Accommodating users in knowledge co-production

Quoc-Tan Tran
7 min readDec 14, 2020

These are excerpts from a talk I gave at the international symposium “Making History Together: Public Participation in Museums” on the 15th December 2020

  • Hello everyone. It is a pleasure to be here with you. My name is Quoc-Tan Tran (or just call me Tan). I’m from the POEM project.
  • Today I will be talking about how museums overcome organisational resistance to changes and open up further areas of their collection in the future.
  • There are two aspects I would like to discuss. First, I reckon, to accommodate users in knowledge co-production, the institution needs to care about users, care about different groups of users and what they think. Then, I present some findings from my fieldwork in October this year at the Museum of European Cultures (MEK) of the National Museums in Berlin.
  • Participatory culture has a significant impact on the heritage sector.
  • Participation gives power, more voice, more spaces to the community.
  • With various kinds of decentralised projects, GLAM institutions (galleries, libraries, museums, and archives) can reach out to people of marginalised and underrepresented groups, challenging the marginalisations and exclusions that take place in the society for which they provide service.
  • The MEK locates in the Dahlem village, at the margin of Berlin. That’s very important if you think about target audience, or the typical user of the museum.
MEK is in the city of Berlin but not in the city centre
  • As you see on the map, the MEK is further down in the South West. Its typical visitors are not tourists. They are not so young. They are a mixed population.

Vertically vs horizontally integrated

  • The MEK’s infrastructure is complicated. Together with other 14 museums and 4 institutes, it belongs to the National Museums in Berlin (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, or SMB). The SMB, together with the State Library, State Archives and two research institutions, belong to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbeseitz, or SPK).
  • With around 2,000 employees, the Foundation is the largest employer in the cultural field in Germany. All institutions within the SPK have to use the same IT management system. All museum members within the SMB have to use the same museum documentation system.
  • Image licences from all institutions are controlled by the Prussian Heritage Images Archive. In that way, the MEK is vertically integrated into the technological ecosystem, which the SPK inhabits.
  • On the other hand, it is imperative for any museum to connect itself with the new media infrastructure, the new social network memory from the outside (ref. Andrew Hoskins).
  • In other words, the MEK is also horizontally integrated into the digital cultural heritage ecosystem.
  • The MEK has a FB account, which shows the upcoming events or new exhibitions. But it has limited capacities with social media.
  • The issue is a bit more complicated with other platforms. If the MEK wants to post on Twitter, Instagram or YouTube, they have to send the material to an upper level, and it will be posted on the channel of SMB.
  • However, our focus today is not social media. I want to take a close look at a collaboration between the MEK and the German chapter of Wikimedia.

Wiki Goes MEK! Annual event

  • With the support of Wikimedia Germany, since 2013, volunteers from the Wikimedia projects, or Wikipedians, have been visiting various cultural institutions as part of the “GLAM on Tour” series.
  • The goal of “Wiki Goes MEK!” is to give some support to cultural institutions to make cultural data and information accessible to everyone.
  • How does it work? First of all, Wikipedians choose topics or objects of interest by looking through the website and the online database.
  • They discuss in advance with the museum staff the proposed topics. For example, in version 3.0 in 2019, the chosen topic is the everyday culture in the former German Democratic Republic because of the 30th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • On one weekend, the Wikipedians visit the museum, inspect the objects on site.
  • During the weekend of the events, Wikipedians can take photos, scan the objects. They can also ask the staff further questions or ask them to bring other objects.
  • Wikipedia volunteers or writers do research in the museum. They can browse the catalogue of MEK’s library and let staff know which books are needed for research. Then they will write articles.
  • They need a few more weeks to finish the articles and then they can publish them, together with the photos, on Wikipedia.
Publications of the German Wikimedia (Photos taken at the MEK’s library)
  • In the end, they even publish a book that contains all the articles they wrote after the event. The first year (the book with a pink cover) has more than 50 articles. This book is thick — more than 500 pages!

The Outcomes

  • What do we learn from the event?
  • First, Wiki Goes MEK! serves to improve the representation of everyday culture in Wikipedia. The museum invites us to discover its objects and topics and to use them for Wikipedia. The images, taken to illustrate the objects, are made (freely) available in Wikimedia Commons, and then also available for other uses.
  • Second, information about the objects, or digitised versions of the objects, don’t have to stay for many years untouched in the index cards, or museum documentation systems.
  • Individuals and commercial actors can even transcend them into other contexts to incite new experience, for example, embedding it into a game, or into new immersive technologies.
  • While Wikipedia is the most popular collection of knowledge on the Internet, Wikimedia Commons is one of the biggest free media databases. They become essential media for museums and other memory institutions.
  • GLAM institutions see this as an additional opportunity to transfer knowledge.
  • And the third point, crucial for medium and small institutions: they have a chance to place their digital resources on suitable platforms that are already well established among the public and have many users.
  • Institutions can choose different platforms for different types of digital resources to reach as many users as possible. And of course, these platforms do their best to suit the need of their audiences.
  • This approach is particularly beneficial for medium and small museums with limited resources.
Feedback from a Wikipedian who had attended one weekend. [I translate and underline]
  • Also, free images are important. If you are a researcher and you publish a book, you would rather use illustrations with free licences to reduce reproduction costs.
  • For all museums it should one of theirs goals to popularise knowledge. For this they have to cooperate with the suitable platforms to reach out to relevant audiences.

Accommodating users: An example

  • Here’s a Wiki article about an object in the MEK. It’s a sculpture of Conchita Wurst, a transsexual icon who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014.
  • This object is interesting because it shows the relationship between Christian iconography, sexual identities and everyday culture. On the left side, you see a photo of this object on Wikimedia Commons taken in one of the events.
  • The licence of the image, CC BY 4.0, means that other persons can distribute, remix, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you — in this case, the photographer.
  • The CC BY 4.0 licence is often recommended for maximum dissemination and use of the materials.
  • You can see this artwork as a Wikidata item, having a unique identifier. The data here is entirely free and open. It can be connected to external datasets in many different domains.

Summing Up

  • In the age of participatory culture, museums can’t do things alone anymore; they need to be part of an ecosystem to serve the communities better.
  • Participation doesn’t stop at giving access. It’s about sustainable commitment.
  • The case of ‘Wiki Goes MEK’ shows that some museums are moving their focus of services from navigating cultural heritage to curating the collections in digital formats.
  • They are trying to: take care of the objects and take care of the users.
  • Thank you for listening. I wish you a happy holiday and a successful new year!



Quoc-Tan Tran

@POEM_H2020 fellow | structure is (not) imagination