Tate and Wikipedia

September 7 2018

Image of Tate and Wikipedia

Picture: Tate

Had you noticed that Tate's website now no longer features its own biographical entries for artists, but simply takes text from Wikipedia? The one on Van Dyck misspells his name, and tells us the highly important fact that the Van Dyck beard is named after him. This is typical of the sort of trivia you find on Wikipedia, but we might expect better from Tate. 

Of course, while Tate is only too happy to take text from Wikipedia, it absolutely won't allow any of its own images to be used on the site.

Update - after a few Tweets, this story seemed to take off, and was featured in The Art Newspaper, The Telegraph, and elsewhere. The fact that Tate was relying on Wikipedia sparked, at least on my Twitter feed, a near universal condemnation, which slightly took me by surprise. 

What people seemed to object to most was the fact that Tate is supposed to be the nation's leading gallery (and centre of expertise) for British art - but it evidently can't be bothered to provide authoritative information about the artist's who shaped British art. It tied in too with their dismissal of a number of expert curators over the last few years, and their refusal to publish a research-led catalogue for their collection. 

The story reflects, I'm afraid, Tate's current view of expertise, and 'authority', which a certain type of museum person can get very anxious about. For some, authority is to be ashamed of, or elitist. For these peopleit's better to have a 'democratic' source like Wikipedia, where everybody's opinion is equal.

But here's the thing - most people looking for information about British artists will want reliable facts, and informative opinions written by people who know what they're talking about. Wikipedia, for all its usefulness, can be a place of errors, hoaxes, and self-interest. Some ask why art historians don't simply go onto a Wikipedia page themselves, and fix any errors? One Wikipedia editor even told me that a distinguished British art historian was 'selfish' for having his own authoritative website, and not putting all his information on Wikipedia. The general assumption is that art historians should all work for free. But the greater truth is that Wikipedia is a difficult platform to operate, is policed by editors who sometimes want to do nothing more be pedants, and values industry over expertise. I wouldn't necessarily mind if Tate had an active programme of making Wikipedia better, with both text and images. But it doesn't. Tate is just being cheap, and treating its audience like idiots.

Tate's response to me and others on Twitter was as follows:

Sharing accurate and up-to-date information on the works in our collection is of course Tate's priority and we continue to share sources, links and insights from curators every day across our digital platforms. We have not replaced our online texts with Wikipedia. We introduced links to Wikipedia as an additional resource for artist biographies on our website two years ago. The information from Wikipedia is there to supplement the texts written about artworks by Tate's curators & researchers. This method is in common with other cultural institutions.

First, it's not true to say they haven't replaced previous online texts. Here, to take just one example, is a snapshot of the page as it used to be for Peter Lely. The current Tate page just points you to Wikipedia. The Wikipedia page on Lely is longer than the old Tate text, certainly, but not as reliable; it says without caveat that he came to London in 1641, despite the fact that other sources say 1643. Second, I don't see the Louvre, the Met or in fact any other major gallery in the world relying on Wikipedia. The National Gallery in London shows us how museum artist pages should be done with its page on Titian, with well written text that also gives context to works by Titian in the Gallery's collection. 

Another Twitter user was given a slightly different response by Tate, that it was all to do with a lack of resources:

"The motivation for adding Wikipedia biographies is that, as there are so many artists in the collection, which is growing all the timewe do not have the resources to create biographies for every individual. Likewise we do not have the resources to regularly update existing biographies, which means that for living artists these can often become outdated. On the other hand Wikipedia pages are constantly being reviewed and renewed, so are usually more up to date than other artists biographies found online. We felt the best way of championing art and artists is to provide the most up to date and reliable biography possible within the constraints of our resources."

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