By Tšhegofatšo Mabaso, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Iziko South African National Gallery
Museums operate with established processes of collecting and presenting knowledge to the public through exhibitions, research, and other programs. As we continue to interrogate these processes, especially in terms of their relationship to violent histories and reinforcing biased knowledge hierarchies, curators at the Iziko South African National Gallery explore how Wikipedia editing could be a tool for communities to generate their own knowledge and empower audiences to use the museum as a space from which to do so.
To date Iziko Museums has hosted two edit-a-thon events (2020 & 2022), in partnership with Wikimedia South Africa, aimed at enabling participants to become Wikipedia editors in a move towards challenging the editorial biases that exist on the online encyclopedia. Edit Your Pride has since raised broader questions about representation and the role of museums in knowledge advocacy work. Wikipedia, as an online encyclopaedia edited by volunteers, has the potential to challenge this hegemony by enabling a diversity of voices to contribute to knowledge creation. Without critical intentionality around who it enables however, its ideal to democratize the consumption and creation of knowledge remains egalitarian at best. Following years of criticism related to sexism, racism and homophobia reflected in the representation of topics on the platform, the Wikimedia Foundation made it a strategic goal to recruit more women, black communities, indigenous communities and underrepresented groups, including LGBTQIA+ communities, to edit Wikipedia.
In addition to the devoted user and community groups from underrepresented communities who tirelessly organise, gather and edit, the foundation has implemented initiatives, such as Project Rewrite. The execution of the Global South Initiative in 2011 marked a significant moment for the Wikimedia Foundation as it expanded its operations to three regions: MENA (Middle East and North Africa), Brazil, and India. Despite these efforts, the representational gaps remain stark and deeply entrenched in Wikipedia’s editing community, with very shallow representation of topics relating to Africa for example. The production of knowledge and culture is still influenced by closed systems that exert hegemonic control over what is considered legitimate knowledge. Western dominance has elevated Western-centric institutions, such as academia and museums, as some of the only legitimate sources of knowledge, while undermining other forms of knowledge, such as oral traditions, non-Western systems, and indigenous philosophies.
The internet has improved access to information, but it is still plagued by biases that affect the representation of marginalised groups, including the queer Africans. This highlights the need to critique dominant methods of knowledge production and preservation. The issue of oral citations for example is a significant one which, participants of the 2022 edit-a-thon event engaged, attempting to understand how one works within and simultaneously pushes the parameters of what citable references are. Our facilitator Douglas Scott, highlighted Wikipedia’s position as a tertiary source platform, making it challenging to cite new knowledge sources if dominant forms of media aren’t. It is at this intersection where we see the significant role of cultural institutions production and publishing of knowledge that is reflective of the societies they are situated in.
These aren’t new problems and there have been distinct challenges for those interested in making spaces like Wikipedia diverse and globally relevant while operating from places outside what is considered the global north. Noopur Raval wrote an insightful article in 2014 that is an insightful resource in mapping and understanding the various aspects of free knowledge and the challenges thereof in the operations of Wikipedia and it’s foundation.
‘As Alevizou suggests, “Our collective intelligence emerges within specific media and technological infrastructures and platforms that have specific biases. If it is to avoid overthrowing academic and publishing elites for new media-savvy and literate elite, we need to interrogate Wikipedia in terms of its social and political properties and limits” (Alevizou, 2006).’
Raval through their own experience as an editor engaging this work from New Delhi, India, signals the importance of questioning what exactly is implied by this open notion of freedom and what the limitations of that are? They wonderfully map the challenges that GLAM partnerships with institutions ‘outside’ of the global north might encounter. These include but certainly aren’t limited to issues of language and translation, internet access and data affordability, computer literacy, and archiving and digitisation infrastructures. There are also several ideological challenges where the question of what one can consider notable or generally agreed upon knowledge in a world fraught with these knowledge hegemonies.
While the Edit Your Pride project highlights the importance of representation in knowledge production and the role of museums in facilitating the creation of inclusive knowledge through free and accessible platforms, it must be concerned with the broader systemic questions that plague its creation and circulation. The project serves as an example of how museums can play a more active role in empowering communities and promoting diversity in the production of knowledge. It is particularly concerned with the representation of African LGBTQIA+ communities in institutional collections, archives, and public memory, considering how the lack of visibility or uncritical hypervisibility of queer communities continues to impact their representation and perpetuate their marginalization.
Check out the project Wiki page for updates relating to the project and future meetups: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Meetup/Edit_Your_Pride/Iziko_2020
Wexelbaum, Rachel S.; Herzog, Katie; and Rasberry, Lane, “Queering Wikipedia” (2015). Library Faculty Publications. 49.
Noopur, Ravalvala, “The Encyclopedia Must Fail! – Notes on Queering Wikipedia” (date) Journal of Gender New Media and Technology, issue 5: Queer Feminist Media Praxis https://adanewmedia.org/2014/07/issue5-raval/