Monday, January 04, 2010

Is Wikipedia Loves Art Getting "Better"?

It's rare that a participatory museum project is more than a one-shot affair. But next month, Britain Loves Wikipedia will commence--the third instance of a strange and fascinating collaborative project between museums and the Wikipedia community (Wikimedians). The project's implementation keeps changing, and I can't decide whether it is getting better or just different. I hope you'll share your thoughts in the comments.

Wikipedia Loves Art, Take One

The first version of Wikipedia Loves Art first took place in February 2009. It started with a request from a group of New York Wikimedians to the Brooklyn Museum. The Wikimedians asked if the museum would coordinate a project in which people could photograph artworks in cultural institutions to illustrate Wikipedia articles. The museum agreed and brought fifteen institutions from the US and UK on board to participate.

The museums asked to Wikimedians to provide the institutions with lists of thematic topics that required illustration. Museums used these thematic lists to develop scavenger hunt lists to distribute to participants so that they might find art objects to illustrate Wikipedia topics like "Roman architecture" or "mask." Participants were asked to photograph objects and their accession numbers so staff could identify and describe the objects properly. The museums developed careful rules about what could and couldn't be shot, and how participants could upload their images to Flickr for use by the project.

The event succeeded in donating thousands of images to Wikipedia, but it was plagued by challenges that frustrated museum staff, Wikimedians, and photographers.

Some of these challenges were about mission fit. The Wikimedians’ and museums’ goals were not as aligned as they originally thought. Museums saw this project as an opportunity to engage local photographers to think creatively about how artworks might represent different topics. In contrast, the Wikimedians were focused on making cultural content digitally available online using as open a licensing structure as possible. The museums cared about participants connecting with artworks and identifying them properly, whereas the Wikimedians cared more about participants sharing images under open legal licenses.

Other challenges derived from the complicated and shifting setup (see, for example, this discussion about clarifications to the rules). From the institutional perspective, the best way to deliver good participant experiences was to constrain contributions through the Flickr uploading system. Staff were concerned about losing control of images of their collections, and they wanted to make sure the images were linked to the correct information about each object. But there were many Wikimedians who were confused or frustrated by what they perceived as arbitrary institutional constraints in the submission format. Some people found their own rogue ways to upload museum images outside of the project framework, much to the consternation of museum representatives, who saw these actions as causing confusion and potentially violating intellectual property agreements.

The project's setup also created more work for participants and museum staff than anticipated. Over 13,000 photographs were submitted by 102 photographers at the fifteen different institutions, documenting about 6,200 pieces of art. While these participants had done the hard work of capturing the images, it was up to the institutions to validate, tag, caption, and prepare them for Wikipedia's use. Image verification was a Herculean effort. Using accession numbers to identify the objects was not successful; it was complicated for participants, and staff were not able to verify many images. Some images were disqualified for copyright reasons, others because they could not be identified. Eventually, all of the work was completed and 6,195 photographs were donated to Wikipedia. But when the dust settled, the overall effort for institutions involved in Wikipedia Loves Art was so great that many saw it as an unsustainable collaboration.

Wikipedia Loves Art, Take Two

In June of 2009, Dutch Wikimedians tried again. They partnered with 46 institutions in the Netherlands to produce Wikipedia Loves Art / NL, which took a different approach to the project. Rather than starting with a list of themes provided by Wikimedians and inviting visitors to shoot the objects that they felt fit the topics, the Dutch Wikimedians asked the museums to provide a list of specific objects that participants could photograph. This compromise achieved three things:
  1. The museums knew exactly what would be photographed and could more tightly control the experience. At some institutions, staff members set up specific dates for photography and escorted photographers through the galleries.
  2. The Wikimedians knew that all of the images would be legal for use from a copyright perspective. There was no concern about museums needing to verify that an object on the list was in fact legal for use.
  3. The participants received a numbered list of objects to photograph and could tag their images with these id numbers instead of with accession numbers. This significantly reduced the number of object identification errors and reduced the staff time required to review the images submitted.
Wikipedia Loves Art / NL also included some other changes, most notably a centralized website that coordinated all of the events and information. It ended June 30 with 292 participants contributing 5,447 photographs. There were still validation errors; for example, the "winning" photograph from the project was discovered to have been taken at least a year prior to the event. But in general, the project went smoothly. The images were uploaded more quickly with fewer staff hours than in the original version, and the institutions and Wikimedians considered it a success.

So is it better?

From my outside perspective, Wikipedia Loves Art / NL more successfully served the needs of the museums and the Wikimedians than the original event. But it was also fundamentally different for participating photographers. It offered participating photographers less creative agency and less responsibility... and less attendant confusion.

Did Wikipedia Loves Art get better? The answer to that question depends on your values. It got better at meeting the partners' needs, but worse at allowing individual participants to determine the outcome. I also wonder whether the changes impacted the extent to which participants felt connected to the institutions as opposed to seeing the museums as venues for a project. Ann Beaulieu, a researcher associated with the Tropenmuseum reflected on discussion in the Wikipedia Loves Art / NL Flickr groups, commenting:
the goal is to get photos of the museums’ collections onto Wikipedia. Interestingly, this does not seem to be obvious to some photographers who see photo-making as the ‘end’ or goal of their practice, and consider getting objects in museums photographed and into Wikipedia as secondary.
To me, the newer version of Wikipedia Loves Art seems less suited as an onsite audience engagement program for photographers, but more suited to provide Wikimedia with useful data. This may make it a better project (more useful) or a worse project (less engaging for participants).

I realize, however, that this perspective reflects my own value judgment that local community engagement is a more important part of museum missions than providing digital access to content. There is a large community of people who will use the digital images in their new home on Wikimedia Commons, and who am I to say they are not equally important?

I also am biased in thinking that giving participants creative agency is "better" than giving them a list of photographs to shoot. You could just as easily argue that the project got better by making participation simpler, and that the redesign DID serve the participants who are part of the Wikimedia community.

What do you think?

10 comments, add yours!:

Yola de Lusenet said...

As one of the participants in the Dutch wlanl, I'd like to add that in practice there was more space for creativity for individual photographers than the rules suggest. At the events I attended far more photographers were present than eventually posted to the Flickr group. And one could in practice photograph whatever object one liked.

Obviously, as you point out, not publish just any photograph, that would still depend on rights situation. But then several photographers I spoke to were not particularly well informed about/interested in rights issues. They clearly had the idea that the project was all about museums letting photographers freely make pictures for their own use (or their portfolio).

I guess quite a few came to do their own thing and they had ample opportunity to do so. From this perspective: surely a creative exercise, but what did it do for the connection between community and museum?

I joined because I feel very strongly that museums should make images freely available. So I consider it a success that images of works by Van Gogh and Bosch can now be used by everyone legally (a series of very interesting contemporary works from the private collection of a bank have come out into the open too).

For the competition, I felt there was some friction between our 'task' to provide straight documentation for Wikipedia and the prizes for the 'best' photographs. The jury did, in the end, take originality and atmosphere into account - rightly so, I think. But it brought up some interesting points about how objects are experienced by different photographers and what the photographer contributes. (One of the winners himself thought his photograph was interesting mainly because of the way the museum had arranged lighting).

"Getting better'? I couldn't say. If you like WLA, it is surely better to have less frustration and less confusion and hence perhaps more events.

Anonymous said...

I work for ING, one of the participating organisations in the Wiki Loves Art/NL event.

Our Art Management team worked really hard to clear the rights issue before the event as required by Dutch law, and most artists gracefully consented to have having their work included in the project. We opened one building for a photographic tour. The tour was accomopanied by members of the Art Management team who were on hand to offer guidance on rights issues but also to talk about the art.

From our perspective it was a great success, we had our own photographer (Sander Stoepker) there to photograph the event - as well as the works and some of those images are available on our own flickr stream ( where you can clearly see the engagement of participants with the works of art.

Even more importantly most participants were really happy to have the opportunity to visit and photograph this collection which is not normally open to the public.

In our experience the photographers did engage with the works, were creative about their own work, and did contribute to wiki.

I think your post makes a wider distinction between the goals than exists in practice. I support the Wiki loves Art concept and I suspect that it will evolve as we go through more events. Finding the best way to balance the needs of the photographer with those of the museum, the creators of the artworks and the wiki community.

Pete Forsyth said...

I have not participated directly in a program like this, but as the Wikimedia Foundation's Public Outreach Officer, I am fascinated by the analysis of the differing approaches, and appreciate the feedback of your commenters as well.

I would suggest an additional worthwhile goal that I do not see mentioned: there are a great many opportunities for engagement and creativity within Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia, and related projects. If participants are exposed to the idea of publishing their work on an open, wiki-based platform, that establishes a good foundation for engagement and creativity that will live beyond the event.

I was a volunteer in the Wikimedia community for several years before taking my present position. In the "wiki world" I made strong professional contacts, both with individuals and organizations/cultural institutions; developed skills in writing, photography, and coding; and learned a great deal about local history and related topics. All of this in addition to producing content which, I believe, has a great deal of value to a broad audience.

I also watched as a number of my Wikimedian friends had similar experiences.

It's my strong belief that exposing a population of photographers to the idea of publishing on Wikimedia Commons enables this sort of opportunity (though of course not every individual will have the same experience).

I'd encourage you to look at two academic papers that explore the notion of "Legitimate Peripheral Participation" in relation to Wikipedia:

Becoming Wikipedian: transformation of participation in a collaborative online encyclopedia by S.L. Bryant, and Readers are Not Free-Riders: Reading as a Form of Participation on Wikipedia, bu J. Antin and C. Cheshire.

Nina Simon said...

Great points. I think you really explained well the experience of participating with Wikimedia--an experience that is foreign to my own. Do you consider Wikimedia an institution (like a museum, which one participates with/in) or a self-organizing community? Has it evolved from one to the other? In writing about this project, I've struggled to decide whether Wikimedians are bound by specific values (like museum staff) or are more individually motivated (like photo-taking participants).

@Yola and @orangewave,
Thanks for your thoughts on this-you are probably right that I was over-emphasizing differences to tease out these questions. I am including this content in a slightly different format in a forthcoming book and will adjust to represent some of the subtleties that you share.

I put out this post because I've been struggling with how to represent the project in the book, and I really appreciate your thoughts. Please let me know if you (anyone) are uncomfortable being quoted in the book from your comments on this post.

David Gerard said...

Museums and Wikipedia are both here to show wonderful things to the world. I'm sure we'll work it out :-)

Pete Forsyth said...

Nina, sorry I lost track of this thread!

I don't think there is any question that Wikipedia is, and always has been, a self-organizing community. Any appearance of being an institution is a retrofit; I do believe we've been able to do some excellent things as far as mixing those models, but in the end, the community will always call the shots. I suspect my colleagues would generally agree that while this is challenging, from a professional perspective, it is simply the "nature of the beast."

But, I would not equate that distinction with one between personal motivation and being value- or mission-driven. Wikipedia has also always been very heavily value-driven.

It's a peculiar mix. It's new in many ways, but also echoes consensus-driven realms going back thousands of years. It's my belief that clear communication and generative discussion is the stuff that keeps us on the right path. In that spirit, I think your blog post is very helpful.

Sorry if this is general and rambly! Feel free to ask more questions if I didn't address what you wanted.

Hans van de Bunte said...

Become part of the interview with artist Betsabeé Romero & guest curator Judith de Bruijn @Tropenmuseum Amsterdam. Fire Q's on for our upcoming exhibition.

CJ Nye said...

I will aim my comments at making future iterations of W♥A run more smoothly from a user perspective.


I am a "heavy user" of museums, have a background in Arts Administration, and use Flickr regularly; I also like to round up my friends for museum outings who, though culturally inclined, are not likely to attend without encouragement. W♥A, as a semi-competitive event with prizes, held a lot of appeal for many of my least "arty" friends. My W♥A team was, I am told, significantly larger than most. It also consisted of people largely unfamiliar with museum structures, and unfamiliar with Flickr.

The challenges:

- Flickr can be complicated; although I created & shared a "how to" outlining such things as changing (c) permissions, I still ended up needing to log into my friends' accounts and fixing settings according to the W♥A rules.

- Free accounts size limits meant I also ended up uploading my friends files to my Pro account.

- Museum labeling is not entirely standardized, not being adept at reading labels, there were issues with finding work not copyrighted, &/or identifying it properly. (Particularly difficult in open-storage displays where the labeling is less robust.)

- While many guards were not only well versed in the event & it's parameters, some were not, & I did have to do some explaining, as a participant, to museum staff- a strange situation to find oneself in.

- Extremely complex & ever-changing rules. KISS folks, users are not payed to do this, it's gotta be fun & it's gotta be fairly easy. Speaking for my team: as adults with jobs & complex schedules, several of my teammates skimmed the rules once went solo to museums local to them- designers really shouldn't expect more commitment than that.

- Unnecessarily specific search themes! This was a big one: One friend shot a whole room according to the list of the Brooklyn Museum, where she had been the first week, but at the Met- which did not have that category on it's list. I ended up re-tagging everything either "red" or "flower" which served all museums and was readily found, but could not have served the designers much purpose.

- The paper card identification- Agh! If one single remedy should be made, this is it. A huge time-suck (both in shooting at the museum, & later matching the photos in Flickr), a waste of paper, & I believe, ultimately less productive than shooting the label & tagging the acquisition number would have been (cameras & Flickr both have time stamps that could have been used to assure compliance with the run of the event).

- Prizes... mmm not all teams will be the same size, this should be considered. One of my team of 10 won a prize; it is my personal belief that a team should win as a whole- everybody worked hard, everybody should win. In another case, I was also asked retroactively to select two winners from my team of 10, I was even told by a museum staffer (& personal friend, much love & I recognize that he was in a tough spot- but again, these thoughts are for the forward motion of W♥A) that one of my teammates 'didn't even participate'- she had, but her camera malfunctioned. As team captain, I'm not going to punish someone with excellent team spirit for a poorly thought out prize structure coupled with a technical malfunction. I think pre-school ideas of fairness should apply in these public-good driven games.

Summarizing- it was a LOT of fun. It was a great way to get people interested in museums who were not ordinarily. But, and I don't think anyone will disagree, it was a logistical nightmare ;)

Newt said...

Well Wikipedia Loves Art/NL was undoubtedly better from a Wikipedia point of view. Since Wiki is not, so they say, about creative freedom, more providing information.

So yes, you're right it got better from their point of view, but it's extremely boring. Just a reproduction instead of creative photographers going at it, which since they're associated with Wikipedia in the first place, wasn't going to happen.

I'm certain museams could organise a better event if they wanted creative photography of allowed works. And indeed, I would love to see something like that happen.

But not with Wikipedia.

Branko Collin said...

I don't really have the time atm to discuss your otherwise interesting questions, so let me jot down a couple of observations, and hopefully you can take something from them that I currently do not see myself.

I participated in WLA/NL, and visited both the Jewish Historical Museum (JHM) and the Tropenmuseum.

The JHM hosted the opening event, which included photographers disappearing into the museum afterwards to take pictures. Guards and curators knew what was going on. Three professional photographers were available to give you tips on how to take great photos. Best of all, the museum allowed the use of tripods, so that it's low lighting wasn't a problem. (There was a mix of daylight and artificial light, which throws off the camera's auto white balance.)

The Tropenmuseum was much darker lit. Tripods weren't allowed. The staff weren't well informed about who these photographers were. In short, most of my photographs failed, and I felt at all times I was an intruder rather than a guest or co-worker.

In other words, as an amateur photographer and Wikipedia sympathiser I liked the directed version of the event much, much more than the free-form one.

What I would have appreciated especially would have been the ability to take good pictures, preferably under near-studio conditions. This is why the remark by the Tropenmuseum representative surprises me a little. Perhaps though the problems I experienced weren't so much a matter of intent as of execution.