Wikipedia and the British Museum

The British Museum seems to be run by some clever people.  At Digging Digitally there is an article quoting the New York Times, Venerable British Museum Enlists in the Wikipedia Revolution.

The British Museum has begun an unusual collaboration with Wikipedia, the online, volunteer-written encyclopedia, to help ensure that the museum’s expertise and notable artifacts are reflected in that digital reference’s pages.

About 40 Wikipedia contributors in the London area spent Friday with a “backstage pass” to the museum, meeting with curators and taking photographs of the collection. And in a curious reversal in status, curators were invited to review Wikipedia’s treatment of the museum’s collection and make a case that important pieces were missing or given short shrift.

“I looked at how many Rosetta Stone page views there were at Wikipedia,” said Matthew Cock, who is in charge of the museum’s Web site and is supervising the collaboration with Wikipedia. “That is perhaps our iconic object, and five times as many people go to the Wikipedia article as to ours.”

“Ten years ago we were equal, and we were all fighting for position,” Mr. Cock said. Now, he added, “people are gravitating to fewer and fewer sites. We have to shift with how we deal with the Web.”

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.

Read the whole article.  What is depicted 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 issue of revenue from images is also addressed.  This is the real barrier in stupid institutions.

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, … Both the portrait gallery and the British Museum generate revenue by selling reprints and copies of pieces in their collections.

“Especially at a time like this, we can’t afford to sacrifice any revenue source,” Mr. Cock said.

And while Mr. Wyatt said he “would love a high-resolution image of the Rosetta Stone,” that shouldn’t be Wikipedia’s only goal in working with the museum. He said that there had been some extremism on his side of the debate: “ ‘Content liberation’ is the phrase that has been used within the Wikimedia community, and I hate that: they see them as a repository of images that haven’t been nicked yet.”

I’d have liked to see this issue explored more in what is frankly a splendid article by the NY Times. 

We all hate how Wikipedia is sucking the life out of the web.  We all hate its weaknesses.  But it is there, it is a fact, and it has to be engaged with.  The controversial articles on “Jesus” attract the head-bangers, full of hate, and we can do nothing with such articles to improve them.  But minor articles can be safely created and edited, and I have done so myself.

All credit to Matthew Cock for realising that he can make Wikipedia work for the British Museum, and not just the other way around.  This is a new world.  The clever will make the web work for them; the stupid will cower trying to hold back the tide, and failing.

I am sadly accustomed to the disgusting sight of the British Library pointlessly fighting to keep its collections off-line, and have blogged about it passim.  But this can distract from the fact that other British state-run institutions are not so stupid.  Indeed I suspect that outside the narrow world of academic libraries, most of them are waking up and seeing opportunities.  The National Archives are allowing readers to bring in digital cameras.  The British Museum are seeing a way to make the public promote the national collection online.  And how many others, I wonder?

3 Responses to “Wikipedia and the British Museum”


  1. sm

    Thanks for this, Roger.

  2. Maureen

    I don’t really see how Wikipedia images hurt them. If you want a really good quality image for publication, obviously you go to them. If you’re not going for publication quality, nobody cares about asking, and there are plenty of snapshots out there.

    Anyway, it’s a bit ridiculous for government entities to pretend their stuff isn’t public domain, particularly when the thing is thousands of years old and has been “published” for hundreds of years. They can sell all kinds of nice T-shirts and giftshop books without pretending their stuff is under copyright.

  3. Roger Pearse

    This is where I find the BM approach looks right. They seem to understand that the public domain images won’t really impact their revenue flow — precisely because people willing to pay want better than that.

    I agree about government entities. What I find good is that more of them are eschewing that nonsense.