But the Virginia native and a cadre of digital cadets around the world are looking to harness the power of Web giant Wikipedia to restore broader access to exhibit content that has been moved out of the public eye and into storage areas, to open up those stories to a new generation of people — many of them young students — who never got to experience them when they graced museum floors.
The 28-year-old Phillips is doing her part to achieve that goal by serving as the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest such facility. She is determined to increase access to the information and collections that once were reserved for physical institutions like galleries, libraries, archives and museums — GLAMs to insiders —to create a digital world of exploration through Wikipedia that will preserve knowledge for future generations, such as her four-year-old son Teddy.
Student project opened door
Phillips didn’t envision herself as a Wikipedian, but a project through a museum studies’ collections care and management course opened a new door. She and classmates wrote 40 articles about public art on the IUPUI campus. “We had to research the provenance for each piece, outline their condition, name, the artist, and so forth,” she says. Phillips “was inspired by the premise that Wikipedia could be a platform highlighting public artworks ‘hidden in plain sight.’” The students’ work was featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a noteworthy achievement; that led to a second project at the Indiana State House, which garnered more attention for the program and its students.
The work whetted her interest in Wikipedia, which Phillips says has the informal but ambitious goal “to gather the sum of all human knowledge and make it available on line.” That appeals to both her love of history and of teaching; she once trained to be a teacher while attending George Mason University near Washington, D.C.
The public art project led Phillips to a growing global initiative known as GLAM-Wiki, made up of volunteer Wikipedians who assist cultural institutions in sharing research with Wikipedia.
The project involves such prestigious institutions as the British Museum and the Smithsonian. Because of her work at the Children’s Museum, Phillips has emerged as a leader in this now-popular project, initiating best practices that have been implemented around the world. “I’ve never been the ‘cool kid’ that got a lot of attention before,” she laughs.
At the Children’s Museum, Phillips gets to combine both passions. She and other volunteers track down printed information, images and research from past exhibits (such as a newspaper or magazine review), and turn it all into Wikipedia articles. Her volunteers have included MAP (Museum Apprentice Program) students, 13- to 18-year- olds who do project-based work related to the Children’s Museum. “The MAP students are enthusiastic about sharing the museum’s resources through Wikipedia, where they know people all over the world can see their work. They take the project very seriously,” she says.
The MAP youths “have created five substantial Wikipedia articles about the museum’s iconic objects,” Phillips says proudly. Those new articles helped launch QRpedia codes throughout the museum, digital signage posted within museum exhibits. Visitors use digital devices to scan the QR codes, downloading Wikipedia articles that have greater depth than the signage can offer.
The articles “allow children in China or teens in Thailand to learn about Bucky the Teenage T. rex (a popular feature in The Children’s Museum’s Dinosphere) or glass-blowing artist Dale Chihuly’s Fireworks of Glass,” Phillips says, referring to Chihuly’s dazzling multi-story glass sculpture within the museum.
The Wikipedia initiative is increasingly important in an era when Encyclopaedia Britannica just ended more than two centuries of printing encyclopedias. “Wikipedia has the ability and the desire to help us share our collective knowledge, and the cultural resources held in museums should be part of that information,” she says.
Wikipedia’s desire to play that cultural role is obvious. But the organization’s open nature — anyone can contribute — has created public perceptions that Wikipedia information is open to question, if not doubt. That’s like nails on a chalkboard to Phillips. “A lot of people don’t realize how heavily Wikipedia articles are vetted,” Phillips says. “All Wikipedia content has to come from a third-party source, and it is cited on the website. And any Wikipedian will tell you that you shouldn’t cite Wikipedia as a source; it’s a tool to use to check out the other sources listed.”
For Phillips, work in a digital age is filled with challenges, but even more excitement. “It’s exciting to have been on the ride from the start of the GLAM-Wiki initiative,” she says. “It’s been incredible to work alongside Wikipedians all over the world who are as passionate as I am about sharing cultural knowledge on this global platform.”
Her current work “is not the path I expected my museum studies career to take,” Phillips says. “But it combines all that I’m most passionate about: I’m able to work within museums to educate others, and share historical and cultural resources on a digital platform.”
Her work has earned Phillips a new role, as well. She is the 2012 U.S. Cultural Partnerships Coordinator for the Wikimedia Foundation, the umbrella organization of which Wikipedia is a part. Phillips is helping build an infrastructure for American cultural institutions to collaborate with Wikimedia.For her work, Phillips has traveled to such U.S. cities as San Francisco, New York City, Austin and Washington, D.C., and to London and Israel abroad. “That part of it has been exciting,” she admits with a smile. But in the virtual world she and other Wikipedians are helping to construct, that’s just a drop in the ‘cyber bucket.’