Friday 11 June 2010


At last year's National Digital Forum in Wellington I met Liam Wyatt, Vice President of Wikimedia Australia and a passionate advocate for better engagement between Wikipedia and cultural organisations.

Let's put all the arguments about the 'quality' of Wikipedia aside, because they bore me. Wikipedia is not just one of the world's most popular research and vague-question-answering tools - it's a vital way, if you're a collecting or 'memory' institution, to share your collections and knowledge, and to attract visitors back to your own websites.

Liam popped up on my radar yesterday with this article in the New York Times, which describes his role as the British Museum's first Wikipedian in residence. Liam is (without pay) spending 5 weeks at the museum, building the relationship between it and Wikipedia. Here's a snippet from the article that gives one reason why this may be of value:

“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.”

Liam's just started blogging about his residency. As you'll see from that first post, full of bullet points and graphs, it's not something he's taking at all lightly. And fair enough. There are some (kept quite quiet) horror stories out there about engagements between Wikipedians and museum staffers, and Liam's doing his best to make something 'mutually beneficial, sustainable and replicable'.

In another recent example of embedding, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG is blogging from the Canadian Centre for Architecture for two months as part of their Visiting Scholars programme.

I visited the CCA, in Montreal, a few years ago. It was beautiful - the building, the shows, the snow, the light - and the archives were extraordinary. As Manaugh writes:

I will be writing about many of the items in their ambitious collection—films, models, photographs, manuscripts, architectural tools, and more—and publishing the results both here and on the CCA website.

There is a truly mind-boggling amount of material to explore up there, from the archives of Gordon Matta-Clark and Cedric Price to a collection of antique drawing instruments and souvenir models, John Hejduk's Bovisa sketches, photographic plates from English India, Canadian fire insurance maps, speculative proposals for river lighthouses, massive archives of stage set designs and dramatic scenography, and a beautiful manuscript copy of the Plan of St. Petersburg, among far, far more than I could possibly mention in one post. Konstantin Melnikov. Aldo Rossi. Three airports by Frank Lloyd Wright. Travel sketches by Louis Kahn.

Manaugh is framing this project up as a trial of the notion of Bloggers in Residence:

... there are architectural and design archives all over the world, full of astonishing things, but these same collections are often unexplored in their entirety, even by members of the institutions that have collected them. Even more commonly, many of these global collections are open only to scholars who stop by once every five or six years—if that often—to write niche monographs or academic publications about specific aspects of an archive's contents.

But what if you could install an architecture blogger—or a film blogger, a food blogger, an archaeology blogger, a fiction blogger—in an overlooked archive somewhere, anywhere in the world, and thus help to reveal those items to the general public?
I think it's a great idea. Professional and academic researchers use collections all the time for their projects, but I'd argue that whatever their output is, it's more likely to be written for their own objectives/purposes than to engage an audience. Whereas a blogger who sees their role as sharing stuff and getting people excited about it falls more into the traditional areas of outreach - a floor talk that you don't have to stand up through, that's accessible around the world at any time. And (you knew they'd be a segue somewhere, right?) done with sufficient authority, material for lots and lots of lovely Wikipedia links.

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