April 11-14, 2007
San Francisco, California

A Museums Wiki

Jonathan P. Bowen, Museophile Limited, Eleanor Lisney, Coventry University, and Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, Antenna Audio Ltd, United Kingdom and Isabel Bernal,, Italy


Wikipedia is suitable, indeed recommended, for encyclopedic entries on all museums. However, further more extended use by museums for their own purposes is not encouraged or appropriate in general. If this is required, it is possible for a museum to set up its own wiki with suitable technical support. Alternatively, if support is not available, it is possible to use other external wiki facilities. A museums wiki has been set up expressly for this purpose and other experiments concerning museum-related information ( Museums and people interested in museums are encouraged to add to this wiki and promote community use of it. This demonstration will present this wiki facility and its contents, including its inter-relationship with Wikipedia, covering what has been achieved so far and also the potential for the future. We expect this wiki to be available for continuing use by museums, including Museums and the Web conference attendees, for the foreseeable future.

Keywords: wiki, Wikia, virtual community, collaboration, museum information, Web


Wiki technology is not new in Web terms, the first having been introduced in 1995, but it is now gaining increasing acceptance as a useful tool for on-line collaboration (Bowen, 2006). However, it may not be particularly easy for the novice user both in terms of the technical facilities and understanding the process of developing a successful wiki. Wikis are a technology that allow and encourage collaboration on-line. There are competing technologies such as blogs and the rather older and more widely used e-mail (Bristow, 2005; Kelley, 2005; Richardson, 2006). Wikis, with their direct Web interface, work well when a group of people with a critical mass wish to achieve some collaborative purpose concerning information on-line, without geographical considerations apart from access to the Internet. They are increasingly used on company intranets and extranets for intra-company collaboration. Their use in the public sector (e.g., libraries, education, government, etc.) has also been considered (Guy, 2005).

Currently there is not much public use of wikis by museums., which describes itself as a “nonprofit on-line museum of environmental art”, provides a wiki on-line ( The Kew Bridge Steam Museum in London ( has a wiki for use by staff and volunteers to enable research collaboration. However, to the knowledge of the authors, there are still no widely used public museum-based resources using wiki technology on-line.

Wikipedia ( has been the first extremely successful wiki to enter the public consciousness. It is a general encyclopedia that now rivals even the likes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica ( A study by the leading scientific journal Nature indicated that the quality of selected important scientific entries was not dissimilar when Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica were compared in detail (Giles, 2005). Of course Encyclopaedia Britannica contested the study (Nature, 2006), even though it was shown to provide slightly better quality information, but not outstandingly so.

Perhaps Wikipedia’s greatest strength (and some think its significant weakness), especially compared to a traditional encyclopedia such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is that it can be updated by anybody at any time. Thus both experts and vandals can update entries at will. However, Wikipedia has now reached such a critical mass of users (both readers and writers), that inappropriate entries and changes to entries are picked up by both “Wikipedians” and automated robot software that scans changed Wikipedia entries with suitable heuristics for detecting many of the typical changes made by people who do not have the public good at heart in their editing. This is much like real life where people drop litter, but others are altruistically willing to pick it up subsequently. The Wikipedia community is now sufficiently large that the process is very fast (literally minutes) for important entries.

Wikipedia is an excellent resource for museums, both for (at least initial) research and for publicity concerning the museum itself. A paper in Museums and the Web 2006 (Bowen & Angus 2006) explained in practical detail how museums can create their own entries on Wikipedia. Indeed, every real museum is deserving of a Wikipedia entry, and it is highly recommended that museum curators either create an entry for their museum (using an independent rather than marketing tone, since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia rather than a commercial tool), or correct and add to any existing entry. This should ideally be done by someone with a good knowledge of the museum rather than a member of the marketing department, unless the latter is able to take a very independent and non-promotional view of the entry. For example, information on the history of the museum is much more appropriate than details of the latest temporary exhibitions, which can be provided on the museum’s own Web site, with a suitable link from the Wikipedia entry if desired.

Since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia documenting “notable” information, it can only include limited information on any given museum. For very large museums of international repute, it may be appropriate to have entries for individual items in the collection (e.g., important paintings). However, at some level, items will be deemed inappropriate by other members of the Wikipedia community and could be suggested for deletion. This is a situation best avoided by professional museums.

To allow museums more free rein in creating wiki entries, a wiki dedicated particularly for museums and related issues has been established using the Wikia facility ( This was initially started as Wikicities in 2004 and is provided as a free service (supported by reasonably discrete Google advertisements) for communities with a wide enough remit to be considered worthwhile by the managers of Wikia. A proposal has to be submitted and accepted before a new Wikia wiki is established, and it is not intended for personal wikis of limited appeal. For that, there are other facilities such as PBwiki ( where a wiki can very quickly be established by anyone in a few minutes (e.g., see The basic facilities of PBwiki are free, but to expand further there is a (not unreasonable) monthly charge.

A Museums Wiki has been accepted by Wikia and was established in 2006 ( So far this has been used for experimental purposes, but museums are encouraged to use it for any museum-related entries that they would like to create. This may be especially appropriate if the material is not suitable for Wikipedia (e.g., if it is too detailed or marketing-oriented). The issue of notability and marketing is not applicable on the Museums Wiki. The main criterion for acceptability applicable on this wiki is that the material is museum-related. Of course the site is still an open wiki like Wikipedia, so no one person has overall control of the material. Any entry could be updated by others. Thus it is mainly useful where collaboration is being actively encouraged (e.g., by on-line museum visitors).

Figure 1

Fig 1: A screenshot of the main page of the Museums Wiki (

For more control, a museum could set up its own wiki on its own Web site. This is reasonably easy to do with suitable technical support (i.e., probably less than a day’s work for anyone with reasonable technical knowledge). There are various wiki software systems available, many free. Perhaps the leading one is MediaWiki (, as used by Wikipedia. This has the advantage that anyone familiar with Wikipedia will find it easy to use, particularly with regard to the editing and markup facilities.


In this section we present some experiences of using the Museums Wiki from the point of view of novice wiki users, in the hope that this will help other museum professionals in their first use of a wiki.

The following may be useful information before starting on a wiki:

A wiki is certainly all that, but it takes time to assimilate the process and the learning curve needed to collaborate effectively.

With respect to collaboration on a wiki, the following is recommended:

Making contributions to a wiki site may not be as straightforward as you may think if you are a beginner.  Here is a list of tips that may help other museum professionals who are wiki beginners at enriching a wiki site. They relate to the structure of the Museums Wiki Web site and use it for  appropriate examples.


In conclusion, there is a choice of wiki facilities available to museums, depending on the goal required. For general information on a museum, an entry on Wikipedia is highly recommended (Bowen & Angus 2006). For a more expansive set of entries than is suitable for Wikipedia, the Museums Wiki covered in this paper may be suitable ( If a museum requires more control over wiki entries (both for reading and writing), a wiki facility on its own Web site (e.g., using MediaWiki software – may be the most appropriate solution. This may work well in association with a special exhibition where public participation is encouraged, or for in-house projects where collaboration is being encouraged, especially among a geographically separated team (e.g., including museum personnel and a company).

For a successful wiki, a critical mass of users is need; otherwise it will simply stagnate. It is also important to have one or two people responsible for overseeing the wiki, ensuring entries are appropriate, and editing them when not, perhaps with a warning to the user concerned in more extreme cases. For some, this loss of control is a worry when wikis are used. For others, this is part of the excitement, allowing the unexpected to become possible. In any case, there are ways to control wiki use if necessary (e.g., administrators can lock pages from being changed and ban particular IP addresses from making updates). Normally the problem is encouraging worthwhile use rather than discouraging inappropriate use. The latter can easily be corrected, anyway, with suitable monitoring.

For the future, it would be interesting to have more studies on the actual use of wikis. Successful wikis like Wikipedia have a large virtual community with conventions concerning the running of the wiki (e.g., the removal of unsuitable pages) that have grown up with time. The background of such communities is largely unknown and most members have never met each other. Studies in a museum context (Beler et al., 2004) and with respect to different backgrounds such as gender (Boiano et al., 2006; Gunn et al., 2006), etc., would be worthwhile.

Currently, supporting literature on wikis, especially books, is relatively lacking. See, for example, Ebersbach et al. (2006). More are due to appear, both at a personal (Woods, 2007) and professional (Choate, 2007) level. Copyright is an issue with any material placed on-line (Numerico & Bowen, 2006), and it is recommended that copyrighted material be avoided in public wikis in general. Interlinking with Wikipedia is highly recommended where appropriate since Wikipedia is highly rated by Google and other search engines. This will help to improve the search engine ranking of the wiki facility and the museum Web site itself if suitably interlinked (Numerico et al., 2005).

In summary, all museum professionals engaged in using and exploiting on-line technology are encouraged to try wiki collaboration. It should not be expected that the benefits are immediately apparent. Like most good things, it takes a while to learn and adapt to the wiki environment and culture, but once that is done, the less obvious benefits become apparent. In particular, readers are very much encouraged to experiment with the Museums Wiki. Provided material added is museum-related, the site is likely to be further improved and developed by other wiki users (not least by authors of this paper!).


Jonathan Bowen is an Emeritus Professor and Silvia Filippini-Fantoni is a Visiting Research Fellow at London South Bank University. The Wikia facility was founded by Angela Beesley and Jimmy Wales (who also co-founded Wikipedia), and is provided free of charge by Wikia, Inc.


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Cite as:

Bowen, J., et al., A Museums Wikii, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007 Consulted

Editorial Note