Creating & advocating access to India’s museum collections

behind the scenes at the Open Knowledge Fellowship 2022

In 2022, we launched the first Open Knowledge Fellowship with the objective of creating (and expanding) representation of India’s art and museum collections on the internet – and on Wikipedia – the world’s largest free encyclopaedia. The idea emerged from our ongoing endeavour of making information about India’s museum collections publicly accessible online. 

Want to join us as a future-fellow / host-institution / or Editorial Committee member?

Let us know! 

In a span of a few months, 4 Fellows added 513K words, and 1.86K references to new and existing articles which have garnered 1.27million views already (July 2023). They also added 626 images of collections to Wikimedia Commons and enriched data for 532 collection items. Later, they conducted outreach activities to familiarize their independent social-communities of the museum collections they worked with.

AmrapaliMuseum

You can jump to the part on the fellows’ & their work or continue reading.

This behind-the-scenes post reflects on the experience of planning and executing this fellowship, the highlights and challenges of partnering with India’s museums. So let’s get started. 

Situating India’s collections in “Open Culture”

Today, anybody searching for Indian art or related cultural material is more likely to chance upon collections from western institutions (like The Met, British Library, Freer-Gallery, etc.) that have adequately established their popularity online. These collections, often published with an open license have permeated social media conversations, journals, blogs, news websites and even scholarship.

In comparison, important collections from India’s museums continue to have a low discovery, and low recall-value for the average audience (and in some cases for overseas scholars).
Secondly, there are limited learning resources about Indian art history in the public domain. This has a direct implication on public knowledge about the arts, and inhibits interest in museums, and subsequently in cultural scholarship. More importantly, existing resources, are usually in English. 

In the past, we have hosted visibility-campaigns for museum collections quite passionately; while it is absolutely heartening to see museums, independent historians and researchers, and individuals share their resources / findings on social media, a question to ask is : what is the longevity of this effort and knowledge?

Museums in India, as understaffed as they are, have grown to spend a disproportionate amount of time creating resources for social media platforms that do not end up gaining the visibility or longevity that Wikipedia promises. 

How can we make a long-lasting impact? 

Through this fellowship, we also hoped to illustrate the importance of community-led initiatives in making museum collections accessible. How can the average museum-visitor help? 

Before the “how”, I should probably have asked “if we as citizens want to make the effort to improve an existing public resource”  — as evident from the fellowship applications, many did. This was an encouraging, positive sign.

(Yet, I cannot help feel rather let down by scholars who, despite multiple requests decided to let photos eternally rest in peace on their personal devices / social media handles). 

Wikipedia was our natural preference for publishing resources for several reasons (apart from the fact that it the most popular go-to resource for those seeking information online). Here are some: 

a. Volunteers from around the world can help translate resources (& articles). 

b. Adding meta-data on Wikidata can help connect collections in museums around the world. Imagine an opportunity to place India’s collections in this space ! 

c. By involving our audience, readers and digital humanists in Wikipedia projects, we wanted to increase their participation in global Wiki projects and include their expertise in leading future programs.  

🎉 We’re thrilled to know :

Two of our resources are nominated for Wikipedia’s “Did You Know” section, and will significantly increase the reach of the images + text.  

The question plaguing our times:  is Wikipedia reliable? 

To put it simply, you get the internet you build. The way we see it, involvement from the academic and museum / library community helps build a more reliable Wikipedia. Most recently, this question was raised by a staff member of the Science Center, Delhi at the National Museum New Delhi’s Educator Meet at a workshop I was leading.

Adding more references to scholarly articles and essays helps improve the quality of the article, and makes it “reliable”.

Wikipedia articles, edited by enthusiastic volunteers, often fail to reflect the vast scholarship that Indian collections have lent themselves to. Often, Wiki volunteers do not have an academic background in art / art-history. Unfortunately, access to libraries and scholarly resources about these & related topics remains restricted for the general public and we hope to unlock these. This forms the core of our initiative – to bridge the information gaps with well researched and citable sources (scholarly articles). 

By inviting scholars, researchers, digital humanists etc. as residents, and providing them access to publications and other resources, museums can help build not only visibility but also ensure reliable information about their own collection on the platform. 

Wikipedia & GLAMs : an exciting partnership around the world

It is not possible for me to list the inspiring ways in which the Wikipedia x GLAM (gallery, library, archives, museums) partnerships are unfolding around the world, but for now, I’ll focus on a program that should be a priority for India’s institutions. 

In many libraries and museums around the world, a Wikimedian in Residence (WiR) program has been gaining acceptance.

Wikidata depiction of Wikimedians in Residence over the years around the world
Screenshot Interactive Map of Wikimedians in Residence, listed & sorted by year

In this program, Wikipedians well-versed with high quality editing practices become part of the museum/library team for a certain period of time. They commit to documenting collections and building visibility for them on a platform which attracts 4.5 billion readers globally. They also help coordinate Wikipedia-related outreach events between the museum & the public.

We intended our Open Knowledge fellowship to be a pilot for longer-term WiR programs. We hoped to have institutions open up to hosting Wikipedians in the museum. At the same time, we wanted to include researchers (already in the know of working with museums) to in Wikipedia projects. 

What next? …and other thoughts:

Going forward, we will structure the fellowship in a way that involves researchers at different stages of their practice (early career, mid career, so on). Our efforts will also be defined more clearly with institutional partners. 

For our next fellowship, we hope to establish an editorial committee comprising of experts / scholars who can mentor researchers, and help identify information gaps around a certain theme (for example, post-Independence Indian art / architecture, and so on). 

Want to join us as a future-fellow / host-institution / or Editorial Committee member?

Let us know! 

+ More about our Fellows & their work

One of the biggest struggles coordinating this fellowship has been approaching museums as partners. To get in touch with museum leadership in the same city as the fellow’s residence was not only a difficult, but slow, arduous process. We are grateful to our Fellows for assisting in reaching out to museums in their city. 

Fellows underwent editing workshops and trainings in creating data visualizations. Collectively, they edited 81 articles. Many articles related to Indian art history were missing important references; some pages were absolutely scanty. 

Swipe to see their work. 

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Medhavi Gandhi
Medhavi Gandhi
Passionate about public access and engagement with cultural heritage. Always looking to learn and collaborate; firm believer in the power of the internet. Digging stories rooted in culture.

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