How Women Can Close the Gender Gap in Wikipedia by Documenting Artworks

My latest blog post from the IMA website is re-posted below!

As someone who did not catch royal wedding fever last year, I was still shocked to learn that a Wikipedia article about Kate Middleton’s wedding dress was flagged for deletion. As Slate.com author Torie Bosch explains in her story, an entry about the significance of Middleton’s wedding dress was deemed inappropriate by many Wikipedia users. Some believed that “this is frankly trivial, and surely isn’t notable enough to be on Wikipedia,” while others complained that this was “exactly the sort of thing that made me all but quit as an active user on this project.”

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Replica of Kate Middleton’s Royal Dress. Image by Milly Bridal Studio for MyWeddingDressForLess.co.uk [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Bosch argues that the uproar around this Wikipedia entry exemplifies the gender gap of Wikipedia users. And of course, Middleton’s wedding dress is a valid Wikipedia article — she is increasingly becoming an important fashion icon and her dress is adding to the history of fashion. According to a Wikimedia survey from 2011, only 9 percent of Wikipedia editors are female– 9 percent!

That’s an astonishing low number. Wikipedia states that they would like to increase the percentage of female editors to 25 percent. A leader in this effort and the current Wikimedia Foundation Community Fellow, Sarah Stierch, has organized a couple of “Wikipedia edit-a-thons” where women get together and create new articles about women in history using Smithsonian records.

As I read this article, I tried to think about my relationship with Wikipedia. I have never created or edited an article, yet I use Wikipedia daily. It never occurs to me to add to this great body of knowledge. As a member of the minority on Wikipedia, I feel like it is important to get involved in this process.

Now, let me try to bring this around to art conservation and the museum profession in general.

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WikiProject Public Art. Logo designed by Michael Mikulay.

Though it’s documented that women do not contribute to Wikipedia, it’s hard to know how many female art conservators are contributing – I’m guessing maybe one or two, if any. Anecdotally, I know that most art conservators are female, and that the membership of American Institute for Conservation (AIC) is greater than 3,000 so this seems like a good base to look to for contributors.

I should also point out that AIC created its own wiki site that has some good information in it, but the information in there is not easily found by search engines.

While the AIC Wiki could be useful, I’d like to suggest that art conservators start adding their knowledge directly to Wikipedia. I think we’ll all agree that it is much more reliable than it used to be.  Imagine if as a profession we added our knowledge to Wikipedia, how much we could help improve the readily-available information about caring for collections (and we’d be making a significant dent in the gender gap along the way)!

For a profession that is as relatively obscure as ours, and one dedicated to preserving our cultural heritage, it’s important to make our knowledge as accessible as possible, and a crucial way of accomplishing this is to contribute to Wikipedia articles on conservation.

One way to do this is to start documenting discreet collections of artworks by individual artists.  For example, what if we had Wikipedia articles about every Van Gogh ever painted, that included correct information about all of the pigments he used, and the different kinds of canvases or supports he painted.  That would be useful and interesting for conservators and art lovers alike.  Or, we could do all of the pieces by Judy Chicago, or Louise Bourgeois.

INCCA-NA has taken this idea and started the Artist Research Project.  Their first artist is Tony Smith, whose 100th birthday is in September of this year. Smith is well-known for creating large-scale outdoor sculptures around the world.  This project was recently mentioned in the New York Times “Arts Beat”.

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Amaryllis by Tony Smith. Picture by Michael Hicks from Saint Paul, MN, USA [CC-BY-2.0]

To participate in this project, follow these seven easy steps:

  1. Find the Tony Smith sculpture closest to you.
  2. Research it.
  3. Document it by creating a Wikipedia article about your artwork.
  4. Take pictures of it.
  5. Upload those pictures to Flickr.
  6. Add those pictures to the Tony Smith Flickr group.
  7. Tell people what you did!

For more detailed information about the project, follow this link.

I see this as a kind of first effort, almost an experiment, to see if conservators and others that care about artwork can work together to create knowledge about a discreet collection.  In the end, I think the sum of knowledge could be incredibly useful for conservators. It would be beneficial to know all of the paint systems he used, the exhibition history of the artworks, and images of what the pieces look like right now.

By contributing to Wikipedia articles on conservation, we can address both these issues at once: we can help bring attention to our discipline by coming to information seekers rather than requiring them to come to us, and, as a profession made up primarily of women (male conservators are welcome, too, of course!), we can help to address the gender gap on Wikipedia.

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Propane Tank and Blow Torch and Wax, Oh My!

This summer, I have been interning with Richard McCoy in the Objects and Variable Arts Lab at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Check out my latest blog post on the IMA blog (re-posted below) about waxing bronzes with fellow intern Katie Roth.

IMA conservation interns Anisha Gupta and Katie Roth

It’s been a record-setting summer, but not hot enough to stop me and fellow objects conservation intern Katie Roth from braving the heat to conserve several sculptures on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Our most challenging project has been Isidore Konti’s fountain, Nymph and Fawn. The fountain is placed at the top of the ravine garden on the historic Oldfields estate. It’s also surrounded by prickly and somewhat poisonous foliage (like poison ivy!). To start the project, Katie and I made our way with IMA conservator, Richard McCoy, out to the pond and formulated a game plan.

Nymph and Fawn by Isidore Konti (1917)

This treatment project was to re-apply a wax coating to the surface of the sculpture with the goal to prevent further deterioration of the bronze and maintain its historic appearance.
First things first, we washed the sculpture with Orvus soap and water to remove all the dirt and grime that builds up from the sculpture being outdoors. Nymph and Fawn was covered in cobwebs, bird guano, and plant debris.

Nymph and Fawn covered in cobwebs.

After sufficiently scrubbing and bathing the duo, we pulled out the propane tank, blowtorch, and wax that was specially made at the IMA for outdoor bronzes.  Then we set up our propane tank, hooked up the blowtorch, and started heating up the surface. The goal is to heat up the sculpture so that it reaches the melting point of wax. You know the surface is hot enough when it looks wet — this is because the heat is pulling out the moisture from within the sculpture and bringing it to the surface. The wax is then rubbed on the surface and begins to melt like butter. Once enough wax has been applied to an area, a brush is used to evenly coat the surface. Katie had a penchant for the torch, and I was more than happy to hand over the heat while I waxed and brushed.

Katie washing the sculpture.

We found a nice rhythm, heating and waxing until we had completed three-fourths of the sculpture: both of the sides and the back. Now, the trick was to find a way to wax the front–the side facing the pond. Because Nymph and Fawn is placed so close to the edge of the water, the front isn’t easily accessible from the shore. After some careful consideration, we determined that to wax this side we’d need to get in the pond. After putting a stick in the water to determine its depth, we found that neither of us was tall enough to stand in the pond (particularly not me, at a mere five feet and two and a half inches!). To solve this problem, we placed our stepladder in the water, then climbed out onto the ladder from the edge of the pond (with the propane torch!) to heat and wax from that angle. Luckily, it worked! And though we each very sustained minor burns, no one fell into the pond — though I don’t think we would have minded cooling off a bit.

Anisha heating up the bronze with a blowtorch.

The next day, we came back to apply a cold paste wax, Trewax, using a brush. Cold wax is applied as a barrier between the sculpture and moisture in the air.

Finally, the following day, the whole surface was buffed to a shine using damp cloths. This ensured that the wax was fully absorbed into the bronze and evenly coated the surface.

After a few days of hard work, Nymph and Fawn gleamed in the sunlight. I’ve noticed in my time at the IMA that many aspiring artists like to sit near the pond and paint or sketch the pair — we’re happy to have cleaned them up for everyone to enjoy.

The finished product!

If you’re interested in learning more about the conservation of bronzes, check out the blog post by former IMA interns Jessica Ford and Katherine Langdon about their work cleaning the bronze Sewall torches at Herron High School.

For more information on the conservation and maintenance of outdoor bronze sculptures, check out the following resources:

Caring for Outdoor Bronze Plaques, Part II: Cleaning and Waxing (whole title links to http://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/conserveogram/10-05.pdf)

Considine, Brian B. Conserving Outdoor Sculpture: The Stark Collection at the Getty Center. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 2010. Print.

Naudé, Virginia Norton. Sculptural Monuments in an Outdoor Environment: A Conference Held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, November 2, 1983. Philadelphia, PA: Academy, 1985. Print.

Naudé, Virginia Norton, and Glenn Wharton. Guide to the Maintenance of Outdoor Sculpture. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 1993. Print.