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On New Beginnings; or How Wikipedia Can Help us all Care for Public Art

Here is a guest post by Elizabeth Basile, an IUPUI Museum Studies Graduate student:

Six months ago, if you had asked me if I would ever write a Wikipedia article, blog or “tweet,” I would have chuckled.  Social networking is for self‐promotion and online dating.  Now, here I am, a graduate student in IUPUI’s Museum Studies  program writing this blog post for the IMA’s blog.
Zephyr by Steve Wooldridge; Photo by Lauren Tally

Zephyr by Steve Wooldridge; Photo by Lauren Tally

What changed my mind about creating content for the Web? This fall, I enrolled in two courses devoted to contemporary museum practice: Collections Care and Management (CC&M), co‐taught by IMA Objects & Variable Art Conservator Richard McCoy and IUPUI faculty member Jennifer Geigel Mikulay, and Museums and Technology, taught by IMA New Media Director Daniel Incandela. My first assignment for both classes was to create user accounts for Wikipedia, Twitter and Flickr, and then start using them.

In CC&M, our major project was to formalize the artworks on and around IUPUI’s campus into a real collection. In the end, we identified 40 pieces that we dubbed the “IUPUI Public Art Collection.”  Didn’t know that much art existed on IUPUI’s campus? Take a walk around sometime to see an incredibly diverse representation of styles, media and condition qualities.   You’ll also find four sculptures on loan from the IMA: East Gate/West Gate, Mega-Gem, Portrait of History, and Spaces with Iron.  You might remember when East Gate/West Gate was moved to IUPUI early this year:

Our methodology for identifying and documenting these artworks was derived from the very successful Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!) project that started in 1989 and was organized by Heritage Preservation: The National Institute of Conservation in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. A book published in 2005 by Indiana’s SOS! leader, Glory-June Greiff, was also an inspiration.

We set out to share our research and documentation using Wikipedia and Flickr. With that move, our academic project became a movement that we call Wikipedia Saves Public Art (WSPA). The primary goal of this project is to protect and preserve public art.

Conducted largely in the Internet cloud, WSPA has earned the attention of many other museum professionals and some very particular Wikipedians. By contextualizing our academic exercise in the Wikipedia universe and utilizing existing social networks, our project has rippled out through IUPUI and into the larger debate about how public art is cared for and managed. Our scholarly research efforts will become an active part of institutional memory rather than just being papers graded and forgotten. By publicly conducting our research and publishing our articles in Wikipedia, we opened our academic exercise up to intense scrutiny by our peers and Wikipedians committed to protecting its policies and procedures.

With such a large public undertaking, we were grateful to have help. Herron School of Art and Design Dean Valerie Eickmeier,  Art Strategies consultant Mindy Taylor Ross and Smithsonian American Art Museum Head of New Media Nancy Proctor visited our class and helped place our efforts in a larger campus, city, and national context. We also had help from IUPUI University Archivist Brenda Burk, Indiana University Curator of Campus Art Sherry Rouse, and the staff at IUPUI’s Campus Center and Herron Galleries.

So many people were willing to work with us because Wikipedia Saves Public Art isn’t just a one-time class project. It has larger goals. We seek to demonstrate the ways in which Wikipedia can be used as a content management system (CMS) so that anyone in the world can follow the WSPA model to care for and protect public art.

Like every other CMS available commercially, the needs of our project did not exactly match the capacities of current technology. Wikipedia is a complex structure with hard rules banning original research and copyright infringement, and it is also a forum premised on negotiation and debate. Student run‐ins with Wikipedia editors intent on enforcing the laws of the system ran from polite reminders to harsh {{speedydeletion}} of hours of work. Condition reports and images intended to provide a factual record of the current state of the collection were deemed out-of-bounds within Wikipedia. However, we were able to upload and tag images of IUPUI artworks using Flickr, and these images are linked to our Wikipedia articles.

Also, I’m proud to report that three of our articles made it on to the Main Page of Wikipedia, under the “Did you know section …” (Zephyr, Untitled (Jazz Musicians), and Peirce Geodetic Monument.)

Now that I’m on the other side of having to create and manage 40‐plus Wikipedia articles, 375 images on Flickr, 1 Facebook page and countless Twitter micro‐blogs specific to this project, I am invested in the longevity of the WSPA project and will continue to participate and follow the work of my peers.

A memorable moment of the project was when a WSPA article about a contemporary artwork in the form of a bucket of rocks suspended from a tree near the Herron School of Art and Design spurred the classic question “Is it art?”.  My professors and peers engaged in the debate across social network platforms including Wikipedia talk pages and Twitter.

Even though many of our articles went through dramatic revisions, the great majority of the critical information that we collected in our research (who made the art, where it is located, what it is made of and who is responsible for its care) did make it onto the most recognized encyclopedia in the online universe. At last check, even our previously deleted article came back to life (just try Googling “IUPUI Bucket of Rocks”). Now that makes me chuckle, and then I send links to my followers and friends to make them chuckle.
Finally, we’d like to make a call for help.  After much research, one of the artworks on campus still lacks fundamental information and verifiable sources.  Do you or does someone you know anything about Carey Chapmen’s artwork  on IUPUI’s campus?  Please let me know here on this blog, or go and fix it yourself within Wikipedia.  For now, it’s titled “Unknown (Tall Metal)“.

Unkown (Tall Metal) by Carey Chapman Photo by Chrissy Gregg

Unknown (Tall Metal) by Carey Chapman Photo by Chrissy Gregg

Filed under: Art, Conservation, Local, Musings, New Media

9 Responses to “On New Beginnings; or How Wikipedia Can Help us all Care for Public Art”

  • avatar

    Elizabeth, thanks for writing such a great summary of the project! Richard, teaching this class with you was a blast.

  • avatar
    Vanessa Muros Says:

    What a great synopsis of the project and your class! The WSPA project is a great example of how social media can be used for the documentation and care of public art as well as how wikis, Flickr and other sites can be used for courses focusing on preservation and art. I hope the WSPA project continues to be successful and grows to include public art across the US. I also hope it inspires many other similar projects.

  • avatar
    Susan Marshall Says:

    Great read! I had no idea there was so much to see. I’ll be
    taking the kids to check out what we’ve been missing.

  • avatar
    Richard McCoy Says:

    Nice work, Elizabeth!

    I wonder if anyone will help identify the Carey Chapman sculpture …

  • avatar

    Brilliant Post, Elizabeth and my congratulations to all the students on completing what I think will prove to be an important project in the preservation of cultural heritage materials. To Richard McCoy and Jenny Mikulay I can only say thank you for your creative, insightful and ground-breaking use of social- and new-media and the Wikipedia platform for information sharing and access. Thanks to you, I am enormously proud of the new directions my profession is taking in the networked 21st century! Cheers!

  • avatar
    Mabel Says:

    This was a wonderful article. Thank you for all the useful information.

  • avatar
    Emily Says:

    Congratulations on a successful project and the creation of a social media fan!

  • avatar
    Chrissy Gregg Says:

    Great blog post Elizabeth! It was so nice to see a summary of all our hard work. I shared your doubt going in about Wikipedia and Flickr but found the project truly worthwhile and valuable! I hope we find out information on Carey Chapman!

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