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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Conservation in the News

As a recent graduate, I have been thinking a lot about my future in the field of art conservation. Any career in the arts and museums is tough, but it is particularly difficult when the general public does not know that your field exists. I love telling people about conservation because they are usually so fascinated by it and want to learn more. In my experience, there is a genuine interest in the field and people seem to understand the importance of conservation (once they know what it is!).

Damage on the Picasso from the Menil Collection

It has been particularly intriguing to see how conservation is covered in the news. A month ago, the New York Times wrote an article about a conservator at Brown University who found a piece of paper signed by Paul Revere. This article, though creating a romanticized notion of conservation, nonetheless brought attention to the field. (If you’re interested, the UIUC Rare Book and Manuscript Director wrote a response to this article.) The New York Times has also recently published two conservation-related articles on its front page (see here and here), as well as the Wall Street Journal (see here and here).

This brings me to the most recent scandal from the art world: the vandalism of the Picasso in the Menil Collection in Houston. A museum patron catches a man defacing a Picasso, using a stencil to spray-paint an image of a bull and the word “Conquista”. There were two particularly appalling things about this video: the suspect claims to be doing this to “honor Picasso’s work” and the “stunned” man who filmed this thought it was “pretty cool” that someone vandalized a painting. I don’t think Picasso would feel honored, nor would he think it was cool.

What I did like, though, was that the museum was able to take the painting down the hall to the conservation department so that it could immediately be treated. I am not in favor of defacing works of art to draw attention to our work, but I think it is important for conservators to take this opportunity and show the public exactly what we do.

Luckily, since the painting was immediately taken to the lab, spray paint removal should not be too difficult. The first thing to do would be test the spray paint and determine the chemical composition. Then the conservator can decide which solvents would best remove the chemicals. The spray paint has not had time to sit and become ingrained into the paint layer, and I’m sure the conservator has seen much worse!

I feel like I see conservation in the media more and more (I recently saw a crime show where the perpetrators stole an obscene number of van Gogh’s from an art conservation firm and stored them in horrible, non-archival tubing. I could just see the paint flaking off!). While it’s very encouraging to see conservation in the media, it is not enough to simply be mentioned now and again. I think the theme of the latest AIC conference, outreach, speaks to that. Every conservator I have met is extremely passionate about their work, and I know that as we continue to educate the public about the importance of our work, the public will begin to share our passion for–and our insistence on the importance of–conservation.

Conservation work on Jefferson’s Bible

Though I was not able to attend the AIC Annual Conference in Albuquerque this year (due to final exams!), I have been so pleased to be able to peruse the AIC website and read about all of the presentations. One that caught my eye was conservation work performed on Thomas Jefferson’s Secret Bible. Janice Stagnitto Ellis, Senior Paper Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History, along with Emily S. Rainwater, Post Graduate Fellow at NMAH and Laura A. Bedford, Assistant Book Conservator at NEDCC, worked on this 200-year Bible.

The Bible, entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English”, has the most fascinating history, which is summed up quite well in an article in the University of Virginia Magazine. Jefferson was raised to be quite religious but questioned some aspects of Christianity as he grew older. He did not believe in miracles but was a devout follower of Jesus Christ. In 1804, he decided to create his own Bible by cutting out all references to miracles in the New Testament and pasting them together He then took these 84 pages to Frederick Mayo, a bookbinder in Richmond. The compilation is known today as Jefferson’s Bible.

The Bible went to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History to be conserved in 2011. The conservation work is, I am so happy to say, detailed on a site dedicated to the Bible, as well as in a three minute video.

What an exciting project! I particularly loved learning about the organic and inorganic analyses. I’m so sad I missed this presentation but the conservators really put a lot of time and effort into giving the public as much access as possible to the work, through the website and video. Given this year’s AIC conference theme, outreach, hopefully we will see more and more institutions doing the same thing.