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Study examines cultural leanings of Wikimedia projects' visual art coverage

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By MartinPoulter and Waqas Ahmed
The authors are a veteran Wikipedian working as a Wikimedian In Residence (Poulter) and an interdisciplinary scholar, author, and curator (Ahmed). Our research into how the Wikimedia projects cover visual art has recently been published in the peer-reviewed journal Digital Studies. The paper shows how far Wikimedia falls short of a global perspective on visual arts but also sets out actions the community and the global cultural heritage sector can take to improve the situation.

Gender gaps and geographical imbalances on Wikimedia are already well-researched. Our focus is a cultural gap which does not correspond exactly to geography. For example, on the English Wikipedia, List of sculptors is 99% Western, despite sculpture being common to many different cultures, Lists of painters by nationality is around 75% European, and List of contemporary artists is 80% European. Many countries with especially rich artistic traditions, such as Libya and Mali, do not even have dedicated articles about their art (in the same way as there exist exhaustive articles such as French art or Greek art). The English Wikipedia's Level-4 Vital Article list for visual artists currently includes six from non-Western cultures, out of 124 articles.

"The musician Barbad conceals himself within a tree" Manuscript illustration, Tabriz, Iran, circa 1535

On Commons, the Gallery of Non-Photographic Media – Religious Art showcases ninety pieces of art relating to Christianity, alongside eight images for Buddhism, five for Judaism, five for Hinduism, and three for Paganism. Islam, with around two billion followers worldwide, has three examples of religious art (two of which we've uploaded).

It's unequivocally a good thing that Wikimedia projects make so much knowledge about art freely available. Our concern is that its overwhelming focus on the Western canon gives readers a misleadingly narrow picture of visual art and its role in human cultures. It's great that there are extensive articles about John Constable or the Bayeux Tapestry in English; we just want similar recognition for the artists or works from different cultures that are at least as important to those cultures as Constable is to British culture: Shibata Zeshin in Japan, or Raden Saleh in Indonesia, for example.

The Wikidata project Sum of All Paintings is extremely impressive in how it has drawn together details of more than 600,000 paintings from thousands of catalogues. While praising it, we have to be aware that a focus on paintings, usually by named artists, is itself a kind of bias towards European culture. The most celebrated art within another culture might be textile art, architectural features, or calligraphy; we should document these as well.

Researching the cultural gap

For our quantitative research, we consulted books and art experts to build lists of artists and works from cultures outside the Western canon. These were compared against lists of Western artists and works drawn from the Vital Articles lists on the English Wikipedia. Most of the non-Western masterpieces had no dedicated representation at all on the Wikimedia projects (though they might be mentioned in artists' biographies). So the main part of our research calculated the ratio of coverage of the two sets of artists (in terms of bytes of text, Commons files, or Wikidata statements). This measure is independent of the size of the Wikipedia, and allows us to place each Wikimedia project on a spectrum from "Western" to "global" for the visual arts.

Taking all languages in aggregate, Wikipedia gives seven times as many bytes of coverage to the Western artists as the artists from other cultures. Wikidata's coverage is more even, with four times as many statements for Western artists. Commons has 21 times as many files relating to Western artists. The individual language versions of Wikipedia formed a spectrum with Indonesian, Punjabi, and Bengali among the more "global" while Italian, Polish and Serbian were amongst the most "Western". The big surprises: English Wikipedia is one of the most "global" (a ratio of 4) and Thai Wikipedia the most focused on Western art (a ratio of 40).

Closing the gap

Like other biases on Wikipedia, this cultural imbalance results from a combination of factors outside and inside the project: the availability of sources and images as well as the interests of volunteers. So improving the situation involves both external outreach and on-wiki activity.

"Girl reciting Qur'an" by Osman Hamdi Bey

The external factors include the availability of reliable sources in the appropriate language, and of digital images of the appropriate content. We had seen that Commons in particular has a heavy bias toward the Western canon. So we are taking this message to cultural institutions that haven't worked with Wikimedia before. The Khalili Foundation is now reaching out to art museums to encourage them to share images and catalogue data with the Wikimedia projects. We have already uploaded more than 1,100 images of Islamic art and Japanese art as part of the Khalili Collections/Wikimedia UK cultural partnership. As part of the World Festival of Cultural Diversity, the Khalili Foundation is running a series of editathons with partner organisations in the UK.

We have put our lists of artists and masterpieces into a project page where you can see which links are red and which articles have the lowest quality assessments. This is also somewhere to share suggested references. We use Wikidata identifiers, which we hope will make it easy to implement the project page in other languages. The page is situated within WikiProject Visual Arts, but you do not have to be a member of that WikiProject to take part. Improving a linked article, creating a Wikidata item, or even finding a reference that could be used to create an article, are all welcome. We are not just looking to improve the coverage of topics mentioned in our research, but to diversify Wikipedia’s representation of art, so feel free to add artists or topics that you think are lacking.

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One issue in filling in the gaps of coverage on Wikipedia is that it can be difficult (although not impossible) to obtain the materials needed to fill those gaps. In my own experience writing articles on a non-Western country -- Ethiopia -- I found my public library often lacked the books I needed, & was forced to buy them. It would be helpful if the Foundation had a program to assist in getting these materials, which would benefit increasing information on these neglected subjects. (Yes there is Wikimedia Library, but that is but a single tree where Wikipedians need an orchard of resources.) -- llywrch (talk) 09:07, 5 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]

  • That suggestion solves an ethical problem about requesting funds to acquire books. (It's not unusual to find that copies of an out-of-print academic monograph are priced at more than $100.) The Foundation buys the title, donates it to IA who scans it & makes it available to all, & not just one person who might vanish after obtaining the volume -- which would be a waste of money & discourage further grants for this purpose. -- llywrch (talk) 18:04, 6 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
    @Ocaasi: Could you look into this for us? Cheers, Andreas JN466 18:09, 6 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
    @Samwalton9 (WMF): Could you as the current Wikipedia Library Manager let us have your thoughts on this idea? Andreas JN466 02:54, 12 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
    @Jayen466 @Llywrch This is an interesting idea. We've talked a few times about access to non-digitised works - as noted above it's especially relevant to areas of the world which are underrepresented in the library at the moment (i.e. most of it outside North America and Europe). There have been various attempts in the past (I can't find links at the moment) to purchase and ship books to Wikimedians. If I remember correctly they didn't really scale well due to admin time involved in sourcing and purchasing the books and the costs and shipping fees/logistics involved. If I recall correctly we decided that this program only really worked if it was being handled by Wikimedia affiliates who could more easily work with local editors and reduce shipping costs - I think some still operate a program like this. Sending those books to IA to scan might help make this easier and more worthwhile but I'm still concerned that the cost is hard to justify - is it worth spending dozens or hundreds of donor $ to get one digitized book and one citation out the other end (or none, if it turns out the text actually isn't as useful as you thought it would be - it might often be impossible to know until you've 'opened' the book)? Off the top of my head there are some other options we could explore here. The most obvious to me is that we could leverage our global volunteer network. We could create a system in the library which facilitates Wikimedians putting out requests for undigitised texts like a 'bounty board' for other editors to check in their local libraries for. They could then scan individual pages or type up the relevant passages. The obvious downsides would be that the editor doesn't get their hands on the full text, but the running costs would be effectively zero. What do you think? Samwalton9 (WMF) (talk) 10:01, 13 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
    This is one of the previous attempts I'd seen - purchasing and shipping turned out to be really difficult, and very few requests were made. Samwalton9 (WMF) (talk) 13:27, 13 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
  • @Samwalton9 (WMF): Right now, if a given book isn't available at a local library -- & not all Wikimedians live in a community with a public library, let alone a university or research library -- there are only a few options said Wikimedian has to obtain that book: (1) look for a copy online (which might sometimes be a copyright violation, an activity I assume is not an option the Foundation wishes to encourage); (2) resort to InterLibrary Loan (which I assume is not an option if there is no local public library, or said library does not offer ILL services), but this only provides the book for a limited time, unless one photocopies the work (which again I assume is not an option the Foundation wishes to encourage); or (3) purchasing the book, which permits the Wikimedian indefinite access. If the book is less than $20, IMHO as a middle-class Westerner this is not an unreasonable cost, but I am finding more & more that the books I need have a price of over $100. For example, I am finding Encyclopaedia Aethiopica is a valuable resource to anyone performing research on Ethiopian topics, one of the areas we need to battle systemic bias over: many academic articles freely reference articles in this compendium of information. However, each volume is around $150 apiece, & at 5 volumes it is a steep price to pay for, & I am unaware of any library -- public or academic -- in my area having a set. I could cite other examples of important but uncommon or expensive works like this, especially academic monographs which are published in small numbers. Now I'm not saying that Wikimedians should have a carte blanche for expecting the Foundation (or an affiliate) to purchase any book requested, but I'd like to see a clear & publicized process where one could justify having a book purchased, then perhaps sent to IA for scanning & sharing with the general public. I've been a volunteer here for over 20 years, & I've never seen it announced that the Foundation or one of the affiliates is willing to do something like that; AFAICS Foundation grants appear limited to expenses like pizza & soft drinks for Wikipedia Edit-a-thons. -- llywrch (talk) 18:33, 13 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]
    I'm in happy agreement with @Llywrch (and recall purchasing a book costing about $100 myself in order to be able to finish a featured article ...) A digital library program like this would be a totally on-mission thing for the WMF to do – making free knowledge available. At any rate, if you're currently financing any book purchases at all, it would make sense to buy the book for the IA and have them digitise it rather than send hardcopies to an individual Wikipedian, or a group of Wikipedians.
    I also believe there would be partners that might like to come on board for such a program. For example – academics might draw up a list of standard works (especially in areas that are underrepresented at the moment) that should be available to Wikipedians to kickstart content generation. Etc. Andreas JN466 18:46, 13 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]

Seeing only seven "visual artists" out of 124 being non-western might be the most visceral indictment on Vital Articles I have seen yet. Of course, the only of these non-European artists I knew myself are Hokusai and Tezuka. (Oh, there's also Imhotep in here. Yay) It is an... interesting challenge to see how we can get a better grasp of non-European traditions as editors. ~Maplestrip/Mable (chat) 12:51, 6 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]

Oh, I missed Frida Kahlo as well on that list. There's also some people with a mixed background. I don't intend to get too much in the specifics of the content of the list, it's indeed filled to the brim with French and Italian names. Wikipedia is in a great position to write detailed articles on people from different cultural backgrounds. ~Maplestrip/Mable (chat) 12:57, 6 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]

Really interesting work! Thanks :). @User:MartinPoulter It would be great if we can get some proposals at Wikipedia talk:Vital articles/Level/4 to replace some Western artists with a more international cast. These VIT lists do get used for prioritisation, for instance in WP:The core contest and in Wikipedia:Discord/Team-B-Vital. Don't know enough about art myself to make sensible suggestions. —Femke 🐦 (talk) 12:41, 12 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]

This was a concern even back at the time when these lists were first made. Discussions of bias towards western Europe, the US, and the few times we managed to get outside of there, Japan. An artist can have great regional fame in, say, Kenya, but the rest of the world doesn't know about them. Meanwhile, in Kenya, they could name dozens of American movie stars. The cultural influence is not symmetrical, and it seems difficult for the concept of the "Vital articles" list to go against this cultural force too hard. It's hard for Wikipedia to make any subject more popular than it already is, no matter how well we write about it. We do have some useful lists for which regionally important articles need work, at least... ~Maplestrip/Mable (chat) 08:38, 13 February 2023 (UTC)[reply]


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