Museums are relinquishing their grip on collections and shifting to a model where you don’t need to walk through their doors to see artefacts.

Leading the way is Auckland Museum, part of a worldwide group of institutions including the Smithsonian Institute and the Netherland’s Rijksmuseum embracing the concept their collections are “open by default”.

Now the museum is taking the concept of making information freely available further and is planning to encourage the use of their collections on Wikipedia with the help of New Zealand’s first Wikipedian-at-large.

Auckland Museum’s director of collections and research David Reeves said many museums are rightly protective of their physical collections but “sometimes that bleeds over to an attitude online that we have to also be very, very protective and very careful”.

Six years ago, the Auckland Museum decided to change their approach to their collections.

“We took the attitude that we should be open by default. Everything is already owned by the public. We’ve got this amazing resource called the internet which is open and uncontrolled, why aren’t we playing in that space?”

This resulted in online databases of over a million items available on the Auckland Museum website. Many of the photographs are available for people to use under a Creative Commons Licence.

“Go for your life, use it. It’s already owned by the public. Go forth and make it even more valuable.”

“What we have more recently been putting our work into is – how do we get our records out into the internet where people are already swimming?”

Reeves said it has meant a shift in thinking to get people to be comfortable with the museum’s content being available on a range of different websites.

Wikipedia is an obvious choice said Reeves.

The online encyclopaedia which allows anybody to create articles has become one of the world’s largest reference websites. Online searches normally return a Wikipedia page in the first page of results on a topic.

If a copyright-free image curated by the Auckland Museum exists, he welcomes its inclusion in a Wikipedia page.

“Go for your life, use it. It’s already owned by the public. Go forth and make it even more valuable.”

He said one of his favourite examples is the Wikipedia page about the Treaty of Versailles. The only photo on the page is of a copy of the Treaty held at Auckland Museum.

“We are the only ones who have released it [a photo] copyright free. Everybody else is claiming copyright erroneously but because of our attitude to say there is no reason for it to be restricted, therefore it is free to use.”

The image was added to the page by volunteers, who he says are crucial to Wikipedia’s “grassroots authenticity”.

Museum staff will upload and link material, but will not write Wikipedia pages.

“Writing needs to be independent and that’s a really strong philosophy of Wikipedia. It is independent, otherwise it risks becoming a public relations machine of an organisation. There’s an aggressive editing community and the moment they spot something that looks like PR spin, it’s deleted, it’s gone.”

Asked whether the museum should be devoting effort to something which might generate more interest in areas outside of Auckland, Reeves said: “It’s not like we are closing the building so we can operate on Wikipedia. It’s an important part of our future, it’s part of being in a globalised world. The benefits come back the other way.”

Benefits include encouraging other organisations to put their material online, some of which may include taonga Māori held overseas and raising the profile of the museum to potential tourists.

David Reeves wants to maximise the value of Auckland Museum’s collection by making photographs freely available for use on Wikipedia pages. Photo: Farah Hancock

Having new Zealand’s first Wikipedian-at-large on board for a month has helped the museum shift to a greater adoption of the platform as a means to share the museum’s collections.

“He’s worked intensively with teams all across the museum to train them in how to link things to Wikipedia so they can go in in their private time and become Wikipedia editors themselves,” said Reeves.

The museum is soon to host their first “Wikiblitz”. The public are invited to bring their laptops and learn how to edit pages. The blitz on the day will focus on adding some of the 7000 photographs of birds, reptiles and mammals to existing Wikipedia pages.

New Zealand’s Wikipedian-at-large

Mike Dickison is spending his year with various New Zealand organisations to encourage them to better engage with Wikipedia. The month-long stints are funded by a grant Wikipedia awarded Dickison earlier in the year.

“New Zealand’s presence on Wikipedia is not very good compared to other western countries.”

“What does it say when a kid doing a google search in English sees almost nothing about their own culture represented?”

He gives an example of searching for information on Dame Whina Cooper.

“She should have an amazing Wikipedia article. Her article is not very good, that’s a shame. That’s one of the first places google will send you if you search her name.

Dickison also aims to build the pool of New Zealand Wikipedia editors and to entice more Māori and women to the editing community which he said has been male-dominated to date.

The Auckland Museum was his first stop on his tour of New Zealand institutions. He said this was partly due to the museum’s policy of openness which has led to them making their photographs available copyright free.

“A lot of museums have an authoritative voice. It’s difficult for museums to relinquish that authority.”

Dickison said the museum’s Pacific Collection Access Project he has been helping with is a good example of the museum’s attitude of openness.

The project invites people from the Pasifika community to talk about items from their culture the museum has in their collections.

“They explain what they are for and how they are used, the names for them and sing songs about them. All of this is recorded and the museum adds the information to the objects record in its database.”

Dickison is working with the museum team to add this information to Wikipedia where it can be linked to in articles about objects.

He said the amount of content relating to Pacific cultures on Wikipedia is scant. For a topic such as basket weaving there is information about Native American, Middle Eastern and Asian traditions, but nothing for Pacific cultures.

“What does it say when a kid doing a google search in English sees almost nothing about their own culture represented?”

Dickison thinks the best way to change the northern hemisphere bias is to encourage people from diverse communities to write and edit pages themselves.

One of his goals for the year is to do just that through a series of Wikiblitz events where he will teach volunteers just how to become part of New Zealand’s team of Wikipedia editors.

He’s particularly excited about the blitz at Auckland Museum on Saturday.

“The museum has all these gorgeous photos of extinct birds, far better than anything that is being used on Wikipedia. I’m really looking forward to getting those photos up there so everyone can see them.”

The Wikiblitz is Saturday August 18, 10am – 4pm at the Auckland Museum Library. Further details are available on the Wikiblitz page.

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