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D. Cull, "Wikipedia Saves Public Art: An interview with Richard McCoy and Jennifer Geigel Mikulay", e-conservation magazine, No. 14 (2010) pp. 19-27,

Wikipedia Saves Public Art:

An interview with Richard McCoy and Jennifer Geigel Mikulay, conducted by Daniel Cull


The internet has increasingly become a central tool of the conservation profession, most notably with the advent of Web 2.0 technologies and user-generated media. For many the wiki-based online encyclopedia ‘Wikipedia’ has become a frequently utilized source or first point of call for information. However, Wikipedia is more than an encyclopedia, it is also a platform from which a whole variety of interesting projects have been launched, including a recent conservation themed project entitled: ‘Wikipedia Saves Public Art’ (WSPA) [1]. Expanding upon the project’s stated aim to “encourage the creation of accurate, informative and up-to-date articles about public art”, this interview aims to discuss this project in more depth with its founders; Richard McCoy and Jennifer Geigel Mikulay, who launched the project along with their students in a Museum Studies class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

Daniel Cull: Let’s begin with a brief introduction to yourselves and your role within this project. 

Jennifer Geigel Mikulay: I’m on the faculty at IUPUI. I teach visual culture and museum studies. My scholarship deals with public art’s civic role, so I am very interested in the ongoing digitization of public art and how that process facilitates or hinders access and engagement. This past fall, I worked with Richard McCoy to pilot Wikipedia Saves Public Art in a museum studies course called “Collections Care and Management.” The process is documented on my blog

Richard McCoy: I’m a conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art where I work on all kinds of art, including outdoor sculptures and other things in the public sphere.

DC: I’m interested in the background to this project. I was wondering how the project came about, and how the Museum Studies course at IUPUI took up the project? Furthermore, I am interested to know whether ‘Save Outdoor Sculpture!’ (SOS)
[3], a project concerned with documenting public sculpture, and ‘Wikipedia Loves Art’ [4], an excellent wikipedia/museum world cross over project had a role to play in the development of WSPA?

JGM: I learned about SOS! when I was writing my dissertation and collaborated with Civic Studio (a studio art course at Grand Valley State University) to build a website to collect images of people interacting with the first NEA-funded public artwork, Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse (1969). Doing the ‘Big Red Thing’ project [5] demonstrated for me that the Web could be a powerful venue for documenting how people use public art. The museum studies class at IUPUI took up WSPA because Richard and I were team-teaching the course and we wanted a concrete, public way for the students to learn about some of the practicalities and politics involved with being a steward of cultural material.

RM: Jenny and I first met through the IMA’s Blog and Wikipedia. In early 2008 I wrote about the idea of using Wikipedia as a place to document artworks [
6]. But it wasn’t until we offered a free lunch with the IMA’s Director and CEO, Maxwell Anderson, that people actually started creating articles [7]. Jenny was one of the first 5 people to make an article about an IMA sculpture, Mark DiSuvero’s “Snowplow” on the grounds of the IMA [8]. Of course, I was thrilled to find out more about Jenny and her work over the course of time. Her project Big Red Thing really is very cool and close to this project. 

I have to say, though, that I don’t think the idea for creating articles about art in an encyclopedia is necessarily new or unique, but with Wikipedia there is a lot more potential for the number of actual articles and contributors. This process opens up a whole new set of possibilities. What’s to stop us from cataloging all of the public art in the world?

WSPA is fundamentally different from SOS! in that SOS! is a closed database that is managed by the Smithsonian; WSPA is completely open, evolving in real-time, and collaboratively managed by everyone.

As for the IUPUI component, I was motivated by my own college experiences: I always despised teachers that used a phrase like “in the real world you do x or y.” I mean, we pay real money to go to school, so college always felt like the “real world” to me. With this in mind, Jenny and I wanted to make a project that pushed the students to work in what they would recognize as the real world in the hopes that they would take their work very seriously and in the end have a finished product they could be proud of and use to demonstrate their abilities to potential employers. 

Further, the principal notion we wanted to explore is the potential for Wikipedia to operate as a content management system (CMS). Nearly all museums use some kind of CMS, and there are tons of different ones out there, so it seemed a bit silly to teach them how to use one particular CMS. By using Wikipedia as a CMS for cataloguing a collection of public art we could focus on the big concepts and have the students actually help build the structure by which the data would be entered. Museum registrars are constantly working in a CMS and frequently create their own databases for special projects, so we thought this project would be ideal. Also, there are many small to medium-sized institutions around the globe that will never have the money for a CMS, especially one that allows them to publish information on the Web. Those pieces of software can easily cost $100,000, while Wikipedia, one of the most visible websites in the world, is absolutely free and available for use right now.  Another big part of WSPA is the photo documentation of public artworks. But due to copyright issues, Wikipedia is not very good at accepting lots of images of contemporary artworks. To work around this problem, students created their own free Flickr accounts and uploaded their images there. We also had a crew tagging these images, so now when you look in Flickr for things about IUPUI you see art and not just images of the campus basketball team. So, with the use of Wikipedia, Flickr, and other web-based technologies, collections can emerge quite easily and become visible components of our cultural landscape.
Finally, I want to say that this was just one component of our IUPUI class. The students learned a lot of other things along the way that were not related to Wikipedia, and they had opportunities to meet a number of arts professionals in the city. 

DC: I was wondering whether previous teaching practices using Wikipedia played a part in developing the curricula? I also noticed from a blog post [
9] that at least some of the students on the course were unfamiliar with Wikipedia and social media, which I found somewhat surprising, was this a trend across the student body?  

JGM: We really learned by doing. I did not have previous experience teaching with Wikipedia, other than occasionally busting students for plagiarizing it. It would have been smart to connect with other college-level teachers using Wikipedia in their curricula, but I didn’t pursue that until the semester ended and I began reflecting on the feedback we received from our students. 

As you note, our students did not have much familiarity with Wikipedia or user-generated Web content generally, which was a total surprise to me. I’m a techie, so maybe I assume that others are also really enthusiastic and enjoy experimentation using new digital tools. I also think I bought into the hype about young people being “digital natives” and assumed our students could easily pick up Wikipedia. I didn’t give sufficient attention to how things like gender, persistent economically-based digital divides, inexperience with art historical research methods, and institutional culture might hinder student embrace of the project. Knowing what I know now, I would devote significant instructional time to stepping students into Wikipedia. Collective Wikipedia naïveté limited our ability to achieve consistently strong results in the timeframe we had.

RM: It’s my guess that the data about the use of social media is a moving target.  I came away from the project having to re-calibrate some of my thinking about who is creating web content, and a fresh awareness about the relatively small numbers of Web “creators” versus “spectators”.  I know Forrester Research [
10] has published a lot on this but I think even the concepts of social media and a read-write Web are still emerging.  

DC: One interesting aspect of the documentation process was the inclusion of geographical locations for the public works of art. This seems potentially to be a useful approach to mapping works of art in the public realm. 

RM: It’s become a lot easier to do, and GPS seems to get more popular by the day for the technology sector. Knowing the actual location of a public artwork is extremely important. It’s the first step in caring for something. Plus, if you have a GPS location of a public artwork you can then link to lots of other things to it and can create maps and perhaps even virtual tours based on this information. A GPS coordinate can become a central spoke around which all information around it can radiate. For example, if you put a GPS location in a Wikipedia article, it automatically links it to a ton of other data, including Google Maps, Flickr maps, OpenStreetMaps, and geocache locations. 

If you think about how quickly mobile devices are improving, it’s not hard to imagine having a mobile application that allows you to geolocate a work of public art, take a photo of it, describe what it is, and assess its condition all while in the field. iPhone applications like Gowalla, Geocaching, and Historic Place all are very close to doing exactly that. 

While I occasionally obsess over little details and the possibilities of a mobile application, I think we should be thinking really big about documenting public art and how it can help us better understand and appreciate our global cultural heritage. There’s lots of very detailed information in Wikipedia about popular culture, but there’s really not a lot about art in there. We should change that and at the same time continue to find ways to make Wikipedia help save public art by raising awareness about it; it is, after all, one of the most frequently referenced Websites in the world and public art is the most accessible form of artwork in the world. A match made in digital heaven?
From left to right:
Figure 1. Zephyr, a stainless steel sculpture by Steve Wooldridge (1998). Photo by LTalley, Some Rights Reserved.
Figure 2. Herron Arch 1 by James Wille Faust (2005). Photo by Katie Chattin, Some Rights Reserved.
Figure 3. Broken Walrus I, a public sculpture by American sculptor Gary Freeman (dedicated 1976, destroyed ca. 2004). Save Outdoor Sculpture, Indiana survey, 1993. WSPA, Some Rights Reserved.
Figure 4. East Gate/West Gate by Sasson Soffer (1973), on loan from the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo by Ron Wise, Some Rights Reserved.
DC: In summary, to me, it seems that this project then has several aims: firstly, a short-term aim to document public art on the campus of IUPUI, secondly to demonstrate a potential model for Wikipedia as a content management system (CMS) for public art, and lastly and perhaps most significantly to be a potential catalyst for changes to Wikipedia — making it more ‘arts friendly’, in terms of acceptable and quality content. Would you agree with this assessment and what would you see as additional aims? 
JGM: Yes — you’ve got it. I also think it’s good, in an educational context, for people to increase their fluency using digital tools creatively and critically.

I would only expand on the first part in that Jenny and I, and our other Indy-based collaborators (IUPUI Museum Studies graduate student Lori Byrd Phillips and IUPUI undergraduate alumna Sarah Stierch), continue to see Indianapolis as a testing ground for documenting other collections of public art and exploring what technologies might be the most efficient and effective in this effort. If we can do a good job of documenting the public art here in Indianapolis, why shouldn’t other cities around the globe do it? Think of the public art that’s in other urban places like New York, London, Berlin, Mumbai, and Tokyo. Not much of it is in Wikipedia—yet. 

We’ve spoken to a lot of people about using WSPA to document their collections, but I’ve come to learn that we’re a bit ahead of the curve on this. It takes a certain bit of courage and know-how to start using Wikipedia seriously. For whatever reason, art folks don’t find contributing to Wikipedia a worthwhile use of their time. It’s a shame.

Right now we are also looking at ways to optimize current applications and processes to make the project broadly applicable, including developing a way to streamline the use of the SOS! data, and finding ways to make the project accessible to younger editors. Perhaps as we continue on, more communities will take interest and other catalysts will arise that get people motivated to put information about art in Wikipedia.

JGM: Implicit in the logic of this project is that caring for public art is not a “job” we can rely on an individual or organization for—it’s a collective activity best pursued collaboratively and openly.

DC: That’s an interesting point and I think such concepts of collective care could be drawn from those that exist within digital culture. The idea that for collaborative online projects to work they necessitate the establishment of communities who will care for the content, to protect from spam and vandalism, etc. I wonder how else digital culture might play a part in developing the theory and practice surrounding offline/online cross-over projects such as these?

RM: That’s a really intriguing question, and one for which I’m not sure I have a solid answer.  I’m optimistic that the collaborative models that are being developed in places like Wikipedia and Flickr will have a push back on the practice of art conservation in particular. So many decisions about the care of our cultural heritage are made by one person working in the basement of a cultural institution. Perhaps as we push this process further into the public domain, there will be a raised awareness about the complexities involved in physically caring for public art. 

This is slow going right now though. We certainly aren’t being overwhelmed with people wanting to help us with WSPA. Perhaps that will change and more people will find value in the project and the process.
Fernanda Viégas and her colleagues at IBM’s Visual Communication Lab are doing really interesting research on how collaboration works within Wikipedia. One of the things that concerns me is the lack of gender and racial diversity within the English Wikipedia. If it’s going to be a credible venue in which many different kinds of people can collaborate using digital tools, Wikipedia will have to lose some its macho, geekocentric culture.

DC: A recent press release from IUPUI [11] quite rightly praised various aspects of this project. However, I was wondering personally what do you consider the successes, failures, lessons learnt, in regard to such work relating to Wikipedia?  

JGM: I was very impressed to see some of the articles written by our students featured on Wikipedia’s homepage in the “Did You Know” box. Being featured there significantly increased traffic to those articles, and it was thrilling to the students. As for failures, I think the quality of some of our articles is poor. Articles that aren’t well-researched or include obvious errors and carelessness simply reinforce the ideas many have about Wikipedia—that it’s an unreliable, sloppily prepared information resource. I regret that some of our work contributes to that view. 

RM: Jenny and I have talked a lot about the project in terms of it being a successful teaching tool. But it’s difficult to truly asses its effectiveness as a teaching tool because we just created it last year and none of our students are actually working in the field now. I might be delusional, but I think that many of them will appreciate the process they learned and understand the project a lot better once they are actually working in a museum. Perhaps they will realize that while Wikipedia was the medium, what they were doing was looking at, researching, cataloguing, documenting, and really considering a collection of art. In the most basic sense they learned to care for art. Along the way, they created a ton of useful information about these artworks—much, much more than previously existed in the university’s files.

The day after the students finished the project I had them rate their feelings about Wikipedia from 0-10. Zero being they would never, ever create another article in Wikipedia in their lifetime, and 10 being they were going home that night to do more work on an article. Out of the 16 students that I spoke to, the average rating was 5.25. I’m not really sure what that number means, if anything—and I probably have no way of ever knowing what the students learned in the project. Hopefully the students learned two things: 1) it’s not really that easy to care for art, and 2) Wikipedia is created by people just like them. I bet they understand Wikipedia now on a fairly profound level, and therefore use it more critically. And considering the pervasiveness of Wikipedia, this is a pretty important life lesson for citizens of the 21st century. 

DC: And as an obligatory add on, what do you think the successes in (and for) the world have been?  

JGM: I like the way this project brings people into cultural discourse. The skills people gain participating in WSPA are readily transferrable to other sites of civic action.

RM: I’m not certain I have a good answer for that one. I was talking to a friend about this other day and she was saying that the first 100 people are the most difficult to get interested in any project, but then the next 100 are easy. I’m not counting, but I don’t think we’ve gotten to 100 interested folks yet. But what if the project were taught in 5 other museum studies programs in the world? That would be huge. 

I’m hoping someone else tries out our project in an academic setting so we can see how they do with it. 

DC: I was interested to note that the project also incorporated other social media in the form of a Facebook page [
12] and Twitter account [13], I was wondering what role you envisioned for these? 

JGM: Many of our students were also concurrently enrolled in a “Museums and Technology” course, which pushed students into Twitter. Richard and I both use it extensively, so we thought it would be an easy way to spread the word about WSPA. The Facebook group was actually student-initiated. Of all of the social media outlets on the Web, Facebook was the most widely used among our students. I don’t really think of Twitter and Facebook as particularly effective for outreach, nor do I think we have a goal for outreach, but Twitter and Facebook both work well to broadcast information and generate a feeling of energy, and they are both tools we use anyway, so why not use them with WSPA?

RM: Like any new project, half the fun is in experimentation. I see both the Facebook and Twitter accounts as experiments—if they fail it will be at no financial cost to us, so they are worth the gamble. We’ve brainstormed a number of ways to use these as outreach tools, but we’re both very busy in our careers so we haven’t really given them a lot of effort.

Our Indianapolis-based collaborators Lori and Sarah have been helping us out with these tools recently, which has allowed more people to experiment with them. Hopefully they evolve into more useful tools. But I know that it’s awfully hard to create a voice that can be heard through the hubbub of Facebook and Twitter.

DC: This has been a fascinating discussion, and I’d like to conclude with a bit of a philosophical query, regarding the name, I have to ask how is it that Wikipedia “saves” public art? By which I mean to wonder how one makes the cognitive leap from consuming content, to creating content on Wikipedia, and finally to real world actions?

JGM: That connection only becomes explicit in the doing. It’s an investment to work in Wikipedia — it moves people from knowing a subject in a private or small community context toward sharing that knowledge and actually interacting and debating its use in the world. The problem with public art is that it gets taken for granted — it’s always there, so it almost becomes invisible. As much as I dislike the religious grandiosity of saying we’re involved with “saving” something, I recognize that moving people from consuming culture to making it is a Herculean undertaking. It’s important to tap concepts and popular technologies that might motivate a person to try something new, assert their voice, or contribute their knowledge even when it’s not their “job” to do so.

RM: Jenny is very kindly not telling you about my occasional obsessions over the name of this project. Ever since we agreed we were going to make this a project for our IUPUI class I’ve been thinking about names. I’ve had dozens and told her most of them. But she’s rightly pushed me away from obsessing over them by referencing her days of playing in bands that spent more time worrying about their name than actually making music. So, in the end, the name isn’t all that important. Hell, we’d sell naming rights if someone gave us enough money. And by “enough” I certainly don’t mean much. How about something sponsored by a coffee or beer company that supplied us with the necessary beverages?

Sorry, I don’t mean to make light of the question, but my point is that the title really isn’t all that important: it’s the work that gets done that ends up being important. 

Having said all of that, I want to take seriously the notion of whether or not SOS! saved any sculptures or if WSPA will be able to save any, much less care for them. I believe that the first step in taking care of any artwork is to understand what it actually is on a physical level. And since there are a ton of artworks in the public sphere that people don’t even know about, they aren’t being cared for at all. In this way, the first step in caring for art is to know where it is, after that you can get to knowing from what it is made, by whom, what it “looks like,” and finally then know what it is, what it is doing in the world, and how it can be used. 

To this end, I think there is great potential for a project like ours to serve a real need in caring for our global cultural heritage; it just so happens that we started in Indianapolis.


[1] Wikipedia Saves Public Art

[2] Jennifer Geigel Mikulay’s Project Blog  

[3] Save Outdoor Sculpture!

[4] Wikipedia Loves Art

[5] Jennifer Geigel Mikulay’s ‘Big Red Thing ’ Project

[6] McCoy, Richard. 2008. Calling all present and future Wikipedians. IMA Blog.

[7] McCoy, Richard. 2008. Wikipedia Entries - It’s Just Lunch. IMA Blog.  

[8] Mark DiSuvero’s “Snowplow”  

[9] Basile, Elizabeth. 2009. On New Beginnings: or How Wikipedia Can Help Us All Care for Public Art, IMA Blog.

[10]. Forrester Research

[11]. IUPUI Press release:

[12]. Facebook

[13] Twitter

About the authors

Richard McCoy
Associate Conservator of Objects and Variable Art  Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) 

Richard McCoy is Associate Conservator of Objects and Variable Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. A former Fulbright Scholar to Spain, McCoy studied journalism and political science at Indiana University, Bloomington, and received his MA from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center. He received a Samuel H. Kress fellowship to work at the IMA prior to joining the conservation department in 2005. In 2008 he became a Professional Associate of AIC.

Jennifer Geigel Mikulay 
Assistant Professor, Public Scholar of Visual Culture
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)

Jennifer Geigel Mikulay is an assistant professor and public scholar at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Her research interests include public art, visual culture, new media, communications, and public sphere theory. She earned the first Ph.D. in visual culture studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007.

Daniel Cull
Assistant Conservator  The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM)

Daniel Cull is an Assistant Conservator at the Musical Instrument Museum, and collaborator with e-conservation magazine. He trained at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, where he received a BSc in Archaeology, MA in Principles of Conservation, and an MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. He was later awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the National Museum of the American Indian/Smithsonian Institution.  



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