Utopia Then, Reality Now: (Re)considering the Wiki Model in Museum Culture

Sarah Hromack, USA

In 2009, the Whitney Museum of American Art re-launched its website, whitney.org, in order to address the overarching limitations of the previous website’s information architecture, design, content, and technology, which hadn’t been significantly modified since its launch in 2001. The now three year-old Whitney.org was built as a modular Wiki website, a decision prompted not only by its technical ease of implementation and use, but by a shortage of funding and human resources dedicated to the project. By absorbing the majority of the website’s production in-house, by non-technical staff situated across a variety of departments, the museum prompted the beginnings of a larger-scale internal shift in thinking around the digital space. The launch of whitney.org in November of 2009 was celebrated as a collective achievement by the many hands on deck.

Utopia Then, Reality Now: (Re)considering the Wiki Model in Museum Culture will perform a critical analysis of the Wiki model, focusing less on the Wiki as a technical framework than as a social contract between those who build and maintain it. Using the intervening years between the website’s launch in November 2009 and the present day as a case study, this paper will consider the longer-term impact of the wiki model on the website’s architecture, the quality and cohesiveness of its content, museum staff, and institutional strategy.

The collaborative approach to the website’s development and ongoing management has increased internal awareness around the website exponentially while allowing staff to think more broadly about the relationship between their programming and online audiences. Its maintenance has proven problematic to the longer-term development and overall editorial balance of the website, however, prompting severe, department-specific siloing of online content. These and other considerations have informed the working mission and strategy of the museum’s first Digital Media department, which was created in 2012 and is still undergoing development as a central management body for the website and other digital initiatives. Whitney.org is currently undergoing a visual redesign, slated for launch in 2013; this paper will likely discuss technical modifications made to the website’s proprietary content management system, Economy, in response to the working experiences described herein.

Utopia Then, Reality Now: (Re)considering the Wiki Model in Museum Culture will engage the community in an open, honest, and balanced discussion about the benefits and complications inherent to the Wiki model. It should prove exceptionally useful to organizations actively considering the Wiki model as a strategic means of addressing given institutional issues.