“Wikipedia and the British Museum” - Matthew Cock talk at the Guardian

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 2 August 2011

As well as Fiona Romeo from the National Maritime Museum, last week we had a talk inside the Guardian offices from another museum guest, Matthew Cock of the British Museum. He was talking about “Wikipedia, the British Museum and the GLAM sector”. GLAM stands for “Galleries, libraries, archives and museums” by the way.

Matthew said you might assume that a place like a museum built on professional scholarship wouldn’t want anything to do with Wikipedia, and its bottom-up amateur way of assembling knowledge. In the end though, they have come to realise that their shared goals were more important than their pro/am differences. Both their mission statements include commitments to freely making available knowledge about things of global interest.

At a meeting with Wikipedia, the museum and the encyclopaedia shared some statistics about page views to their coverage of one of the most famous items in the museum’s collection - the Rosetta Stone. The Wikipedia page had five times as many page impressions as the British Museum page. As Matthew put it:

“If we are going to accept that this many people are going to go there to read about our object, why not collaborate and make it the best article it could possibly be?”

Matthew’s proposed solution was to invite a volunteer Wikipedian-in-residence to visit the museum for a few weeks and collaborate with staff and other Wikipedia researchers to increase the quality of articles that made reference to the museum’s collection.

There had been a little bit of nervousness that there might be an adverse PR reaction from people thinking that the museum was “dumbing down” by contributing effort to the wiki rather than to scholarship journals, and as a project they made a conscious decision to avoid making edits to particular objects that arouse controversy. In the end coverage was nearly universally approving. The New York Times ran a piece “Venerable British Museum enlists in the Wikipedia revolution”, and in a blog post Roger Pearce said:

“[This] is a model for institutions on how to deal with the internet revolution. It’s clever, it costs them nothing, it gains the institution respect and traction on the internet… there is, in truth, no downside.”

The project didn’t encourage staff to contribute directly, but instead worked by putting a subject expert in touch with a volunteer who could then research and improve article quality with expert guidance on hand. They also incentivised the community with a competition for the best entries.

One activity focussed on the Hoxne Hoard. They essentially locked some experts and some Wikipedians in a room, and got them to work on the article with the aim of turning it into a “featured” article in a day. Here is a time-lapse video of the event.

Matthew felt they were still seeing benefit from the collaboration. Some Wikipedians, for example, had taken it upon themselves to link together the items in the History of the world in 100 objects series, almost like a shadow project.

Matthew’s talk made me wonder: “What would a news organisation do with a Wikipedian-in-residence?”

The obvious temptation to link-stuff for SEO purposes is mediated by the fact that Wikipedia links are “nofollow”, and, hey, how much traffic do the footnotes drive anyway? However, it does feel like there is an opportunity there for newspaper librarians and archivists to help Wikipedia enhance historical material with citations and content from our wealth of contemporary coverage and data.

You can find a previous similar presentation from Matthew entitled “A Wikipedian-in-Residence at the British Museum” on SlideShare.


Admittedly, I love Wikipedia but every article must taken with a grain of salt. In college, I had a professor who assigned a paper on a specific fort in South Carolina. But before he assigned it, the professor edited the Wikipedia page for the building and put in outrageous information that made no sense (it was a Civil War fort that was built in 2005?!). Sure enough, there were a couple papers turned in that used the stupid information and the professor made his point.

That said, I think it's great that the British Museum isn't turning up their noses at a popular site like Wikipedia and hopefully this will start a trend to raise the credibility of Wikipedia in general.

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