In the New York Times, an article discusses how the “Venerable British Museum Enlists in the Wikipedia Revolution.’ Have you looked at what Wikipedia says about your project/museum/archaeological site/etc. as of late? If you think it is inadequate, consider doing what the BM is doing: collaborating with Wikipedia to ensure that its huge readership—admit it, it hasn’t been very long since you last consulted it too, right?—gets the correct information. After all, “‘[t]en years ago we were equal, and we were all fighting for position,’ Mr. Cock [BM webmaster] said. Now, he added, ‘people are gravitating to fewer and fewer sites. We have to shift with how we deal with the Web.’”

In other words, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Once criticized as amateurism run amok, Wikipedia has become ingrained in the online world: it is consulted by millions of users when there is breaking news; its articles are frequently the first result when a search engine is used. This enhanced role has moved hand in hand with Wikipedia’s growing stability (some would say stagnation). With more than three million articles in English alone, there are fewer unexplored topics, and many of the most important articles have been edited thousands of times over a number of years. All of this means that in today’s Wikipedia there is renewed value in old-fashioned expertise, whether to provide obscure details to articles that have already been carefully edited or to find worthy topics that haven’t been written about yet. Mr. Cock, for example, estimated that there were thousands of British Museum objects (among the eight million total) that would be worth their own Wikipedia articles but don’t have them.

What unites them is each organization’s concern for educating the public: one has the artifacts and expertise, and the other has the online audience. Dividing them are issues of copyright and control, principally of images. Wikipedia’s parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, is strongly identified with the “free culture movement,” which generally holds that copyright laws are too restrictive. The foundation hosts an online “commons” with more than six million media files, photos, drawings and videos available under free licenses, which mean they can be copied by virtually anyone as long as there is a credit. That brought Wikipedia into a legal tussle with another prominent British institution, the National Portrait Gallery, when high-resolution copies of paintings from its collection were uploaded to the commons. A Wikipedia volunteer had cobbled the copies together from the gallery’s Web site, justifying his actions by noting that the paintings involved were no longer under copyright. Both the portrait gallery and the British Museum generate revenue by selling reprints and copies of pieces in their collections.

[note: follow-up in the next post]