April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Wiki Software and Facilities for Museums

Jonathan P. Bowen, Museophile Limited, United Kingdom


The potential for the use of wikis by museums to aid collaboration between users is great. Wikis allow a virtual community to maintain and update information in a cooperative and convenient manner. This mini-workshop presents current wiki tools and facilities that are available on-line and suitable for use by museums for on-line collaboration and the building of virtual communities. The general concept of wikis is introduced, and the leading wiki on the Web, Wikipedia, is covered in a museum context. Major wiki software platforms are briefly mentioned, with pointers to further information. The use of external wiki facilities such as those provided by Wikia, a free community of wikis, is also presented. Alternative wiki facilities are briefly compared. A selection of existing examples of museum-related wikis is surveyed, including comments on their features in a wider context. Some lessons from experience of wikis so far are given and the possible future of wikis, especially with respect to museums, is considered.

Keywords: wiki, on-line collaboration, virtual community, Wikipedia, Web 2.0.

1. Background

Human beings have collaborated throughout their development from the earliest times. Without cooperation, the human race would never have survived; with cooperation, it has thrived. People are well adapted to mutual support through intelligent behaviour when needed, but are less well suited to a lone existence. This situation has continued from the days when cooperative hunting for food was required, through to the modern world of electronic communication, which has developed extremely rapidly over the past decade or two. Despite the pace of change, many people have adapted quickly and use this new environment to their advantage in order to interact with others who are geographically distributed, whether in a professional, social, educational or commercial context, in a productive manner for a particular aim (Zelenka, 2008). All these aspects require an adaptation to interaction within a completely new electronic medium supporting novel types of community in a virtual space that was almost unimaginable only a generation ago (Sairamesh et al., 2004). This development has occurred in many spheres, including the context of museums in particular (Bowen, 2002; Bowen et al., 2004) and research in general (Borda & Farnhill, 2006).

There have been some forward thinkers who can be identified with hindsight. For example, Marshall McLuhan coined the now-classic expressions, “the medium is the message” and “global village” in the 1960s, in the context of media in general, especially the various electronic media. These concepts have become even more apposite with the coming of the Internet, largely after McLuhan’s death in 1980. Early virtual communities, such as the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), started in 1985 and still continuing today, were embryonic examples of what has now become commonplace in the networked world. The phenomenon of the virtual community has been recorded by Rheingold (2000); he drew attention to this new form of societal engagement and the variety of collaborative interactions that are enabled via the Internet and, in particular, more recently through rapidly evolving Web-based facilities.

Web 2.0 technologies (O’Reilly, 2005; Solomon & Schrum, 2007), such as blogs, discussion forums, networking Web sites and wikis, have all enriched the interactivity and user-generated content on the Web. Blogs allow individuals to produce a diary of time-stamped items easily in (reverse) time order, often with additional associated comments from readers. Discussion forums allow a more democratic set of areas where different subjects can be discussed on a more equal basis. Networking Web sites, whether social or professional, allow individuals to build up a set of contacts and interact with them on-line, forming groups, sharing media such as photographs, etc. Wikis allow simple collaborative updating of Web pages to produce user-generated content. This is the main subject of this paper. We consider the current status of using wikis for on-line collaboration and communities in the context of museums. In particular, the paper surveys some selected examples of museum-related wikis that are available on-line.


Wikis ( provide a facility that makes writing to and updating a Web site very easy for a group of users. This idea of an easily updatable, as well as easily readable, Web was originally envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s inventor (Berners-Lee, 1999). Unfortunately, the original Web facilities did not provide easy editing facilities, access control, etc. Instead, an expert was required for these aspects.

Ward Cunningham devised the first wiki and launched it in March, 1995 (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001). Wikis were designed to enable a group of contributors to reach a common goal by editing interlinked Web pages in parallel via the Web itself. Wikis can be extremely successful when there really is a common objective with a large enough community to achieve this, and where a “champion” is available to ensure that the project reaches a critical mass. The on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia is the most famous (and successful) wiki, but a wiki can be used for any collaborative effort to produce any type of content, possibly in a private space not generally accessible on the Web.

A wiki is a specialized form of Content Management System (CMS). A wiki Web site presents a set of Web pages that can be easily created and/or edited via a Web-based interface by anyone who is allowed access (Ebersbach et al., 2006; Bowen, 2006). In this way, it can lead to one or more people’s building up a corpus of knowledge in a collection of interlinked Web pages (Thomas et al., 2007).

A number of sites offer wiki facilities free of charge (normally with some form of advertising for revenue) or at modest rates with the advertising suppressed. These include, for example:

Wikia is especially suited to more serious wiki use on the Web, provided the wiki’s aim involves general Web access by an on-line community. In the case of Wikia, a proposed wiki requires a raison d’être to be provided as part of a brief proposal which must be approved by Wikia personnel before the requested wiki is set up. For example, a Wikia site dedicated to museums exists (Bowen et al., 2007). The Wikia organization is funded through Google advertisements, and the underlying technology is WikiMedia, as used by Wikipedia; it is familiar to users. However, the editor uses a markup language rather than being WYSIWYG, making it more daunting for inexperienced users. By contrast, PBwiki and Wikispaces have a WYSIWYG editor and are very easy to set up, but are less powerful.

Once a wiki is set up, however, there can be any number of community and educational uses, such as the incremental accretion of knowledge by a group, or production of collaboratively edited material. In other collaborative contexts, wikis can be used to develop work plans and to facilitate meetings (e.g., to prepare the agenda beforehand and deliver the minutes afterwards). Increasingly, organizations such as companies are using private wikis to enable collaborative content generation among their members and employees with suitable levels of access control (Mader, 2008).

Educational wikis are probably nearest to the aims of most museums in producing a publicly accessible wiki resource (Mader, 2006). Consideration by researchers in this area has included wiki use in the classroom (Wang & Turner, 2004; Richardson, 2006), a use which may be relevant to school parties visiting museums. For example, a museum could make wiki facilities available for schools to undertake collaboration projects associated with its collections.


Wikis have enabled collaborative communities to develop rapidly once a critical level of usage has been reached. It is important to have a common goal that is supported by a good number of contributors. Jimmy Wales set up Wikipedia ( with the aim of allowing anyone to contribute encyclopedic articles. Previous attempts with much more control on the content had failed to develop beyond an embryonic stage. However, once the content of Wikipedia was sufficiently worthwhile to attract users and to enter the general public consciousness, its success was assured.

Although the vast majority of Wikipedia users simply read the content, often found via the Google search engine, which rates it highly due to the nature of its PageRank algorithm, a significant number of people are contributors (Nov, 2007). These individuals have assembled in virtual space to form their own rules as to how Wikipedia is organized, all using the standard wiki facilities of Wikipedia itself. Once registered, contributors are able to interact with each other via ‘talk’ and discussion pages, which themselves are simply further meta-resources available on Wikipedia for all to read (and update) if they wish. Contributors typically discover the user-generated rules as they gain confidence in updating pages on Wikipedia. Other more experienced users will typically correct novices if they attempt something out of line with generally accepted Wikipedia policy. Those with the required experience are able to participate by actually proposing new guidelines and updating those that already exist through mutual consensus.

Wikipedia provides an excellent set of general information on a wide range of topics. For example, there is a good overview and set of articles concerning wikis themselves (

Museums are also well covered in respect of many individual museums (, although the site is by no means comprehensive yet. All museums should use Wikipedia to provide reliable information about their institution if it does not exist already. Every serious museum should have a Wikipedia entry. Larger museums may have related entries, e.g., concerning their collections and even individual objects such as artworks of international note. Detailed practical information on how to create a Wikipedia entry for a museum is available elsewhere (Bowen & Angus, 2006). More general information on adding museum-related material in the context of the German version of Wikipedia also exists (Tunsch, 2007).

Wiki Software

While it is possible to set up wiki facilities very easily on-line, at no cost typically with some advertising, or at a modest fee without, it is also possible to install wiki software directly on a museum’s own Web site. This requires some technical expertise, but gives the museum much more control over the facilities available, access rights, etc. It also allows the wiki section to be much better integrated with the rest of the Web site, giving more uniform corporate branding, etc.

Much wiki software is available, both free and commercial ( Two of the leading powerful (and free) software systems for implementing a wiki are MediaWiki (; Choate, 2008) and TWiki (; Woods & Thoeny, 2007). MediaWiki is used by Wikipedia, so is familiar to many users. Twiki is particularly good for embedding applications if this is important for a particular implementation with interactive facilities in a groupware project. Other wiki software systems include Wikka Wiki (, a lightweight wiki.

Examples of Museum Wikis

There are not yet many examples of the use of wikis by museums and related organizations. In this section, we cover some existing examples that are accessible on the Web.

A general Museums Wiki has been established using the Wikia facility ( Wikia itself was started by Jimmy Wales, as a facility for a family of wikis on a wide variety of topics ( The Museums Wiki is intended for museum-related material that is too detailed for inclusion on a more general wiki site like Wikipedia. It was established in 2006 (Bowen et al., 2007) and has been developed by a number of contributors.

The Museum Virtual Worlds Wiki ( has been established as an on-line resource by the Exploratorium in San Francisco, USA. It is designed to be a virtual space for sharing among museum and other educational Web developers information and resources about on-line virtual worlds. The resource is powered by the Wikka wiki engine. It is necessary to register with the site in order to edit pages. This is a specialist professional wiki, not designed for members of the general public.

Figure 1

Fig 1: Museum Virtual Worlds Wiki (

The Newark Museum, the largest museum in New Jersey, USA, has its own wiki on its Web site (, based on MediaWiki technology. Any visitor can view the pages, but users must register to create or edit pages. The wiki includes resources associated with a contemporary photography and video art exhibition (September 19, 2007 - January 6, 2008), India: Public Places/Private Spaces (

Unfortunately, many of the pages on the wiki are not relevant to the museum. This illustrates the fact that it is worthwhile having a member of the museum who is willing to tidy up the content periodically to ensure relevance. Typically these pages have been used by people attempting to add links to other Web sites for promotional purposes, something that should be avoided on museum Web sites.

Figure 2

Fig 2: Newark Museum Wiki (

The Brooklyn Museum, New York City’s second largest art museum, has a wiki on the museum’s Web site, a resource associated with the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The objective of this project is to provide up-to-date academic information about the 1,038 women represented in The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago ( Scholars are invited to contribute to the entries in the Dinner Party Wiki by e-mailing the museum to gain access ( Because contributors to this wiki are vetted by the museum, the problem of inappropriate material is minimized. Taking this approach means that museum personnel need not monitor the content of the wiki so closely.

Figure 3

Fig 3: Brooklyn Museum The Dinner Party Wiki (

The Amersham Museum Wiki ( was set up in 2007 by Amersham Museum, a small local museum in southern England. The aim of the wiki is to allow those with knowledge of the history of the town of Amersham in Buckinghamshire, especially of its buildings, to contribute information and images. The underlying technology is PBwiki. Contributors to the wiki must have a password that is given to people associated with the museum. This limits the problem of vandalism of the wiki’s pages, but may also restrict participation by genuine potential contributors.

Figure 4

Fig 4: Amersham Museum Wiki (

The MN150 Wiki ( presents topics nominated for the MN150 exhibit at the Minnesota History Center, Minnesota, USA. The exhibit covers responses to the following question: “What person, place, thing, or event originating in Minnesota do you think has transformed our state, our country, or the world?” In the exhibit, 150 topics were covered, whereas all 2,700+ topics are listed on the wiki. The original nominations are not editable, but the rest of the page is for comments. The underlying technology is MediaWiki; this editing feature required some modification to MediaWiki itself.

Figure 5

Fig 5: MN150 Wiki (

The Thomas Jefferson Wiki ( is an on-line resource set up as a standalone MediaWiki-based wiki in 2007 by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. This foundation operates Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, the home of Thomas Jefferson, and now a museum. The main pages of the wiki are written by experts, but the discussion pages can be updated by any user who registers free on-line. This gives a good balance between authoritative information and public participation. What is more, it is obvious which is which, since discussion pages for user comments are clearly differentiated.

Figure 6

Fig 6: Thomas Jefferson Wiki (

Placeography ( is a wiki for sharing the history of and stories about buildings, farmsteads, houses, neighborhoods, public land, or any place with which the contributor has a personal connection. It uses MediaWiki software with semantic wiki and semantic forms extensions. The quality of entries is good in general, and items are also relevant to the aims of the wiki. Entries are typically, although not always, of buildings and locations that would probably not be deemed noteworthy enough for inclusion on Wikipedia, for example. A useful feature is the inclusion of a Google map showing the physical location; it is embedded within individual wiki pages. MediaWiki is the underlying technology, and its category feature is used to good effect at the bottom of individual pages, allowing navigation between related entries in a hierarchical manner, although some category links are missing.

Figure 7

Fig 7: Placeography Wiki (

Wikis not specifically dedicated to museums sometimes include museum information. For example, NeoPopRealism Journal is a Wetpaint-based wiki that includes information on the Brooklyn Museum of Art ( page/Brooklyn+Museum+of+Art). The AboutUs wiki includes a page on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (

This section only presents a selection of museum-related wikis. Further links may be found using Google (

Lessons for Wiki Use

While there are many success stories with the use of wikis, it is just as likely, if not more probable, for a wiki to be unsuccessful. There are some critical issues for a wiki to become established on a long-term basis.

  • Initially a wiki "champion" is required to provide the impetus to start the wiki. This champion must have enough technical expertise to install the wiki and enough social expertise to bring an initial community on board in order to start to populate the wiki with suitable information.
  • There must be a real reason for the existence of the wiki. Unless a critical mass of the community see the benefit of the wiki, it will not take off. Once this occurs, the role of the original champion becomes much less critical.
  • Within a museum setting there may be a variety of reasons and different target users for a wiki. It may be outward-facing and accessible on the Web for the public (e.g., for educational purposes), or inward-facing and only available on an intranet (or extranet across the Internet in a larger organization) for museum personnel (e.g., for a project such as the development of material for an exhibition). A wiki can be readable and writable for different sets of users. For example, a publicly readable wiki on a museum Web site can be set up to be writable only by a set of known experts in the field being presented.
  • A wiki is not expensive to install, so even if a particular wiki is not a success, there is not much risk involved financially. In addition, lessons can be learned for the next wiki-based project in a museum.
  • There is a risk of misuse of a wiki if it is made generally writable. This certainly does happen, but is not as large a problem as might be first envisaged. It is so easy to vandalize a wiki that there is not much incentive to do this in terms of demonstrating expertise. If vandalism does occur, it is important to have a person monitoring the wiki (often the original champion) to take corrective action quickly. This may involve rolling back the contents of the page to a previous version (easy to do with the history facility on many wiki systems such as MediaWiki), or banning the user if registered, or locking down a particular page to prevent updates for a period, or changing general access permissions, etc., depending on the severity and type of problem encountered.

    For example, on the Museums Wiki under Wikia, occasionally unscrupulous users have attempted to add advertising links to individual pages. This can occur especially on the topmost pages, so in this case these have been locked down to prevent general editing by any user. This is a good policy for important and reasonably static pages in a wiki in any case. It is also possible to “watch” individual wiki pages and be notified of changes to these pages. This is a good idea if any pages prove particularly problematic. Facilities are available to view a list of recently changed pages as well.

  • Consideration should be given to the type of users expected for a particular wiki. In general, wikis should be as accessible as possible, avoiding barriers due to disability, gender, etc. (Boiano et al., 2008). This is a general problem on the Web, and lack of control on a wiki could exasperate the issue.

In general, the benefits far outweigh the problems in a successful wiki. Provided there is at least one person with a good sense of ownership of a wiki, in general the content of a wiki can be kept in good shape so that it is useful for the community that it serves.


Wikis are a very general concept that can be applied usefully in a wide variety of Web-based collaborations. In any case, the various Web 2.0 concepts and approaches that are available are increasingly merging with each other. For example, the idea of a “Bliki” ( has been developed, combining the facilities of a blog and a wiki. On-line social and professional networking facilities could increasingly incorporate wiki technology, especially for specific projects. Ning ( provides support for creating specialized social networks, including blogging, discussion forum and media (photograph) sharing facilities. For example, the Global Museum Webzine has established a networking Web site for people interested in museums ( Such a Web site could be extended to allow wiki-based content development as well.

For the future, although Web 2.0 technologies are rapidly changing the Web landscape by providing enabling technologies for virtual communities, no doubt a Web 3.0 growth of new technologies will allow yet more interesting developments, perhaps with a better and more reliable semantic basis than is currently available (Hendler, 2008). This has the potential to improve significantly the handling of knowledge within a wiki.

Wikis are likely to be used increasingly as part of museum Web sites and also on museum intranets for internal use. Their success in a museum context depends on a number of factors, and it is hoped that this paper will help some museums to avoid common pitfalls and produce successful wikis to support their associated communities, both professional and public.


Thank you to Ann Borda, formerly at JISC, UK, for related collaboration. Thank you to Hsiang-Yi Liu of the National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan, for helpful suggestions regarding this paper.


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Cite as:

Bowen, J., Wiki Software and Facilities for Museums, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted