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You are hereWikipedia editorial rules and museum curators [Notability / Conflict of Interest]

Wikipedia editorial rules and museum curators [Notability / Conflict of Interest]

dbear's picture

By David Bearman - Posted on 02 February 2010

One set of issues raised frequently in discussions about museum participation in Wikimedia projects relates to rules that Wikipedia has established that were designed to prevent self-promotion, ensure articles only reference reliable sources, and establish levels of 'notability' for things that get their own article, to cite some examples. These policies are perceived to have perverse effects when the subject matter is a museum artifact with largely internally held, unpublished documentation and the editor contributing the article is an in-house expert. Some of these questions have been addressed in the past year by Liam Wyatt (cf. and

We look forward to concrete discussion of editorial policies, and ways to frame them and editing guidelines so as to encourage museums to be able to contribiute content about their holdings based on documentation they have and expertise resident in their staff. Specific examples of problems that museum contributors have encountered will help (feel free to start sub-discussions, as in

David Bearman

museophile's picture

Notability is an important concept on Wikipedia. The most reliable way to establish notability for an article is to add a number of independent references in "reliable sources". Easily accessible online resources are best, with suitable hyperlinks to the sources. Several references on the subject matter in national newspapers or magazines would certainly establish notability. Equally, several mentions in academic journals would also be acceptable, and something that hopefully curators could supply more easily than the general public.

In the case of the coins above, if there really were independent articles specifically on some of the individual coins, they could deserve individual Wikipedia articles. This would be a matter of judgement of course, It would be best to add the most important coin first, with specific references, and see if the Wikipedia community deems this acceptable. I.e., wait a few weeks and see if the article survives the scrutiny of others. If it does, perhaps another could be added if it also has sutable (different!) references available.

Curators should not worry too much if their entries are edited. Indeed, this indicates interest in the subject matter. In addition, Wikipedia maintains a complete history of all articles as they are edited, so material from previous versions can easily be recovered if needed. The only danger is if an article is completely deleted (e.g., for lack of notability). This may be just because it is badly referenced. I.e., the subject is actually notable, but the article itself does not demonstrate this adequately. Deleted articles can only be restored by Wikipedia administrators. A museum-friendly and well-known Wikipedia administrator would certainly be helpful in this regard for the museum community.

Perhaps this most useful guidelines for notability of museums on Wikipedia is under WP:ORG, covering organizations and companies. General notability guidance is available under WP:N. There is no specific guidance on individual objects, so this general guidance should be followed.


Jonathan Bowen
Museophile Limited

Phoebe Ayers's picture

I think it's helpful too, when in doubt, to remember Wikipedia's role as a general encyclopedia -- not a descriptive catalog, or reader, or exhibit guide, or any of the myriad other forms that information about museum collections might take. As an encyclopedia, judgement calls can be made about when a separate article (roman coins of such and such a period) versus a general article (roman coins, which includes a summary of the various period) should be written. 

One of the most helpful things knowledgeable experts can do in Wikipedia, I think, is add references and sources for further reading to the general articles (about artists, collections, etc.) -- so that people looking for *more* than they might reasonably expect to be in an encyclopedia can find that information easily; this is often more appropriate than adding everything that is known to the article itself. Writing a really good Wikipedia article demands a certain skill in summary and knowing what the core elements are to include. And many articles are currently not that great... because this is actually a pretty difficult thing to do (much like writing a good textbook demands a certain type of skill). 

Complicating the matter is the fact that Wikipedia isn't limited in scope or size: if there should be an article about something, it can go in, without regard to the level of detail present for other fields or the amount of bytes it takes up. But if in doubt about "notability", fall back on the larger article about a topic: almost every "general" article on the site -- every article about every artist, every art movement and period, every historic artifact and famous antiquity -- I would wager that *all* of these articles could use some work by someone who knows the literature well and can aid in writing that general summary. And that's pretty much a lifetime's work right there :)

wadewitz's picture

Notability is often established by the number and reputability of the publications that mention the object. Each and every Rembrandt painting is more than likely notable, for example, because they have all been written about extensively by art historians in peer-reviewed publications. Museums contribute to the establishment of notability through their exhibition catalogues (and other publications). For example, in deciding whether or not to attribute a particular painting to Rembrandt in a Wikipedia article, an editor might turn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's catalogue from their "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt" exhibit. The question of notability becomes murkier when one considers each Rembrandt drawing. Again, many of these have been individually written about by art historians and curators, so perhaps they deserve their own article. The decision would be made on a case by case basis, but without a doubt an article on "Rembrandt's drawings" would be justified. If a museum had a particularly good collection, it might even be feasible to write an article on the "X collection of Rembrandt's drawings", but this would all depend on how third-party sources have discussed the material. As the first poster said, I would like to hear about the situations that have arisen. I'm raising some hypotheticals here that I think might address some questions that people have.

Liam Wyatt's picture

One of the things that has come up recently around the issues that you raise here David, is that of how the Wikipedian idea of "Notability" interacts with the Museum idea of "Significance". To put it simply (hopefully not overly-simply), Notability in Wikipedia defines what is worthy of it's own encyclopedia article, whilst Significance explains the reason why an item was acquired by a museum.

My favourite example of this difference is the "Roman coin situation". If a museum happened upon a cache of perfectly preserved Roman coins, the museum would acquire them all and write statements of significance for each. Each would be appraised, preserved etc. etc individualy. On the other hand, in Wikipedia there would be no case for "notability" of each individual coin. Yes - the cache as a whole would be worthy of its own article, yes - the types/denominations of coins in the cache are worthy of articles, yes - the Roman emperor displayed on the coins' face would be worthy of an article, but not the individual coins.

What seems to me to be a bit of a sticking point - due to misunderstanding, not malice - is that whilst all museum items are worthy of a statement of significance, not all museum items are considered "notable". This difference is compounded by the fact that there are no notability criteria that can be applied to museum items for professionals to assess the notability (or otherwise) of their items according to Wikipedia policy.

I've tried to outline this issue in a blogpost here: and I would appreciate input as to whether the museum sector would like to see such notability guidelines created and, if so, what possible criteria could be used.