This study aimed at understanding the use of paintings outside of an art-related context, in the English version of Wikipedia.
For this investigation, the authors identified 8,104 paintings used in 10,008 articles of the English Wikipedia edition. The authors manually coded the topic of the article in question, documented the number of monthly average views and identified the originating museum. They analysed the use of images based on frequency of use, frequency of view, associated topics and location. Early in the analysis three distinct perspectives emerged: the readers of the online encyclopaedia, the editors of the articles and the museum organisations providing the painting images (directly or indirectly).
Wikipedia is a widely used online information resource where images of paintings serve as visual reference to illustrate articles, notably also beyond an art-related topic and where no alternative image is available – as in the case of historic portraits. Editors used paintings as illustration of the work itself or art-related movement, but also as illustration of past events, as alternative to photographs, as well as to represent a concept or technique. Images have been used to illustrate up to 76 articles, evidencing the polysemic nature of paintings. The authors conclude that images of paintings are highly valuable information sources, also beyond an art-related context. They also find that Wikipedia is an important dissemination channel for museum collections. While art-related articles contain greater number of paintings, these receive less views than non-art-related articles containing fewer paintings. Readers of all topics, predominantly history, science and geographic articles, viewed art pieces outside of an art context. Painting images in Wikipedia receive a much larger online audience than the physical painting does when compared to the number of museum onsite visitors. The authors’ results confirm the presence of a strong long-tail pattern in the frequency of image use (only 3% of painting images are used in a Wikipedia article), image view and museums represented, characteristic of network dynamics of the Internet.
While this is the first analysis of the complete collection of paintings in the English Wikipedia, the authors’ results are conservative as many paintings are not identified as such in Wikidata, used for automatic harvesting. Tools to analyse image view specifically are not yet available and user privacy is highly protected, limiting the disaggregation of user data. This study serves to document a lack of diversity in image availability for global online consumption, favouring well-known Western objects. At the same time, the study evidences the need to diversify the use of images to reflect a more global perspective, particularly where paintings are used to represent concepts of techniques.
Museums wanting to increase visibility can target the reuse of their collections in non-art-related articles, which received 88% of all views in the authors’ sample. Given the few museums collaborating with the Wikimedia Foundation and the apparent inefficiency resulting from leaving the use of paintings as illustration to the crowd, as only 3% of painting images are used, suggests further collaborative efforts to reposition museum content may be beneficial.
This paper highlights the reach of Wikipedia as information source, where museum content can be positioned to reach a greater user group beyond the usual museum visitor, in turn increasing visual and digital literacy.
This is the first study that documents the frequency of use and views, the topical use and the originating institution of “all the paintings” in the English Wikipedia edition.
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