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Last year, Alexandra Thom spent ten illustrious months on Wikipedia. The reason she was there may raise eyebrows for those who see museums as destinations more concerned with attracting warm bodies to their buildings, rather than community-minded resources looking at the larger world. Thom, with a grant from the Kress Foundation, helped fill the gaps about art and culture on Wikipedia using the collection of the Brooklyn Museum and the expertise of its curatorial departments. The project represents a radical attitude towards sharing reliable and expert information that may be more somewhat more common at libraries and universities, but has yet to fully hit the world of art and museums.
Drawing on the strengths of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, Thom focused on African art, a field badly represented in the world’s foremost online encyclopedia, and one influential work in the Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (1979).
From January 2 through October 16, 2013, Thom wrote 24 new articles and edited 18 existing articles on African art. She also ensured that the 1,038 women named in Chicago’s room-sized installation were represented — when she started, 92 of them had no entries and an additional 190 had small or incomplete entries, often referred to as “stubs.”
This wasn’t the Brooklyn Museum’s first foray into the realm of Wikipedia; the institution, with the help of important tech-minded staff members like Shelley Bernstein, vice director for Digital Engagement and Technology, has been actively involved with Creative Commons and other digital projects that make information, including images of objects in their collection (4,000, to be precise), available online.
“I love Wikipedia for providing a seemingly endless web of linked information that I can follow from one article to the next,” Thom told Hyperallergic. “In terms of the bigger picture and this project in particular, Wikipedia fascinates me for its ability to attract an enormous amount of attention from readers around the world. Wikipedia has 470 million unique visitors every month. Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles. In my mind, these numbers represent a call to action for any institution that harbors cultural resources.”
Thom’s work was particularly important in the field of African art, which suffers a fate akin to other articles that try to characterize Africa online. “The WikiAfrica profile states that Africa ‘has the lowest and least informed profile of any region on the internet. What does appear is often selective, lacks context, and reinforces outdated stereotypes,’” Thom says. “After conducting a preliminary assessment of the presence and quality of existing Wikipedia articles on topics relating to historical African art, I wholeheartedly agreed with WikiAfrica’s statement. There are huge gaps in information, and the articles that do exist are often of poor quality and riddled with inaccuracies and language that perpetuates misleading stereotypes.”
Problems for African art revolve around the use of words like “tribe” or “tribal,” which commonly appear in Wikipedia articles but have no clear meaning for scholars of the field.
As Thom explained about the word “tribal” in a post on the Brooklyn Museum’s blog:
It carries misleading historical and cultural assumptions. It blocks accurate views of African realities. At best, any interpretation of African events that relies on the idea of tribe contributes no understanding of specific issues in specific countries. It generalizes a continent’s worth of different social organizations ― empires, kingdoms, city-states, autonomous villages, etc. ― into an overly broad and pejorative term. Indeed, it perpetuates the idea that African identities and conflicts are in some way more ‘primitive’ than those in other parts of the world.” And yet the word is used pervasively in Wikipedia articles on historical African art. If you do a Google search for “Wikipedia African Art,” the second thing to come up is the Wikipedia article on “Tribal Art”; the words “tribe” and “tribal” are used seven times (!) in the general article on African Art.
The mission of the Brooklyn Museum’s Wikipedia project was to provide accurate information while also helping place images from or of their collection that had previously been uploaded in proper context. In the case of African art, the entries were quite basic because Wikipedia was so incomplete.
“I was looking at an image of a Kuba mask and then contextualizing on the Kuba Kingdom page,” Thom says. “Which is a pretty straightforward [thing], and you would like to think a page on the Kuba culture would’ve already existed. But it didn’t.”
During her Kress Fellowship, Thom worked with the Brooklyn Museum’s associate curator of the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands, Kevin Dumouchelle, and curatorial assistant Roger Arnold to identify important topics and review her entries to ensure they were correct. The results, like the entry for Kuba art, are clear and concise. While the post won’t answer all your questions about the art of Kuba, it cites important books and provides illustrative examples of what’s being discussed. The entry, which was viewed 109 times last month alone, offers an entry point into a wider exploration of the topic.
While African art proved to be a large but underrepresented field on Wikipedia, tackling “The Dinner Party” was a different matter all together. Thom’s feminist project was more finite, or at least involved a known number of names, so her mission included assessing the scope of Wikipedia’s deficiencies and then engaging in the careful work of correcting the online record and making the once “invisible history” of women visible. She was also aided by an established community of editors on Wikipedia dedicated to feminist history and the inclusion of women.
“I found that 92 of the 999 women named on the Heritage Floor of ‘The Dinner Party’ did not have articles of their own. Of those articles that did exist, a significant number qualified as ‘stubs,’ or very short articles in need of expansion and better citation,” she says. “Some of the ways in which the ‘invisibility’ to which you’re referring were more nuanced. Chicago found that women’s accomplishments were also often attributed incorrectly to men; several of the existing Wikipedia articles still credit these men rather than affording women the credit that is rightfully theirs. Likewise, searches on Wikipedia for some of these women redirect to articles on those women’s husbands or fathers. This speaks, to a certain extent, to Wikipedia’s ‘notable woman problem’ … [Last year, Wikipedia’s founder] Jimmy Wales confirmed that 87% of Wikipedia’s contributors are men.”
Thom views her Wikipedia work on “The Dinner Party” as a direct extension of artist Judy Chicago’s mission to write women into history, but it will also undoubtedly help visitors, who turn to the internet in their curiosity, learn more about the women featured in the artwork.
In the process of her fellowship, Thom also discovered that the Wikipedia community has been quick to make helpful edits and suggestions on article discussion pages, referred to as “talk pages,” when necessary. “One of the most fulfilling experiences of working on this project is returning to a stub article I created months ago and finding it a fully flushed-out ‘B class’ article,” she says.
The project has taught the art historian and curator, who is currently project manager for Revolver New York, a great deal about the possibilities for museums and Wikipedia.
“The fellowship reaffirms for me that museums can shape Wikipedia in a way other cultural institutions can’t,” she says. “Instead of starting with the topic, as one typically does on Wikipedia, I started with the objects in the Brooklyn Museum’s collections. I looked at these objects, often with the help of curators, and ask myself what each object tells me — about the individual or cultural group who created it, the genre of objects it represents, or the use of that object in its original context. I then look to Wikipedia to see what of that information is already there. In this sense, I think the most important way in which the Brooklyn Museum can contribute to Wikipedia is to identify the gaps in knowledge that relate to their objects. The Wikipedia community is great at fleshing out partial information — I find that once I get an article started, Wikipedians will almost always contribute to making it better and more complete. This brings me to the other thing that fascinates me about Wikipedia: it reveals that people are really invested in contributing to open-source knowledge, even when there’s no monetary compensation.”
Thom believes the Brooklyn Museum is committed to developing their relationship with Wikipedia, as the institution recognizes the online encyclopedia as one of the most important frontiers on the web, and one that engages the most people globally.
“Wikipedia has reached a saturation point of types, but I think it is time for experts with specialized knowledge to step in,” she says.
To demonstrate its commitment to Wikipedia, on February 1, the Brooklyn Museum will join the New York-based Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Canada, and other institutions across North America in an Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon.
The Brooklyn event, which is jointly organized by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and Project Continua, will welcome scholars and dedicated amateurs alike. It will help educate them about largely overlooked feminist figures, reference materials, and expose them to a variety of experts in relevant fields in the hopes of inspiring people to help complete the histories of women online.
For her part, Thom doesn’t see her work on Wikipedia as over. “I hope to remain engaged,” she says. History, she knows, is a continuing story that will never be complete as long as there are people curious about the world, particularly the art in it.