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Collaborating in the Public’s Domain

Richard McCoy


Since the 1980s conservators have found innovative ways to use the Internet to collaboratively create and share information around cultural property.  The rise of “Web 2.0,” the advent of social media applications, and other technological advancements allow conservators to form broader collaborative networks. Now conservators have the opportunity to harness the power of these technological advancements and begin building new ways to create and share more information on an institutional and personal level; at the same time conservators can directly engage the visitor in the creation of this information.  

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"First we change, and then we change our practices, and only later do we think to collectively change our institutions – to bring them in line with who we have become."
Robert Irwin

1One of the most visible ways in which cultural institutions1 recently have begun to change is in their capacity to inform and engage visitors both during a visit to the institution and on the Internet. Though there is little doubt that the core function of cultural institutions will continue to flourish – to provide first-hand experiences with cultural property2,3 – there are clear signs that the broader functions of institutions are being re-considered and that this process is just beginning.  Of course, museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions have been changing and evolving from the time off their inception, but what is genuinely “new” today is that many are more open and accessible – some now embrace the idea of having their inner workings become more transparent.4,5  Technology has played a big part in these developments.

2Information sharing around cultural property happens at professional gatherings, in exhibition spaces, on traditional web pages, and now through social media applications such as blogs, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, stand-alone “wikis”, and more recently through applications such as Facebook and Twitter.  The “Web 2.0 revolution”6 and the development of social media applications7 in particular is rapidly changing the way we create and share information and the way visitors interact with the information that cultural institutions produce.  Now it is easier and cheaper than ever before for cultural institutions and conservation professionals in particular to be open about the information they create and apply to the collecting, conserving, de-accessioning, exhibiting, preserving, and restoring of cultural property.  

3Though the notion of sharing conservation information through social media applications is novel, there has been a long-standing interest in presenting the work of conservators to visitors within the gallery setting, on the Internet, and in print publications.  The increasing frequency of institutions organizing temporary and permanent exhibitions around conservation projects attest to the importance and popularity of the conservator’s work. To name a few examples from 2008, at the J. Paul Getty Museum paintings conservator Mark Leonard worked for a month in the gallery on a large painting of a Rhinoceros by Jean-Baptiste Oudry;8 at the British Museum conservators spent a month working in the gallery on three different types of objects: “Stone (figure of Bacchus; marble votive relief; marble torso); Organics (bark cloth tunic; bark masks); Metal/Ceramics (Chiseldon Cauldron; Chertsey medieval ceramic tile)”;9 and at the Indianapolis Museum of Art paintings conservators spent more than four months working on a Renaissance altarpiece by Sebastiano Mainardi.10  Other conservation-focused exhibits have dealt with methods of authentication, in-gallery conservation treatment projects, summaries of past treatments, and technical art history studies – including chapters in exhibition catalogues that discuss technical analysis of materials and conservation treatments.  

4A growing number of institutions are making significant investments in the display of conservation departments as permanent exhibitions.  In 2002 the Chicago Field Museum opened the Regenstein Laboratory, a 1,600 square-foot conservation and collections management facility.11   In 2006 the Smithsonian Institution opened the Lunder Conservation Center which also puts the workings of the conservation department on permanent display.  Early in 2009, the Walters Art Gallery opened  a “behind-the-scenes” look at a conservation department by cutting a 4’ by 5’ window into the wall to allow visitors to observe the techniques used to examine and treat cultural property.12  Having a conservation project or an entire department on view within a cultural institution provides visitors an opportunity to see and understand the complex processes involved in preserving cultural property.  In turn this allows for a deeper level of interpretation and understanding of cultural property.  Finally, it serves to demonstrate a physical manifestation of good institutional stewardship.  The end result is a visitor that is more informed and potentially more engaged in the issues surrounding preservation and the representation of cultural property.

5Cultivating a more informed and engaged visitor increases the possibility of participation in the sharing and even creation of information around cultural property.  The numerous social media applications currently available make this work fairly simple to do.  This process of sharing and creating information collaboratively continues to push us further from our somewhat-recent “read-only” model of information distribution13 into one in which the collective brain power of all visitors is used to help create or respond to information – thus, a “read-write” model.  With this mindset the institution can become a place where museum professionals and visitors can gather information around cultural property, and everyone can take ownership of it and ultimately of its preservation.  Another way to think about this is Nina Simon’s summary: In the recent past, the expert was the content provider, pushing information from the top down.  Today the expert is the person who provides a platform for information to be gathered.14

6“Museums should feel protective of the expertise reflected in their staff, exhibits, programs, and collections. In most museums, the professional experience of the staff – to preserve objects, to design exhibits, to deliver programs – is not based on content control. It's based on creation and delivery of experiences. And in a world where visitors want to create, remix, and interpret content messages on their own, museums can assume a new role of authority as ‘platforms’ for those creations and recombinations.15

7Cultural institutions act as experts by choosing what enters into a collection and then deciding what and how it is displayed – a classic example of pushing information from the top down.  Just because it is now possible for the visitor to become engaged in this process and even contribute in the production and collection of information around cultural property, the demise of the museum and art expert is not imminent.  By example, many of the duties of traditional media outlets have been usurped by bloggers.  And, despite the fact that many news stories are first reported by eye-witness accounts of events on social media applications rather than through print, television, or radio outlets,16 the need for the expert journalist and investigative reporter is still great.  Just like the museum professional, the journalist’s role is not changing, but clearly the information delivery method and the relationship with the end user is.

8With this in mind, cultural institutions cannot ignore the new ways now available to share and create information, nor can institutions ignore the potential usefulness of each visitor. Witness the dramatic rise of Wikipedia: since its inception in 2001 more than 10,000,000 articles have been created and worked on in more than 260 languages.  All of these articles, all of the information, images, and other content was created or collected collaboratively by volunteer Wikipedians of all levels of expertise.17  See how the photo-sharing site Flickr is now hosting more than three billion photographs, many of which are coming directly from or taken at cultural institutions.18  These are just two examples of information being produced that is potentially useful to cultural institutions.  We are now scratching the surface of what is possible, and at the same time we are just beginning to see some of the negative aspects of the creation of a massive quantity of unverifiable information that is mingling with that which is verified.    

9While Wikipedia and Flickr are somewhat recent developments, the idea of conservators sharing information over the Internet is hardly new.  Here is what Walter Henry said back in 1988 about the possibility of conservators sharing information through a process he was only imagining:  

10“We all spend a great deal of time writing things like specifications, evaluations of processes, course notes, and other documents that could be of some use outside our own institutions. If these things were prepared on a machine, it is no big deal to send them over the net. If people are interested, I would be glad to store such docs and handle requests for dissemination. Or we could simply announce availability via the distlist. If there were very enthusiastic interest in this, we could even set up a server (an account running a special program to handle file requests), but that's probably for the future....”19

11Now in this future, almost twenty two years after Mr. Henry realized this idea through the Conservation OnLine (CoOL) website and the Conservation DistList, there are 9393 people from 89 different countries registered to receive the DistList.20  While there are plenty of instances of pioneering Internet efforts aimed at sharing information, CoOL and the DistList are important, world-wide efforts that demonstrate the conservation profession’s rich history of working together as a community towards the common goal of preserving cultural property.  Here are six other notable efforts21 of conservators working together using standard Internet platforms to produce important conservation information:

12Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!).  Starting in 1989, 7,000 SOS! volunteers worked to document and catalogue “publicly accessible sculptures” throughout America. After gathering information on about 32,000 artworks, the Smithsonian assembled an online database, the Inventory of American Sculpture and continues to “advocate for the proper care of this often-neglected public resource. Citizens are working to preserve sculptures and monuments across the United States, and SOS! helps them by providing resources to spark local action.”22     

13The Conservation and Art Materials Encyclopedia Online (CAMEO) Started in 1997, this database “compiles, defines, and disseminates technical information on the distinct collection of terms, materials, and techniques used in the fields of art conservation and historic preservation.”23  The information in this encyclopedia-style database was created mostly by conservation experts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  

14International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (INCCA) “Since its inception in 1999, the network has grown from 23 to around 250 members (including independents and students) from over 150 organisations in 30 countries.”24 In short, “INCCA is a network of professionals connected to the conservation of modern and contemporary art. Conservators, curators, scientists, registrars, archivists, art historians and researchers are among its members. Members allow access to each others unpublished information (artist interviews, condition reports, installation instructions etc) through the INCCA Database for Artists' Archives.”25 Started in 2002 this web page is a collection of information about Integrated Pest Management, and is maintained by the Integrated Pest Management Working Group (IPM-WG).  “This group does not teach IPM; participants are expected to already be familiar with general IPM principals.  Instead, the IPM-WG focuses on providing resources to make it easier for the broader museum community to develop and implement their own IPM programs.  The goal of the group is to promote and facilitate good IPM practices and collaboration between staff and institutions through the development and on-line distribution of training materials and other resources.”26

16Inside Installations: Preservation and Presentation of Installation Art Started in 2004 as “a three-year research project (2004-2007) into the care and administration of an art form that is challenging prevailing views of conservation. Over thirty complex installations have been selected as case studies and will be re-installed, investigated and documented. Experience is shared and partners collaborate to develop good practice on five research topics.” 27  This research project has more than 20 participating institutions in five European countries.

17Art Materials Information and Education Network (AMIEN) In 2006 Mark D. Gottsegen and Albert Albano launched this web site and corresponding forums which serve to establish AMIEN as “a resource for artists dedicated to providing the most comprehensive, up-to-date, accurate, and unbiased factual information about artists’ materials.”28  Since then the site has “enjoyed 15-20,000 unique individual readers per month, and get[s] 2 +/- posts per day to the Forums.”29

18These examples demonstrate a lot of things. They show that conservators are expert users and creators of traditional web pages and that using the Internet is an affective way to share useful and productive information.  Now there is clear evidence that conservators are also early adopters of social media applications. In 2008 there was an explosion of conservation content created with these applications by and for conservators.  A new conservation-focused blog seems to appear every week.30  Dozens of institutions of all sizes feature conservation content on their web pages or on sites such as YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter.  Likewise, many conservators in private practice are sharing information on their own web pages or through these applications.  Facebook and Twitter are increasingly becoming tools that blur the boundaries between personal and professional communication, further eroding the notion of the institution as a closed monolithic entity.

19Flickr and Facebook allow for the easy sharing of images, links, and text without the formal and often closed structure of an e-mail distribution list.  In some ways Twitter builds on Facebook’s ability to connect and share information but is more open and immediate.  The Lunder Conservation Center recently started using Twitter and is now “tweeting” on a daily basis about conservation treatments that are underway at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.31  Twitter allows cultural institutions and conservators to directly interact with and inform the visitor.

20There are also many projects that employ Web 2.0 principles to engage conservators and visitors simultaneously. Preservation Today, a project sponsored by the NCPTT and Northwestern State University of Louisiana, was started in August of 2008 “to help inspire the advancement of heritage values in our society using the new form of communication called social media.”32  Though Preservation Today produces its own content, another of its key functions is to serve as a hub for other’s content by displaying content that is “tagged” with the word “preservationtoday”.33  This project is poised to serve as a clearing house for preservation information.

21Some conservators have started to explore the possibility of using Wikipedia to create conservation content independent of institutions or personal web pages.34  Of course, Wikipedia represents a dramatic shift of the idea of authorship, one in which the individual author sacrifices personal recognition for the greater cause of the topic.  Instead of being an author, or expert, the user is simply a contributor.35  Do to the nature of our work and our long-standing history of sharing information with each other, it seems that we are naturally acclimated to the collaborative model because we often act as the expert and a contributor at the same time.  

22There is evidence that there is growing “public” interest in helping to create information about cultural property that ultimately may aid in its preservation.  Take for example the Wikipedia articles on New Media Preservation,36 the temporary installation The Gates37 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, or Trajan’s Column.38  It would be difficult to argue that these are definitive sources for information, but they are excellent demonstrations of Wikipedia’s capacity to host useful information that was pulled together around important preservation topics. The Gates article is a good example of the collaborative documentation of a temporary installation.  Long after the project has been completed this article continues to serve as a record of the installation, and a locus for information and reaction about the project.  The same is true for the Trajan’s Column article, though of course it is a “permanent” installation and its history longer.  There seems to be an unlimited potential in the capacity of Wikipedia articles.  

23Another example of Wikipedia becoming a place where information about cultural property can be collected is The Great Internet Art Wiki Marathon, which began because:

24“There's a lack of art/artist info on Wikipedia, and we're often too busy to find the time to contribute. So, we're setting aside one day where a crew of people collectively drop serious knowledge into Wikipedia about art. From your favorite notable artwork, artist or exhibition, to our soon-to-be-famous peers. We'll also add structural links to alumni schools and categories like collective art groups, non profit orgs, etc.”39

25In a similar vein as this project, the Brooklyn Museum sponsored Wikipedia Loves Art, an image-collecting project aimed at illustrating Wikipedia articles about artworks within museums.40  This project is an outgrowth of the New York City-based project, Wiki Takes Manhattan41 that collected images and improved more than 140 articles about locations in New York.  Wiki Takes Manhattan was coordinated by students from Columbia University and New York University.  Both of these projects are operated as “scavenger hunt” games.  In the case of Wikipedia Loves Art, institutions provided winners “prizes” for their work, including print publications, exhibitions tickets, an iPod Touch, and private tours of an exhibition with a curator.  15 cultural institutions in the U.S. and Europe participated.    

26Some conservation associations and foundations are in the process of starting to utilize social media applications.  For example, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) recently awarded the Foundation for AIC (FAIC) a grant that will allow for the transition of the AIC Conservation Catalogs into wiki format, where they can be continuously updated.42  The Midwest Regional Conservation Guild has been employing a wiki site instead of a web site for the past two years.43  The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is now using the wiki format for the Mellon Digital Documentation Project (MDDP).44 The Mellon foundation has long been committed to making knowledge and professional expertise available in “traditional and new ways”.45  

27In 2008 the Library of Congress (LOC) started a partnership with Flickr called The Commons, 46 which articulated two main objectives:

  • To increase access to publicly-held photography collections, and

  • To provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge. (Then watch what happens when they do!)

  • In little more than a year there are now 18 institutional partners participating in The Commons.  Thousands of images have been uploaded, all of which are without copyright restrictions.  In October of 2008 the LOC released a report that indicated the key successes of the project:

  • As of October 23, 2008, there have been 10.4 million views of the photos on Flickr.

  • 79% of the 4,615 photos have been made a “favorite” (i.e., are incorporated into personal Flickr collections).

  • Over 15,000 Flickr members have chosen to make the Library of Congress a “contact,” creating a photostream of Library images on their own accounts.

  • For Bain images placed on Flickr, views/downloads rose approximately 60% for the period January-May 2008, compared to the same time period in 2007. Views/downloads of FSA/OWI image files placed on Flickr rose approximately 13%.

  • 7,166 comments were left on 2,873 photos by 2,562 unique Flickr accounts.

  • 67,176 tags were added by 2,518 unique Flickr accounts.

  • 4,548 of the 4,615 photos have at least one community-provided tag.

  • Less than 25 instances of user-generated content were removed as inappropriate.

  • More than 500 Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) records have been enhanced with new information provided by the Flickr Community.

  • Average monthly visits to all PPOC Web pages rose 20% over.

28Though many of these successes are impressive based on quantity and quality of views, the one success that appears to indicate potential for conservators is the fact that more than 500 catalog records had their information enhanced with new information. 47  While it is not clear in what way these records were enhanced, that the LOC listed more than 500 in the first year of the project is impressive, and verifies the completion of the stated of objective of providing a way for the public to “contribute information and knowledge.”

29The amount of conservation content that is now published on blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter is vast.  These tools give institutions the ability to interact directly with visitors anywhere in the world.  Further, the above projects encourage visitors to approach the collection and evaluation of information in different ways; they may in fact be altering the expectations visitors have in their own institutions.  For example, The Commons and the Wikipedia examples have gaming elements within their project scope – scavenger hunts, scoring, prizes, etc.  By making these projects loosely associated with a game model, the projects are attempting to change the mindset of the visitor to think about their involvement with cultural property in a more positive way.  

30Jane McGonigal and others have been developing the idea of turning visitors into “game players” through the creation of alternate reality games that utilize museum exhibitions.  McGonigal says cultural institutions must do more than simply remain places that house cultural property; they must encourage creativity and the generation of ideas in new ways.  She also believes that visitors should be useful:

31"The fate of humanity hangs in the balance over whether we're going to get crowds to do anything useful or not," McGonigal says. "Are they going to put all of their cognitive bandwidth into virtual worlds, or are they going to contribute? ... We have all this pent-up knowledge in museums, all this pent-up expertise, and all these collections designed to inspire and bring people together. I think the museum community has a kind of ethical responsibility to unleash it."48

32In this way conservators should encourage visitors to join the cause of preserving cultural property and seek out ways for them to be useful to our needs.  We need help assessing, documenting, categorizing, and identifying cultural property.   If a game could be created that would allow visitors to help us do this, it might just be the best game ever made (for conservators, anyway).  

33Conservators need to start asking themselves what can be done to help move these ideas forward.  The following suggestions are ways that could begin this process.  

34Move conversations about preserving cultural property out into the public and invite visitors to participate.  

35Instead of using closed e-mail list serves that are so prevalent in our field, we should open our conversations to a broader audience and invite input from visitors. Conservators are excellent information sharers that could benefit from having broader collaborative networks.  We constantly help each other out over e-mail distribution lists and by phone calls.  If we start doing this in a more open and transparent way, it would invite collaborators that were otherwise unaware of our projects or specific questions about materials and techniques. This could be achieved, for example, by creating discussion groups around specific topics on blogs, or groups on Facebook.

36Encourage visitors to help collect historical information and photo document cultural property.  

37Conservators often are in need of help in documenting the condition of cultural property.  Though most institutions work very hard to control a building’s environment (temperature, humidity, light level, and quality of air), and most cultural property is changing at an imperceptible rate, some cultural property is undergoing rapid change.  The cultural property that could most directly benefit from documentation by visitors is this work that has the greatest potential to change.  For example, artworks that have variable presentation states (such as installation art or art that is temporary or ephemeral), or artworks that are exhibited outside of the museum environment and exposed to the elements – such as outdoor sculpture, historic buildings, structures, etc.  The cost of the high quality equipment needed to do this work has become more affordable for a wide swath of society.  Even cameras that can take images in the infrared are now affordable for many, making it possible for visitors to take IRR images of collections while they are on view.49  Many of these images could be uploaded and organized on either Flickr or to the Wikipedia Commons.

38Educate and encourage visitors on how to assess the physical condition of cultural property.

39Having visitors document and examine cultural property has the potential to provide an up-to-date understanding of its physical condition, and will also allow us to better understand how the public is seeing and interacting with it. By encouraging documentation and condition assessment we will be educating visitors about the role the conservator plays within cultural institutions.  This in turn will lead to broader collaboration networks.  The more the visitor knows about cultural property and the conservator’s interests, the more likely they will be to get involved in our work.  If conservators reciprocate this participation and share their own documentary information and data, the visitor will be more likely to gain a deeper sense of meaning from cultural property and better understand its physical condition.  This kind of information is currently being created and stored on Wikipedia.

40Encourage visitors to help gather information about the materials, media, and techniques of construction and structure of cultural property.  

41Though conservators have direct and exclusive access to cultural property which allows for physical examination and technical analysis, visitors can make useful contributions through visual examination in the gallery or in the natural environment.  Conservators could benefit by having more information about the physical properties of cultural property, particularly those that were made with modern materials.  We could also benefit from having information on new materials and techniques that could be used in our field.  

42Start working to create a world-wide catalogue raisonné of cultural property.

43Yes, seriously.  It is not unthinkable that cultural institutions could have databases that not only combine the world’s collection of cultural property, but more importantly allows for the easy sharing of conservation documentation.  It is also not unthinkable that we could then invite visitors to see the information and even ask them to help create it.  Two recently-launched Mellon-supported projects have the potential to make significant moves in this direction, and in the process reshape the way information around cultural property is created, stored, categorized, and shared:  

    CollectionSpace is a “collaboration that brings together a variety of cultural and academic institutions with the common goal of developing and deploying an open-source, web-based software application for the description, management, and dissemination of museum collections information.”50

    ConservationSpace is a similar project that aims to help conservators by developing an open-source “software application that would support and help manage their work, its documentation, and related scientific data.”51

44Both of these software applications are being created by and for the museum community, and both of them will be distributed for free.  Because the code is being written as “open-source,” the museum community will be able to continue to develop the software into tools that are useful.  It is possible that they will become so prominent that every cultural institution in the world uses them.  It is also possible that they could be built in such a way that the institutions that use them are able to create and share information collaboratively.  In short, they could effectively bring an end to the tradition of each institution working in isolation to build an information database about cultural property.  Communities could work together to create information about artists, the materials used to make their work, and the materials and techniques conservators have used during conservation interventions or maintenance.  Likewise we could work to create information about the materials used for exhibition case construction, the crating and shipping of art, and the building environment in general.

45Looking back at past projects, it become obvious that this is what we have been doing since the late 1980s – working together to create and share information about our work.  The difference being that in the past we worked in smaller collaboration networks.  It seems possible that new software applications might have the capacity to incorporate the information already contained in sites like CAMEO, AMIEN, and CoOL.  Perhaps it could also be a place where scientific data could be stored and organized, using, for example, groups like the International Infrared and Raman Users' Group (IRUG) as models.  If the software was built in such a way as to allow the visitor to see much if not all of this information and actually become a partner in the creation of information we would truly be trekking into uncharted lands rich with potential.

46Even before the completion of these Mellon-funded software applications, cultural institutions and conservators can continue to work to find new ways to expand collaboration networks.  Perhaps the conservation profession could take on a few group projects as experiments.  Today we could begin working together to incorporate all of the data that is in CAMEO into current or new Wikipedia articles, or we could re-open SOS! by moving the data into Wikipedia articles.  We could encourage our cultural institutions to upload their digital images to Flickr and become part of The Commons.  It is important to point out that these projects would not be replacements for what cultural institutions currently accomplish and disrupt the way that they currently store data; they would simply be amplifications of their services.  Projects like these would allow us to begin finding out what happens when we expand our networks and begin working more openly.  Encouraging collaboration also enables serendipitous connections.  

47At the same time this work might help us better understand how to organize and sort our information into more meaningful ways.  It is one thing to have all of the data in the world, it is truly another to be able to find the right data at the right time.  Organizing our data may be the biggest challenge of all.

48While many of the examples of current projects using social media point to a rapidly growing interest from the visitor in sharing and creating information, equally important question remains of how much participation from the public we should expect.  As Clay Shirkey points out, the amount of time spent watching television commercials during the weekend in the U.S. alone roughly equals the total amount of time spent in creating all of the articles on Wikipedia (approximately 100 million hours of thought)52.   This surplus of free time is massive and we only need to harness a fraction of it to produce useful results.  What if this work could be developed into some kind of game that is fun or makes the visitor happy to do it?  It certainly is not impossible.  After all, it seems most conservators enjoy their work, and may even call it fun, or at least say that it makes them happy.  

49Another serious concern is that most social media applications currently being used are not archival.  In fact, many are owned by corporations that have little if any responsibility to the stakeholders who helped create the information.  For example, The Flicker Commons project is not in the public domain, but owned by the Yahoo! Corporation.  This project could disappear tomorrow and institutions would have little course of action.  While Wikipedia operates as a not-for-profit entity, there is no guarantee that it will maintain that status in the future or even be around tomorrow.  Perhaps if cultural institutions worked together at an international level the conceptual framework of projects like Flickr and Wikipedia could be moved to service providers that belong to cultural institutions and are truly archival.  Other complications revolve around institutional confidentiality, privacy, and copyright restrictions.  

50Of course, working collaboratively with visitors is not without complications for conservators and institutions to overcome.  Conservators rely on expert analysis and opinions to make decisions that often have serious and immediate consequences for cultural property.  Because when working collaboratively there is potential for information to be created that is fake, a mistake, or plain forgery, boundaries would need to be set so that the conservator could make accurate judgments about the veracity of information.  

51None of this work can be done with out strong institutional support and demand.  The collective goal of the conservation profession is to preserve cultural property for future generations.  At its core, this is a selfless act.  In this way, conservators seem the most likely out of many professionals to be willing and able to move aside their personal sense of “expertise” and continue to work together in the broadest sense to achieve our goal.  Certainly the work of sharing more information about cultural property would work to fulfill many a cultural institution’s mission statement.

52Since it appears to be an all-but-foregone conclusion that we will continue to evolve into a read-write society, whatever drawbacks we encounter in changing the access level of our data appear to be obstacles that will be overcome.  Visitors can help us document the condition of cultural property and help understand from what and how it is made, installed, exhibited, viewed, and interacted.  Certainly not every idea for conservators working together in the open or every project that encourages the visitor to help create information will work, but in the same way we build into our conservation treatments the idea of “reversibility,” we must build into our projects a similar idea of failing with a purpose.  If one idea fails, find out why and start again.

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1  This article attempts to talk about “cultural institutions” in a global way, but I confess to having a U.S. centered vantage point.  Further, I mention a number of social media applications that are widely used here in the U.S., and, as far as I can tell, globally.  

2  I use the term cultural property in the same context that it is used by the American Institute for Conservation: “Cultural property consists of individual objects, structures, or aggregate collections. It is material which has significance that may be artistic, historical, scientific, religious, or social, and it is an invaluable and irreplaceable legacy that must be preserved for future generations.” “AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.” American Institute for Conservation. Retrieved on 2009-01-09.

3  The Museum Association produced this Youtube video back in 2007 that asks a variety of people what “What is the single most important function of museums?”

4  It should be pointed out that James Beck was among the first to call for museums to be more open to the public, especially when decisions were being made to cultural property.  While he wrote books on this subject, I only reference the 2005 petition his group, Art Watch International, issued to the International Council of Museums (ICOM).  “Petition to the International Council of Museums.” Art Watch International. Retrieved on 2009-01-15 (login required).

5  The Institute of Museum Ethics was particularly pleased with a recent exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York: “Part of the mission of the Institute of Museum Ethics is to promote such transparency in museums. Ethical issues are at the core of conservation work, so when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York recently inaugurated an exhibit focusing on experimental art conservation techniques, museum transparency was truly manifested. “IMAGELESS: The Scientific Study and Experimental Treatment of an Ad Reinhardt Black Painting” invites the visitor to witness first-hand the results of new laser technologies being implemented for the conservation of modern and contemporary art. October 28, 2008 “Exhibiting Art Conservation as an Ethical Mandate.” Institute of Museum Ethics. Retrieved on 2009-01-15.

6  The term Web 2.0 is usually attributed to the following blog post by Tim O’Reilly.  Generally, it stands for a re-birth of the Internet into a newer version of the Internet, one that re-positions the user as a world-wide collaborator.  Tim O'Reilly (September 30, 2005). "What Is Web 2.0". O'Reilly Network. Retrieved on 2009-01-09.

7  "Social media." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 2009-01-13.

8  “Conservation in Action: Jean-Baptiste Oudry's Rhinoceros”The Getty. Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

9  “Conservation in Focus” The British Museum. Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

10  “Sebastiano Mainardi; The Science of Art.” Indianapolis Museum of Art. Retrieved on 2009-01-18.>.

11  “The Field Museum Information: Press Room.”  Field Museum. Retrieved on 2009-03-16.

12  “Walters Art Museum Provides "Behind-the-Scenes" View of Conservation Lab.”  Retrieved on 2009-01-18

13  I say somewhat recent because the way history has been made and written has evolved since the day the first story was told from one person to the next, and on through the history of the book.

14  Nina Simon (October 08, 2008).  “The Future of Authority: Platform Power.”  Museum 2.0.  Retrieved on 2009-01-19.

15  Ibid.

16  Recently users of Twitter have reported earthquakes and other events quicker than traditional news media.  For example, Twitter users first reported a recent plane crash into New York City’s Hudson River.  Terrence O'Brien (January, 15th 2009) “Twitter Breaks News of Plane Crash in the Hudson.”  Switched.Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

17  "Wikipedia." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 2009-01-15.>.

18  Noam Cohen (January 18, 2009).  “Link by Link – Historical Photos in Web Archives Gain Vivid New Lives”. Retrieved on 2009-01-19.>

19 Conservation OnLine--Nuts, Bolts, Hooks, Lines, and Sinkers”.  Conservation OnLine. Retrieved on 2009-01-18.<>.

20  “About the Conservation DistList.” Conservation OnLine. Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

21  I chose these six projects for their variety of approach, not necessarily for their notability.  Many other excellent collaborative research projects have been completed.  Some of them have been listed at the bottom of the Wikipedia article about Art Conservation (  Please feel free to add more there.

22  “About SOS!” Save Outdoor Sculpture.Retrieved on 2009-01-18

23  “About Cameo.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

24  “What is INCCA.” International Network for the Conservation of Contemporary Art. Retrieved on 2009-01-18.  

25  Ibid.

26  “Frequently Asked Questions.” Retrieved on 2009-01-18.>.

27  “Inside Installations.”  Inside Installations.  Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

28  “About AMIEN.” Retrieved on 2009-01-18

29  From a e-mail conversation with Mark Gottsegen on 2009-03-01.

30  I now follow more than 30 such blogs in my Google Reader, and follow 10 or so conservator on Twitter.

31  “Twitter/Lunder.” Twitter. Retrieved on 2009-01-18
<> .

32  “About Us.”  Preservation Today. Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

33  “ReportIT.”  Preservation Today. Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

34  I personally experimented with this by encouraging the public to make Wikipedia articles about IMA sculptures in exchange for lunch with the museum’s director.  Richard McCoy (March 26, 2008). “Wikipedia entries – It’s just Lunch.” Indianapolis Museum of Art Blog.  Retrieved on January 23, 2009.
In November of 2007, Luisa Casella and James Cox published an article that described some of the potential uses of Wikipedia for conservators.  “Use of Wikis in Conservation.”  AIC News. November, 2007.  Retrieved on January 23, 2009.  

35  Having created new Wikipedia articles, made edits to various articles (including “Art conservation”) and served as the administrator for the Midwest Regional Conservation Guild’s wiki site, I can attest to the efficacy of directly and instantly adding and updating information on concepts, projects, and even articles on specific works of cultural property.

36  "New media art preservation." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on January 21, 2009.

37  "The Gates." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on January 23, 2009.

38  "Trajan's Column." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on January 23, 2009.

39  “The Great Art Wiki Marathon.” Retrieved on January 21, 2009.

40  “Wikipedia Loves Art.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on January 21, 2009.

41  “Wikipedia Takes Manhattan.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on January 21, 2009.

42  “The AIC Conservation Catalogs are a compendium of working knowledge on materials and techniques used to preserve and treat works of art and historic artifacts. The series, begun in 1985 and still in active development, was intended to be updated on an ongoing basis as techniques, technologies, and modes of practice evolve; however it is currently constrained by printing and distribution costs. Converting the catalogs to a wiki (online collaborative knowledge base) will allow easy and timely collaborative editing and also provide much broader access to these resources, ensuring that innovative methods and materials are documented and widely disseminated to practicing conservators and conservation scientists.” “News”. National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. Retrieved on 2009-01-14<,415-Released-for-the-National-Center-for-Preservation-Technology-and-Training-Grants-Program.aspx> .

43  “MRCG.” The Midwest Regional Conservation Guild.Retrieved on 2009-01-14.
<> .

44  This site is open, but requires registration.  “Main Page – MDDP Wiki.” Mellon Digital Documentation Project (MDDP).  Retrieved on 2009-01-14.

45  “Mellon Conservation Documentation Survey.”The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

46  “Flickr: The Commons.” Flickr.Retrieved on 2009-01-18.

47 Michelle Springer, Beth Dulabahn, Phil Michel, Barbara Natanson, David Reser, David Woodward, and Helena Zinkham (October 30, 2008). “For the Common Good: The Library of Congress Flickr Pilot Project.”  The Library of Congress.  Retrieved on 2009-01-14.  

48  Elizabeth Blair (January 12, 2009).  “Interactive Games Make Museums A Place To Play”. National Public Radio. Retrieved on 2009-01-14.

49  While there are a number of companies that will transform digital SLR cameras into IRR cameras that can see into the near IR, the Fujifilm IS Pro Digital camera is specially designed for investigative photography  is ready out of the box.

50  “CollectionSpace.” Retrieved on 2009-03-10.

51  “ConservationSpace.” Retrieved on 2009-03-10.

52  “So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project--every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in--that represents something like the accumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it's the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought. And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus.”  Clay Shirkey (April 23, 2008). “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”. Web 2.0 Expo. Retrieved on 2009-01-14.

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Electronic reference

Richard McCoy, “Collaborating in the Public’s Domain”CeROArt [Online], 3 | 2009, Online since 21 April 2009, connection on 22 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Richard McCoy

Richard McCoy is Assistant Conservator of Objects at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where he conserves artworks across all areas of the collection. McCoy’s research extends beyond the technology and structure of artworks to include artistic intent and execution as it relates to the preservation of contemporary art. His current research includes the investigation of interior channels in African Songye power figures and making conservation public through social media.
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.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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