It seems that the little romance between Wikipedia and the museums in recent months is now official. So much so that a Wikipedia Lounge was set up at Communicating the Museum, one of the most important conferences dealing with communication in the sector, held a few days in Düsseldorf, to which I had the good fortune to be invited.

The Wikipedia team at Wikimedia Community Lounge. By Buzzeum (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There I got together with about 200 professionals to discuss the relationship between museums and their increasingly diverse and technologically sophisticated public.

The conference sessions included presentations of such interesting projects such as the very well-known Google Art Project, the project launched by the Louvre to raise the money to purchase Les trois grâces by Lucas Cranach the Elder and the results of the Culture Track survey, among many others.

There was also a lot of talk about the museum as a brand, about accessible museums, and museums as interlocutors rather than as mere transmitters in the new digital environments.

Amit Stood on the stage at CTM11 talking about Google Art Project. By Buzzeum (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Between sessions, in the Wikipedia Lounge we answered questions from delegates from around the world. More and more museums want to collaborate with the free encyclopaedia but really don’t know where to start. The most prevalent concerns in the sector are fear of losing control over the content of the museum and ignorance of the implications of Creative Commons licenses.

In the course of the conference quite a few museum professionals discovered just how knowledgeable about the uses and constraints of the laws of intellectual property Wikipedians can be, with interesting discussions such as whether the Louvre should or should not put a copyright sign next to a work of 1531, or what selling neckties with reproduction Klimt artworks does for the integrity of the collection.

Communicating the museum conference. Düsseldorf 2011. By Kippelboy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

My personal impression of the conference was that many of the major museums’ communication departments are starting to get the idea that communicating is a lot more than putting out a press release and that they are keen to be part of this new environment, this new conversation.

However, I think this shift will only come slowly in some museums, given that certain attitudes still need to change. At the conference people could be heard saying things like ‘once the visitor has paid to get in, had a coffee and bought a T-shirt, we need to find systems to ensure that they keep on spending’ or ‘in the museum, everything is brand: it’s just a matter of growing this brand’. I have no interest in museums of this kind.

As Victor Samra, head of digital media marketing at MoMA, said in his presentation: ‘In the past you were what you owned, now you are what you share.’

Àlex Hinojo
Museu Picasso Wikipedian-in-residence