April 15-18, 2009
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Museums & Wikis: Two Case Studies

Rhiannon Looseley, Museum of London, and Frankie Roberto, Rattle, United Kingdom


The open editing framework that wikis enable is an excellent way for museums to engage audiences on-line: wikis allow collaboration, and museums seek public participation and a venue for debate. The Science Museum Object Wiki and The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) Wiki were both launched separately by the authors of this paper in early 2008. Although they use similar wiki software, they differ in their aims and objectives, in their methods of engaging their audiences, and in the types of audience behaviour that have arisen. This paper introduces and evaluates both wikis. Using them as examples, it goes on to demonstrate the benefits of wikis for museums, as well as the challenges. Understanding the reasons behind the reticence on the part of certain audiences to participate, the authors suggest the 'problem' may lie in the perceived authority of the museum itself.

Keywords: wiki, user-generated content, audience engagement, Science Museum, The British Postal Museum & Archive


The Science Museum Object Wiki and The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) Wiki both launched in 2008 and are among a very small number of wiki initiatives from UK museums and heritage organisations. At the time of writing this paper, the BPMA Wiki is not available (it should be reinstated soon at The authors of this paper were responsible, separately, for the launch of both wikis, which differ in their aims and objectives, in their methods of engaging their audiences and in the types of audience behaviour that have arisen. Both authors have now moved on to different roles at different organisations, but in this paper, we set out to use our shared experiences of launching museum wikis as case studies for a discussion of the potential uses of wikis in museums and the challenges that arise.

Wikipedia, the most famous example of a public wiki, includes the following explanation of what a wiki is:

A wiki is a page or collection of Web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content, using a simplified markup language. Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites. (Wikipedia, 2009)

Aside from Wikipedia, wikis are being used in a variety of contexts. In the private sector they are often used for internal collaboration and communication. Companies such as Nokia, Motorola and Yahoo all use wikis for sharing ideas, managing projects, and collaborating across geographically-distant locations. In the public sector, some wikis have been used to engage the public, aiming to allow contributors to work together to create a useful resource. Barack Obama used a wiki in his election campaign, encouraging visitors to the site to post links to RSS feeds and to news and videos about him, and generally interact with each other ( Wikis have also been tried in teaching (Educause, 2005). In museums and other heritage organisations, however, there has still been a relatively low take-up of wiki technology (Bowen, 2008). In his 2008 paper, Bowen explored some exceptions which include The Brooklyn Museum Wiki (, Amersham Museum Wiki (, Thomas Jefferson Wiki (, MN150 Wiki (, and the Museums Virtual World Wiki (

How Each Wiki Began

Both the BPMA Wiki and the Object Wiki began as the idea of one person in each institution. The BPMA Wiki was the vision of the BPMA Access Manager in 2005. The museum’s management were quickly won over by his assessment of the key advantages to a small organisation that engaging audiences in an innovative way on-line could provide. The Object Wiki was set up through a desire to trial an innovative means of audience engagement. It was originally linked to an exhibition titled 'Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain' which, for various reasons, had greater flexibility than usual to experiment with new technologies. The BPMA similarly felt able to experiment with a technology that had been relatively untried in museums. As a small and relatively young organisation, it felt able to take a risk in a way that older and more established traditional museums might not.

Despite its experimental nature, the BPMA Wiki started out with two clear objectives. The first was to harness the immense knowledge of BPMA's audiences and hence improve access to the BPMA's collections and the stories they tell. The second, linked to this, was to provide as much of a museum/archive experience on-line as possible. BPMA does not at present have its own exhibition space. Whilst the Archive Search Room provides full access to archive material for researchers, BPMA relies on a very small philatelic area in the Search Room and on touring and external exhibitions to provide access to its museum collection. Its on-line presence is therefore very important. The wiki contains a page, written in its early stages, entitled 'why we created the BPMA Wiki'. The page draws on definitions of 'museum' and 'archive' and highlights words like 'public, social environments', 'participatory spaces' and 'places for debate' to demonstrate that a wiki is an ideal forum for providing a museum and archive experience on-line.

The Access Manager was attracted to the idea of making a bold move, and also by the notion of an independent community working together to share hitherto unseen knowledge. He saw the wiki as a chance to be innovative and to give Web audiences the freedom to shape the BPMA's service. It was hoped that the buzz created by the wiki would help BPMA 'punch above its own weight'. It would be, not a postal Wikipedia, but “a general UGC [user-generated content] tool that could in time be part of school or community learning projects.” (Personal correspondence, 2008)

The Object Wiki, on the other hand, had no defined objectives, but came about as a result of a desire to experiment with wikis as a form of audience interaction. The connection with the Dan Dare exhibition was suggested as there was room within that project for some trials and because many of the objects had nostalgic appeal. The wiki was put together fairly quickly, with a simple template for objects. Initially around one hundred pages were created, one for each of the objects in the exhibition. The wiki was launched at the same time as the exhibition, and terminals within the gallery space made it possible for people to use it while they visited the exhibition.

Using Wikis to Engage Audiences

The Access Manager left the BPMA before the wiki was ready to launch, and this was where Rhiannon stepped in. While it was hoped that eventually the wiki would be whatever its audiences wanted it to be, it was felt that a blank wiki would be a daunting introduction for many. The BPMA therefore came up with a number of pages, adding more as time went on, that engaged users in different ways. Some pages aimed to gather ‘postal memories’, while others asked for more ‘factual’ information. The Philatelic Glossary offered users the opportunity to enhance an existing glossary. It was hoped that users would improve existing definitions and add new ones. The Postal History page and the Family History page encouraged contributions from researchers in The Royal Mail Archive Search Room to share what they had uncovered to help future researchers. Lastly, a Letterbox Images page invited people to upload images of letter boxes that they found of interest. With this range of opportunities to engage with the BPMA, it was hoped that we could attract a variety of different audiences. In the Philatelic Glossary and the Postal History pages, we hoped that our very knowledgeable, specialist audiences would enhance the BPMA's Web site as a resource by sharing the fruits of their work. With pages such as Wartime Letters, we aimed to engage a more general and potentially new audience, thus expanding BPMA's audiences in new directions. The BPMA Wiki was active for around nine months before Rhiannon left the BPMA, and those months were spent experimenting with these different forms of audience engagement and observing which worked best.

The Science Museum Object Wiki, on a different tack, began with a single idea of the kind of information it wanted from its users. Based on a collection of objects on display in the Dan Dare exhibition, it hoped to engage users with these objects, encouraging them to add their personal memories and experiences of using the objects, and to enhance the information available about them. The wiki was initially 'seeded' with a very minimal amount of content. A page was created for each of the objects on display, with an introductory paragraph (mostly re-used from the object label in the exhibition), a very brief 'how it works' section, and an empty section for 'Memories'. In addition, an 'infobox' on the right hand side of the page contained an image of the object, and some basic facts about it: its manufacturer, the year(s) it was made, and the place it was made. If any of these bits of information weren't available, they were left as '(unknown)'.

Within these pages, there were two direct 'calls-to-action'. The first was a box placed in the 'How it works' section, which said 'Please help improve this section by expanding it' - the aim of this was to encourage users to refine and extend the description of how each of the objects functioned. For some objects, where this wasn't really very relevant (e.g. a chair), this section was dropped. The second call-to-action was worded as 'Do you remember this <object name>? Add your memories'. When the wiki was launched, nearly all these sections were blank, with the exception of a few personal stories which had been collected in the process of putting the exhibition together. These two explicit calls-to-action are quite different from one another, eliciting very different types of engagement. The first encourages people to edit text already present, and to write in the third person, whereas the second invites people to add original content in the first person. This turned out to be quite a crucial distinction, as the two modes of participation require people to think in quite different ways.

Selecting Wiki Software

Although there were some similarities in the way that they behaved, the two wikis use very different software. The software isn't the most important thing about wikis - which are purely a means of interaction - but the choice of software can have an impact on the user experience and the sustainability of a wiki. The BPMA Wiki uses Zwiki. It allows for a very simple user interface where users do not have to know any markup language to contribute. It was a conscious decision on the part of the BPMA to make editing the wiki as simple and fast as possible; there is no system for users to log in as this was seen as a potential barrier. The BPMA Wiki is part of the BPMA Web site and is very clearly branded with the BPMA logo and colours.

The Science Museum Object Wiki uses MediaWiki. This is one of the most popular and well-supported platforms, mainly because it has been developed to support the Wikimedia projects, including Wikipedia - which receives a huge amount of traffic and many contributions. One of the side effects of using this platform is that, by default, the resulting wiki will look a lot like Wikipedia and other projects. This may be a factor in helping to communicate that the Web site is a wiki, and in encouraging people already familiar with Wikipedia to contribute. On the downside, the similarity may lead to some confusion amongst users, with little to differentiate the sites and not much in the way of institutional branding. The Science Museum also opted to encourage its users to create an account and login, although they were not obliged to do so, before editing.

Take Up

It is interesting to compare the routes through which users came to each wiki. The Object Wiki had some advantages in being associated with a new temporary exhibition. Three Internet kiosks on the gallery were set up with access to the wiki, and the wiki was linked to from pages about the exhibition on the main Science Museum Web site ( That said, the wiki wasn't promoted through any of the press and media coverage of the exhibition. Whilst there was an initial spike of Web traffic around the opening of the associated exhibition, this traffic didn't convert well into a huge number of edits to the wiki. In fact, once the press attention in the exhibition died down, it soon became apparent that the vast majority of contributions to the wiki from members of the public would originate via Google searches.

The BPMA Wiki, as part of the BPMA Web site, could, arguably, have been easier to stumble across by the organisation's existing audience since it featured in the top level navigation of the site. The statistics package used by the BPMA at that time did not give detailed information about where users to particular sections were coming from, and so it is difficult to be certain how many users came through Google. Circumstantial evidence, however, suggests that most users came across the BPMA Wiki as a direct result of promotion rather than through Google. A press release about the philatelic glossary was sent to the philatelic press (resulting in some coverage), and also to philatelic societies and interested individuals. The 'Wartime letters' page was promoted through some organisations that deal with families of acting service personnel. The BPMA Web site and the newsletter were also used as a general means of publicising the wiki. On each of these occasions, an obvious increase in interest occurred on the relevant pages.

These different routes to both wikis may well be significant. People who are searching for a specific search term - for instance, 'twin tub washing machine' - are far more likely to have some knowledge or experience which they could contribute about that object. Furthermore, people searching on Google can be assumed to have a certain degree of confidence and familiarity with Web technology. Apart from the ‘Wartime Letters’ page, which received a significant amount of attention as a result of publicity on an on-line forum for Royal Marines and their families, it is of note that all other promotion for the BPMA Wiki was off-line.

It is interesting, therefore, that the Wartime Letters page was one of the most edited pages on the wiki. Edits of all pages trickled through fairly constantly in the first few months after launching. The pages prompting the sharing of memories seemed more popular in general terms than the more 'factual' pages. On the Object Wiki, within the first six months of the project, the number of significant public contributions (something more than just correcting a typo) was averaging about one per day. This may not seem a lot, but cumulatively soon added up. The public contributions weren't, however, divided evenly among the object pages. Rather, there were a few that received a large number of edits, 50 or so which got a trickle of interest, and about 30 which weren't edited at all. The most popular objects were predictably the ones that are most famous, or were most widely used, such as the 'Goblin Teasmade' ( and the Hillman Imp Car (

The Object Wiki also enjoyed a significant take up by internal curatorial staff. Whilst there was a single member of the curatorial team officially assigned to the wiki, interest in the project slowly spread through the team, and there were soon half a dozen curators who had registered for an account and had contributed with some edits. The BPMA Wiki provided little evidence in the early months of return visits. The Object Wiki had the advantage that users were able (although not obliged) to create accounts through which their edits could be tracked and attributed. This meant that we were initially able to see that nearly all users who registered only contributed edits during one 'visit' to the Web site - even if that visit lasted several hours and included dozens of individual edits.

Users who registered with the Object Wiki were also invited to enter their e-mail address, however, and this gave rise to the possibility of being able to make direct contact with them. Each user who registers gets a 'user page' on the wiki (separated from the object pages by way of a 'namespace'). Alongside these user pages are 'user talk pages’ which can be used to leave public messages for the attention of other users. Because the wiki was set up to notify users by e-mail when new messages were left on their ‘user talk page’, this feature could be used to thank users for their contribution, and to ask follow-up questions. This had a big effect in bringing users back to the Web site, and so soon became a regular practise for the staff members managing the wiki. Aware that this kind of interaction was impossible under the current set-up of the BPMA Wiki, Rhiannon experimented with forming a Google group to try to foster a community of BPMA Wiki users. In the few months when this was piloted, however, it had little success.

Internally both wikis were viewed as a success. The Science Museum felt that they had obtained information about the objects that they would not otherwise have obtained, and the BPMA enjoyed a certain degree of attention within the UK Museum sector for having tried something new and different. At the Science Museum particularly, staff got behind the wiki and uploaded images of their favourite objects. It gave them an easy way to talk about objects without having to go through the usual, more formal channels.

Types of Audience Behaviour

It is interesting to compare how audiences behaved on the two wikis. Users of both sites appear to have been reticent about editing existing information. Visitors to the Object Wiki would sometimes fill information into object fields marked 'unknown', and occasionally correct information that was wrong. It was particularly noticeable on the BPMA Wiki Philatelic Glossary page, however, that visitors would happily add new entries, but apart from one instance of very small corrections of punctuation, no-one edited an existing entry. On both wikis, the opportunity to share memories seemed to be the most popular form of interaction. Since this often leads to single consecutive contributions rather than co-authoring, one could question whether a wiki was the best means of harnessing these memories.

It is important to note the different types of audience when considering their different behaviour. The BPMA Wiki relied, to a large extent, on a specialist audience. Anecdotal observations of and conversations with representatives of this audience demonstrated a particular demographic, mostly retired. Many are serious researchers and as such, are concerned about stories of the unreliability of resources like Wikipedia. Added to this, some are less familiar with technology than others. The fact that the Object Wiki received much more interest through Google suggests less specialist users who were, nevertheless more targeted to each particular object. The way the Object Wiki was set up meant that it was possible to make a short contribution, adding as little as a few words; this was perhaps less daunting. BPMA Wiki 'seeds' often suggested that people created new pages, and this perhaps seemed like a more onerous task. It could also be one reason why people often appeared to paste material that had been used elsewhere (as the code showed that it had Microsoft Word editing within it).


Many of the challenges that these wikis faced have already been covered in this paper. One key challenge worth discussing here is the potential for abuse. The BPMA Wiki did not suffer any instances of deliberate misuse. This may partly have been because of its lower take up, but also perhaps because it did not represent a desirable enough target for deliberate misuse. The Object Wiki did receive a steady trickle of inappropriate edits, ranging from complete nonsense to mildly offensive comments. However, most of these originated from people editing at the on-gallery kiosks, and were often observed to be groups of young children who would each sit at the terminals and send each other 'messages' by editing the homepage of the wiki. There was even a message posted to the wiki from one child saying "I'm lost".

Dealing with this problem was tricky, as locking down the kiosks so that visitors to the exhibition could only read the wiki and not contribute was seen as against the spirit of the wiki; it would prevent people from immediately adding their memories of the objects in front of them. In order to strike a balance between discouraging inappropriate edits and yet still encouraging genuine contributions, the wiki was adjusted so that users sitting at the kiosks could only contribute if they registered first. This didn't add much of a barrier (you don't even need to check your e-mail as part of the registration process), but it proved enough of a hurdle to put off the majority of the nonsense edits.

Although it avoided this kind of mischievous misuse, the open nature of the BPMA Wiki did become more of an issue when spambots began to attack. This forced the BPMA to unpublish the wiki for long periods when it could not be guaranteed that someone could spot and revert the edits immediately. The BPMA now plans to install a captcha before it is republished in order to prevent these attacks.

Lessons Learned

It is difficult to define what makes a wiki successful. You could argue that to be truly successful, user-generated content needs to benefit three distinct audiences: the users who contribute content, the users who read/consume the content, and the organisation that hosts it. Bowen argued in 2007 that a successful wiki must have a critical mass of contributors in order to survive (Bowen, 2007). To an extent, it is important to allow a wiki to run for a certain amount of time before making any judgement over its relative 'success', and it is felt at this stage that neither of these wikis has been around long enough. This is particularly true of the BPMA Wiki which, at the time of writing this paper, has been unavailable since September 2008, and therefore had only nine months of experience on which to judge it.

From the relatively short lifespan of both wikis, however, it has been possible to draw a number of conclusions about what went well and what could have been done differently. It has been suggested that wikis should only be considered if you can be sure of a willing, confident and knowledgeable audience to contribute (this suggestion originally featured on a Wikia forum called 'Improving your wiki' in March 2008. The forum has since moved to; as it is a wiki, the content may now have changed). Equally, one could argue that you should be clear from the outset why it is that you are using a wiki rather than some other form of user-generated content.

The first of these points seems to be supported by the experience of the BPMA Wiki, which had the knowledgeable audience, but sometimes struggled with their confidence and willingness. The Object Wiki, on the other hand, could not have guaranteed an audience at the start of the project, and yet can be considered to have had a successful first year. On the second point, one might consider the fact that both wikis found it easier to elicit first-person comment than collectively-authored work - a reason for considering another kind of user-generated content. However, the Object Wiki did also elicit some correction of wrong information or insertion of detail into an 'unknown' field; this suggests that there is value in allowing editing to be performed on existing text. The wiki format also allows a degree of flexibility in allowing different forms of contribution which other platforms might not have - in effect, the nature of the public's engagement can change and evolve over time, as well as the content itself.

It seems clear that the Object Wiki had a number of advantages over the BPMA Wiki, and these can be borne in mind when considering future projects. The more general appeal of the subject matter, the fact that it was possible to contribute by adding small pieces of information, and the fact that the site was not heavily branded as a Science Museum project could all have contributed to the higher number of edits on the Science Museum site. This last point also opens up interesting questions about authority. Could the reason that there was very little editing of existing entries on the Philatelic Glossary be because the glossary is presented on the BPMA Web site, leading users to see it as 'fact'? Research has shown that the public has an inherent trust in museums' authority and the 'truth' of what they say (Omnibus Survey, 2004). Could it be that this acts as a barrier preventing users from being able to see ways of improving this information? Might the democratic feel of Wikipedia, which gives 'ordinary people' the confidence that their knowledge is valid, cease to exist when a wiki is part of the Web site of an authoritative organisation? In addition, the notion that a museum is asking the public's help in creating a resource may be anathema to those who have traditionally seen it as an authority. It is worth considering, therefore, whether a wiki that is separate from an organisation's main Web site may be more likely to attract more edits.

It also seems clear that the implications of and resources required for a wiki project should be carefully considered before a project is undertaken. We suggest that for a specialist subject like postal history, more resources and consideration should be given to promotion of the project. Both in this context and even with a more general topic, it may also be worth piloting a wiki as part of a face-to-face project with an interested community. Both authors had intended to try this before they left their projects. Museums considering wiki projects should also be clear before they start on a rough idea of what they intend to achieve. The goal may get honed or even radically changed through the course of a project, but it helps to start out with some preconceptions, even if they are proved false.

Museums should also consider whether or not they have access to the technical knowledge and ability to make ongoing changes and adjustments to the technical set up of a wiki, as these will inevitably be required in order to respond to the needs of the project and its community. The open nature of wikis means that they are frequently attacked by automated scripts attempting to insert spam content. Whilst there are sophisticated technical measures available to protect against these attacks - particularly for better known and actively developed platforms like MediaWiki - the organisation needs to be able to keep up with these ongoing developments.

Consideration should also certainly be given to how much a wiki will be moderated, and how frequently. Both wikis suffered to some degree from 'vandalism' and nonsense edits which needed to be reversed. Whilst these contributions do not take long to undo, it is necessary to monitor a wiki at least daily in order to avoid a build-up of these edits. This might seem like quite a commitment for a member of staff to make; however, we found that this work wasn't really a chore - rather, checking the wiki for new contributions could (and perhaps should) become a bit addictive, as the joy of reading new contributions is quite compelling!

When looking to attract new users to a wiki, it is worth considering where knowledgeable groups of individuals already spend time on-line. As the example with the Royal Marines forum demonstrated, this ensures a Web-confident as well as knowledgeable audience.

The Future of Museum Wikis

To conclude this paper, it is worth reflecting on where museums may go with wikis into the future. We feel that our experiences have demonstrated some valuable uses to which museums can put wikis and believe that further experimentation will be extremely valuable for the sector.

One interesting area to explore further is the relationship between museum wikis and Wikipedia. In some ways, Wikipedia has become a de-facto wiki repository for all factual information, from breaking news to historical events to the names of each of the Pokemon characters ( People have often asked us whether or not museums would be better off contributing their factual knowledge to Wikipedia, and encouraging users to add their contributions there. Indeed, organisations like the BBC are beginning to use this very philosophy; for example, by using discography data from MusicBrainz and music artist biographies from Wikipedia. In their words, they are using 'the Web as a CMS' (Scott, 2009).

One of the problems that museums may face when adopting such a practice is that in most cases, museum objects are unlikely to already have their own Wikipedia page, and wouldn't meet Wikipedia's 'notability criterion' ( even if a page were created, so would face being deleted. In effect, museum objects are often too far down the 'long tail', even for Wikipedia (which is mainly long tail content).

Something museums should do when considering developing a wiki about their museum's objects, though, is to make the content as 'compatible' with Wikipedia as possible. This means requiring all users to release their content under a creative re-use licence which allows sites like Wikipedia to copy the content into their pages. At the time of writing, the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence is the one best recommended for this, as efforts are being made to use this licence for Wikipedia in the future (see It should be noted that using a Creative Commons licence which allows for 'non commercial' re-use only is not sufficient to be compatible with Wikipedia, as they strictly require that all of their content be allowed to be re-used for commercial purposes (see

There is also an interesting discussion to be had over whether museums should each have their own 'object wikis', or should instead collaborate on a single all-encompassing one. The case for a joint project is strongest where museums have overlapping collections - especially where the 'same' mass-produced object is held in multiple collections (there must be other museums with a Kodak Brownie camera ( E2%80%99_127_Camera) in their collections, for instance). On the other hand, an equally compelling case can be made for separate wikis, especially where museums have distinctive, unique collections. It is also worth noting that even if multiple separate museum wikis arise, they can and should still link to and from each other where appropriate, and could even copy content across if licences permit.

Finally, museums using wikis to engage users with their collections need to consider the relationship between the wiki and any more traditional form of database-driven object Web sites. The openness of a wiki, which has just two fields per page (title and body), may seem antithetical to the heavily-structured nature of a museum object database. However, wikis can eventually evolve into equally complex structures - Wikipedia is now rich with metadata which has even transformed into the Semantic Web project DBPedia ( So the prospect of using a public wiki as a museum’s primary object catalogue isn’t as unlikely as it might seem. And the benefits of being transparent about the collection, and being able to involve a wide audience in curating the objects (not to mention the possible cost saving in using free wiki software over a proprietary database system) mean it’s an option worth considering.

Ultimately, museums wanting to use wikis as a way of engaging audiences with their objects should adopt the forms that best fit with their aims, their content and their audience.


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This paper has also been published on-line in a wiki form at If you have any comments, or suggested additions or corrections to the paper, you are welcome to contribute them there.

Cite as:

Looseley, R., and F. Roberto, Museums & Wikis: Two Case Studies. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2009: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2009. Consulted