Art History Teaching Resources

Peer-populated resources for art history teachers

Making History: Wikipedia Editing as Pedagogical and Public Intervention

Image copyright Project Continua/Brooklyn Museum, 2014

Image copyright Project Continua/Brooklyn Museum, 2014

Guest Authors: Alexandra Thom and Saisha Grayson

On the first Saturday in February, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art hosted an Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon in partnership with Project Continua and in tandem with the nation-wide initiative organized by Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York.  We were thrilled by the turnout and enthusiasm of the participants—who ranged from professors of art history and women’s literature to long-time editors of Wikipedia to novices in both categories—and we posted on the Museum’s blog about several of the personal interactions and specific changes that made the day memorable and impactful. With an estimated six hundred participants in all the satellite events, and approximately one hundred articles edited, the day also created enormous momentum for this ongoing campaign to address the well-documented gender gap in Wikipedia’s editorship and content, specifically as it impacts the representation of art and art history on this incredibly popular reference website. The day garnered significant media attention and continues to inspire a cascade of similar events around the country.

At our event, Gina Luria Walker, Project Continua’s Director, noted that by editing articles about historical women, participants were “making history by providing an alternative narrative of the past.” Similarly, by learning to edit Wikipedia and making it an integrated part of art history assignments and classroom discussion, students can be given the tools and ability to actively make history… by writing it themselves.

Image copyright Project Continua/Brooklyn Museum, 2014. The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and Project Continua hosted an Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday, February 1, 2014. The gathered added authoritative biographical information to Wikipedia about the women represented in The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s monument to women’s contributions to history, and in Project Continua, an online multimedia resource on women’s intellectual history.  Photo by Kate Lord

Image copyright Project Continua/Brooklyn Museum, 2014. The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and Project Continua hosted an Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon at the Brooklyn Museum on Saturday, February 1, 2014. The gathered added authoritative biographical information to Wikipedia about the women represented in The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago’s monument to women’s contributions to history, and in Project Continua, an online multimedia resource on women’s intellectual history.
Photo by Kate Lord

For quite some time, Wikipedians have been thinking about how to use the encyclopedia as a teaching tool. There’s a strong precedence that demonstrates the growing viability of the free-content encyclopedia, not just as a source, but also as a didactic tool. By participating as editors—rather than just as passive consumers—of Wikipedia articles, students can become empowered to shape historical narratives, while also gaining a more critical understanding and awareness of how knowledge is shaped through the processes of writing history and by the biases (intentional or not) of those writing it.

Even as beginners in the subject of art history, students can discover that they are capable of identify missing information, finding reliable sources and having a hand in fixing or expanding an existing article. As they gain confidence, they can be encouraged to find and address gaps in the available articles on specific subjects, and to think about the implications and effects of something being absent from the Wikipedia universe. Through working within the bounds of Wikipedia and learning its rules and internal politics, students will find direct applicability for their college-level research and writing skills, seeing quality references and careful citations in a new light—as the primary safe-guards against the willful or misguided re-writing of history and as their best weapons for justifying a more inclusive, expanded or complex view of a particular subject.

Working with (and a deeper understanding of) Wikipedia also allows the class to debate—head on—pressing issues that stem from navigating a networked, pluralistic, and postmodern age. From the strange question of why historians continually revisit well-trodden events, to the difficulty of identifying and accounting for one’s own cultural biases, to what kind of control one has over their digital presence, to the pros and cons of a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, discussions grounded in the practicalities of Wikipedia can help make the stakes of seemingly esoteric issues relevant to our student’s lives. Instead of banning Wikipedia, assignments that engage with its content can help make clear the challenges and opportunities we all face in parsing the seemingly endless streams of information in the Information Age, and ultimately can allow students to become better consumers (and producers) of digital content.

Looking outside the Art History department, The New York Times published an article this past September about medical students at the University of California, San Francisco receiving course credit for editing Wikipedia articles about diseases. The article served up several justifications for the program that could extend to art history as well.  Dr. Amin Azzam, who facilitated the program, noted that by contributing to Wikipedia, students fulfill a professional ethical responsibility to share privileged knowledge with the broadest public. While our students may not yet have a professional responsibility, thinking in terms of ethical responsibility can help inspire the class to think as digital citizens.  What privileged information do we have (or want to amass) that we feel responsible to share?  A long-term collaborative project (either class-wide or team-based) can empower the students to tackle something significant and become educators themselves.

This question of professional responsibility has also guided the Brooklyn Museum’s involvement with Wikipedia.  In 2013, Alexandra Thom coordinated a Kress-funded project at the Brooklyn Museum to make scholarly and curatorial information about the collections available to the public on Wikipedia. Several things became clear over the duration of the fellowship. Namely, Wikipedia is an important platform to increase the accessibility of the museum’s content.  By identifying gaps in knowledge that relate to our objects, through the lens and expertise of our curators, the Brooklyn Museum—and museums in general—can shape Wikipedia in a way that other cultural institutions cannot, by sharing object-based learning with the site’s millions of users.  This may also point to unique opportunities within art history for student-generated content.

Most artists’ Wikipedia entries are predominantly biographical and infrequently reflect the art historical discourse, debates and insights generated around specific works of art. Developing assignments focused on object-centered additions or edits can fill a gap in the public understanding of our discipline as well as deepening our student’s facility with object-based arguments. For example, students in the survey who have looked at both Eduoard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”) and Mickalene Thomas’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires” could add to both Thomas’ biographical entry and the article on Manet’s masterpiece by cross-referencing them and noting their relationship.  More advanced students could work to summarize scholarship that analyzes the relationship between these two pieces, their significance in their particular cultural context and represents the range of methodological approaches used by art historians.

Alexandra Thom is coordinating a Kress-funded project at the Brooklyn Museum where she works to make scholarly and curatorial information about the Museum’s collections available to the public on Wikipedia.

Saisha M. Grayson is Assistant Curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Prior to her tenure at the Museum, Grayson was editorial assistant on the catalogue Nayland Blake: Behavior (2008) and the monographic essay for Ghada Amer (2010); coauthor of the catalogue essay “Pinaree Sanpitak: Quietly Floating” (2010); and author of “Disruptive Disguises: The Problem of Transvestite Saints for Medieval Art, Identity, and Identification,” which appeared in Medieval Feminist Forumin 2009.

7 comments on “Making History: Wikipedia Editing as Pedagogical and Public Intervention

  1. smithel1
    March 12, 2014

    I had students in a seminar class several years ago work on updating wikipedia articles related to art that they were researching, but they had the dickens of a time getting everything uploaded and on-line (putting in the notes in the right format, e.g., was tricky). Does anyone have a simple set of instructions that I could follow if I do this again? I love the idea but would need to be sure we could bypass all the frustration if I try it again this fall. Thanks!
    Elise Smith
    Millsaps College

  2. smithel
    March 14, 2014

    Great! Now I’m eager to try this with some of my students next year.

  3. Alison
    March 28, 2014

    I’m interested in doing this for an assignment for my Design History students. Are you figure out who submitted what? I would like to make this a graded assignment but maybe that’s not possible -?

  4. saigray
    June 16, 2014

    Alison, if you are viewing Wikipedia as a logged in editor, you can see a log of who has edited that page and when. So theoretically, your students could give you their login name and article link and you could review; but might be easiest to have them do a screen grab before and after, and highlight their changes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on March 7, 2014 by and tagged , , , .

Website built by Michelle Millar Fisher 2011-2013 in the New Media Lab at the CUNY Graduate Center. This work is an open educational resource.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 753 other followers

@a_h_t_r

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 753 other followers

%d bloggers like this: