to make sure it was present. I linked their artist page on the online collection as a citation. I took a screenshot to show how easy the process was: basically you paste in a link and it generates the citation for you.
Overall, the experience was remarkably easy. The new “visual editor” tool makes editing on Wikipedia very similar to the editing process on WordPress. Wikipedia also already has a lot of the tools you need embedded into the page so that you can just cut and paste a lot of information. I’m sure starting a page from the ground up would be much harder, but simply adding in citations was surprisingly easy and quick! I’m excited to keep working with the platform.