Archeowiki: When open-source strategies attract visitors’ presence in museums. A project for the enhancement of archaeological heritage in Lombardy (Italy)

Anna Maria Antonini, Italia , Sara Chiesa, Italy, Dante Bartoli, Italy

Keywords: archaeology, sharing knowledge, open data, wikipedia, cultural heritage enhancement

1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to illustrate the project “Archeowiki,” which involves six museums in Lombardy, Wikimedia Italia, the Italian branch of the WIkimedia Foundation, and some social and cultural associations working with disabled people, elderly people, and students. The project was made possible thanks to a grant awarded by Fondazione Cariplo. An initial lack of archaeological content on Wikipedia—due to the scarcity of digital and archaeological experts able to contribute to the archaeological sections and difficulties in finding relevant and reliable information on these topics—inspired this project. The project digitized circa one thousand images and documents belonging to the museums involved in the Archeowiki Project: Raccolte Extraeuropee del Castello Sforzesco di Milano, Civico Museo Archeologico di Varese, Fondazione Passaré di Milano, Civico Museo “Goffredo Bellini” di Asola, Museo Archeologico G. Rambotti di Desenzano, Civico Museo Archeologico di Castelleone. Archeowiki, also inspired by other similar projects with both a local and an international vision (GLAM-Wiki, Wiki Loves Monuments, Share Your Knowledge), is an experiment in Lombardy, where the most innovative effect has been the positive response and support of the Archaeological Superintendency of Lombardy, which demonstrated the awareness of a change in the cultural sector.

Technological tools play a growing role in spreading culture and educating people, opening new scenarios and new ways of co-working as virtuous collaborations between private and public institutions. Moreover, Archeowiki offers associations, museums, and online users the opportunity to enhance cultural heritage, visibility, use, education, and know-how by working together. Wikipedia provides high and free visibility for public institutions, sometimes small and/or not well known, that can increase the number of people interested in their archaeological collections.

2. Digital archives for museums

The widespread use of new digital technologies transformed and changed the idea of cultural heritage access. Museums followed this trend and started digitizing their heritage, transforming private archives in open and freely downloadable databases. In this sense, we could consider the global museum “without walls,” as it has been conceived by André Malraux, as the first example ante litteram of virtual museum. Indeed, Malraux’s idea of “museum of museums” is the closest concept of the actual model of hypertext (Irace, 2013). The examples of digital archives developed in the last few years are various, born within the institution or risen from external organization. Just to mention the most well known, we could refer to the Google Art Project, an online platform launched on February 1, 2011, by Google Inc., in cooperation with international museums such as the Tate Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Uffizi in Florence. The Google Art Project represents one of the pioneering experiments to collect digital images (Bertacchi & Morando, 2011).

Open-source initiatives in the cultural environment offer emerging tools among educational and cultural institutions. This practice, indeed, is largely used by museums, libraries, and archives in order to promote knowledge that is also implemented by a common sharing process. In this context, the idea of co-design, participatory approach, and public implementation of contents of the digital archives is extremely important. Europeana 1914–1918, inaugurated in 2011, is an interesting example of collaboration and bottom-up implementation. Different people are asked to upload content about the First World War, showing the historical and tragic events from the point of view of common people. Objects and documents are digitized and uploaded on the website; content is reviewed by museums experts and internet users. Despite some controversial positions (Lovink, 2002; Metitieri, 2009; Lanier, 2010) asserting the advantages of free-access will lead to a detachment from the artwork, in 2008 the American Alliance of Museums identified this process as “Creative Renaissance” ( sparked by technological instruments and helpful tools for online promotion of cultural contents, redrawing also the human centrality within narrative and learning processes. “The main values enhanced by open licensing models refer (…) to the increased visibility of museum collections and to the new knowledge and information generated on art images by commons based peer production systems” (Bertacchi & Morando, 2011, 9).

Today, reaching a large target of visitors means spreading content through largely utilized channels. Wikipedia is one of the most popular among the wider public, promoting free circulation of cultural content and free information. Involving people in this participative process aims to increase the number of real visitors to museums. That idea stimulated the project Archeowiki. Eschenfelder and Caswell (2010) define this open approach to digital cultural collections as a “cultural remix” because it allows users to access all the available information without any limits. Users generate and recontextualize cultural heritage, attributing new use contexts and establishing new values for the cultural content: free to use, reuse, and redistribute as the Open Knowledge Foundation defined in 2010, without any legal, technological, or social restriction.

3. Open-source initiatives in the cultural environment: Ideas and examples

Open source originally indicated a licensing model for software allowing anyone interested to download and have free access to the program source code ( (Lakhani & von Hippel, 2003), meaning that the implementation of the algorithm describing a computer software (i.e., the source code) is available and can be freely used, changed, and shared (in modified or unmodified form) by anyone ( Open source itself stems from the “free software” movement launched by Richard Stallman in 1983 with the GNU project (, the publication of the GNU Manifesto in 1985 (, and the founding of the Free Software Foundation (, which established four fundamental freedoms for software (

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

These ideas were born in protest against the progressive transformation of software from an environment where programs and code were freely shared towards a situation where software was provided as binary executables whose source was not made available. This is recalled by Stallman himself with an episode related to the source code of the driver for a printer while he was at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab in the 1970s ( Free/Libre licenses can impose two admissible conditions that can been requested upon the sharing and reuse of a free software. In this context, the word “libre” is sometimes used to avoid the confusion, in English, about “free” as “gratis, at no cost” and “free” as a matter of freedom; this is also conveyed with the motto “Free as in freedom not as in free beer” or “Free as in free speech.” These conditions are:

  • Attribution: in case of redistribution of the work, the original author has to be accredited for his work in such a way that it should result clearly that the author does not endorse any subsequent modification
  • Virality (or copyleft or “Share Alike”): requiring that derivative works have also a free license, in particular, share-alike licenses require the same license of the original work to be used for the derivative work

As of today, open-source software is usually developed in a collaborative way by several participants, and the term is specifically applied to works that are distributed under licenses that comply with the Open Source Definition ( Free software and open source are distinct from absence of copyright or public domain ( These ideas regarding freedom expanded later on to other uses, first with the Creative Commons licenses ( supported by Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred ( with the objective of enabling the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through the homonymous licenses. Creative Commons licenses provide a modular framework of six licenses where the author can choose which rights to retain for himself and which ones to make available to the public (CC-BY, CC-BY-SA, CC-BY-NC-SA, CC-BY-ND, CC-BY-NC, CC-BY-NC-ND).

Following the experience gathered with free cultural projects like Wikipedia, the definition of “Free Cultural Works” was published in 2006, initiated by Erik Möller as a means to resolve ambiguity about the phrase “free content” in the context of the Wikimedia project family ( Also, the Free Cultural Works definition allows attribution and share-alike clauses as permissible restrictions (

Regarding the topic of this project, Wikipedia has undergone a license change from the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL, see, a license from the Free Software Foundation initially designed to be applied to software documentation and manuals, to the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license (CC-BY-SA) in June 2009 ( One remarkable example of the impact of Creative Commons licenses, highlighting the fact that they have provided a framework that could be used by museums and cultural institutions to increase the dissemination and reach of their collection, is described by the case study Powerhouse Museum in Sidney, starting from April 2007 (,_Sydney), when some photos of the collections of the museum were made downloadable with a Creative Commons license, particularly with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 license (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.5).

Starting in April 2008, the museum also made available its photographs on Flickr with a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivatives license (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.5). Some of the works with more liberal licensing (e.g., in the public domain) were also transferred to Wikimedia Commons (, and the museum is listed in the partnership page ( on Wikimedia Commons, the repository of free digital multimedia used by the Wikimedia projects.

4. Crowdsourcing initiatives in the cultural environment: Ideas and examples

The term crowdsourcing was first used in the economics field in 2005 by Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, editors at WIRED magazine, after a conversation about how businesses were using the Internet to outsource work to individuals ( Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage is more than a framework for creating content: as a form of mutually beneficial engagement with the collections and research of museums, libraries, archives, and academia, it benefits both audiences and institutions. However, successful crowdsourcing projects reflect a commitment to developing effective interface and technical designs. (Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage Series: Digital Research in the Arts and Humanities). Following the guideline on partnership ( Wikimedia Commons, a crowdsourcing project can have several benefits to a cultural institution and to the disseminations of the works it protects:

  • Public attention: the adoption of free licenses will increase the circulation of the digital images of the museum’s contents
  • Context: the images will be used on all the Wikimedia projects and also grouped in categories with similar materials
  • Content and metadata, especially with the translation of the caption in several languages
  • Community support

The reference initiative for Archeowiki is the “Wikipedian in Residence” (WiR) project (, started in June 2010 by Liam Watt (, an Australian Wikipedian, which did a five-week residency at the British Museum in London (UK). This experience has been thoroughly documented both on Wikipedian-dedicated project pages ( and on Watt’s personal blog (

The Wikipedian in Residence model was first piloted by the GLAM initiative, which is described more in depth in the next session, but has since been adopted by other types of organizations. Wikipedians in residence are Wikipedians or contributors to other Wikimedia projects who dedicate time to working in-house at an organization; these collaborations may be financially compensated or voluntary. Wikipedians in Residence are not in-house editors of Wikipedia; instead, they enable the hosting organization and its members to continue a productive relationship with the encyclopedia and its community, lasting also after the residency is finished. A project like “Wikipedians in Residence” is classifiable as crowdsourcing because its main purpose is to enable users from the public, through the use of Wikipedia, to spread and disseminate information about objects preserved by the institution involved.

Another initiative relevant to the Archeowiki project in the context of crowdsourcing is content donation by cultural institutions. We see these initiatives as an example of crowdsourcing because of the possibility of the cultural institutions to engage directly with a large pool of Wikipedians around a particular topic. We take as an example on this field the experience of the Bundesarchiv, the German Federal Archive, which, from 2007 through May 2014, donated to Wikimedia Commons more than one hundred thousand files ( As of May 2014, a total of 101,207 images in the category and up to three levels of subcategories could be counted. This data has been obtained using the Glamorous tool ( and this query: Content donation usually consist of several phases:

  • Contact with the community through interested local Wikipedians or, as in Archeowiki’s case, with the help of a local Wikimedia chapter.
  • Definition of the donation and legal clearance: the museum has to define which set of images to donate and check all legal requirements for releasing the images with a free/libre license.
  • Digitization: many museums have their images already available in digital format. The Bundesarchiv has a collection of ten million photos that is already digitized in part. Some metadata like author, date, and description (at least in English) should be prepared and made available for upload.
  • Upload to Wikimedia Commons: the upload is done, depending on the number of files, either:
  1. manually, one or more users will perform the upload using their personal account (this was the system used for the Archeowiki project)
  2. semi-automatically, where one or more users perform multiple uploads using of mass-upload software (one example of which is “Commonist”: ttps://
  3. automatically, as for the Bundesarchiv experience, using a dedicated account (for the Bundesarchiv project, it was
  • Feedback and follow-up: the Bundesarchiv benefitted from the operation of two distinctive types of feedback: error reports ( regarding the image descriptions and licensing problems reports ( on images with unclear licensing status.

As of May 2014, 22,566 distinct images were used across all the Wikimedia projects (27.18 percent of all images in the Wikimedia Commons category ( and up to three levels of subcategories. This data has been obtained using the Glamorous tool and this query: Images from the Bundesarchiv used on Wikimedia projects offer a greater visibility to the institution: this case study also demonstrates the benefit of crowdfunding for cultural institutions.

5. GLAM’s initiative and Wikimedia role

Raccolte Extraeuropee had already participated in a similar project some years ago. The project, “Share Your Knowledge” (page of the project in Italian: by Fondazione lettera27 (, was a collaboration with Wikimedia Italia. This project was part of the wider program promoted by Wikimedia worldwide: the GLAM-Wiki initiative (where GLAM is the acronym of Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums). The aim of this kind of initiative is to help cultural institutions share their resources with the world through collaborative projects with experienced Wikipedia editors. This is an opportunity for the custodians of cultural heritage to present their collections to new audiences.

Wikipedia gets millions of page views per day, has more than 250 language versions, and includes more than twenty million articles. Its content is created and maintained by thousands of dedicated volunteer “Wikipedians” around the globe. This means, for a museum, the opportunity to open its virtual collection to a very large audience. Nowadays, everyone from academic researchers to amateurs to young students uses Wikipedia to find information and resources.

Thanks to these collaborations with experts, Wikimedia has been improving its pages and acquiring credibility. The Wikipedia community helps institutions improve online articles about their collections. A Wikipedian in Residence can be assigned to a specific cultural institution to help planning and coordinating the way they can broaden their presence on Wikipedia. These mutual and beneficial relationships facilitate the sharing of resources between GLAMs and Wikipedia as part of a long-term ongoing collaboration.

One of the goals of Share Your Knowledge was to share African cultural heritage on the web through WikiAfrica. WikiAfrica is an international collaborative project between Africa Centre and lettera27 that is designed to Africanize Wikipedia by generating and expanding thirty thousand articles over two years. The project promotes a new method of acquiring and sharing knowledge that is fully inclusive, mainstream, intercultural, and relevant to contemporary and historic Africa. The initial two years are focused on encouraging external Africa-based cultural organizations, museums, and archives, as well as bloggers and journalists, to contribute their knowledge to Wikipedia. Raccolte Extraeuropee was one of the cultural organizations involved. It shares a large part of its African collection.

6. Archeowiki project

Archeowiki is a project that would like to facilitate the growth of visitors in museum, and at the same time enhance the archaeological heritage located in Lombardy. The project has received the support of different public institutions, in particular of Regione Lombardia, and was made possible by a grant from Fondazione Cariplo.

When the project started, a partnership between different associations was signed. This partnership puts together know-how in technical and digital skills and knowledge of the cultural heritage and the Italian cultural enhancement system. Wikimedia Italia is the leading partner. Since 2005, Wikimedia has been the official Italian correspondent of Wikimedia Foundation, as far as the Open Culture is concerned. Wikimedia pursues objectives of social solidarity in the field of cultural promotion. The main aim is to contribute actively to spread and improve the advancement of knowledge and culture through the production, collection and spread of free contents.

Gruppo Archeologico Ambrosiano and Mimondo are two non-profit associations. Their purpose is the protection, enhancement, and preservation of historical, archaeological, and cultural heritage. They promote the awareness of world cultures through the development, conservation, protection, and enjoyment of tangible and intangible evidence preserved in museums and other institutions. They collaborate with public institution, museums, universities and local organizations. The purpose of the Fondazione Passaré is to promote research and cultural activities related to contemporary art and extra-European arts, especially from the African continent. Raccolte Extraeuropee, a branch of the Milano municipality, owns an important extra-European collection. The eight thousand objects stored by the museum come from Africa, Asia, South America, and Oceania. Their exhibition is planned for the October 2014 at the Museo delle Culture Ansaldo, in Milan.

“Archeowiki, New «Archaeologists» in Lombardy: virtual and real paths” is the result of a new collaboration that starts from the awareness of a lack of contents in archaeological topics on Wikipedia. In addition to this, the idea behind the project was to promote small archaeological museums that own important but unknown collections. The aims of this project are multiple:

  1. To involve new targets of public, in particular young people, retired people, and disabled people. This audience is not really involved in museum activities, which should be taken into consideration in designing paths and educational projects.
  2. To teach and diffuse the Wikipedia language to enlarge the number of expert Wikipedians.
  3. To enrich Wikipedia with archaeological contents and improve the existing ones.
  4. To increase the number of visitors of the museums involved.
  5. To promote open data sources and technologies in public museums as a preferential path to diffuse knowledge.

In addition to Fondazione Passaré e Raccolte Extraeuropee, which are partner institutions called to share their knowledge, Archeowiki chose another four museums that own archaeological artifacts. The project’s management asked the museums’ curators to select a part of their objects, with particular attention to the Lombard artistic heritage. The collections involved in the project include Museo Civico Archeologico di Varese, which preserves prehistoric materials ranging from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The museum has the exceptional Tomb Warrior of Sesto Calende (early sixth century B.C.) with the remains of the wagon and harness for two horses. Museo Civico Archeologico di Castelleone hosts various archaeological collections from the Mesolithic Age to the Iron Age.

The project specifically concerns the collection of artifacts from a private donation to the City. Museo Archeologico G. Rambotti di Desenzano del Garda is located in an area rich with pile-dweller settlements from the Bronze Age. The museum hosts a great collection coming from wet areas of archaeological interest, mainly due to the characteristics of the anthropic deposits submerged at a short distance from the Garda Lake: the anaerobic conditions allowed the preservation of the artifacts in organic material. The plow from Lavagnone is the most important example.

Civico Museo “Goffredo Bellini” di Asola has a collection composed of materials found both on the antiques market and in the area around Mantova. Fondazione Passaré decided to put online on Wikimedia especially its pre- and protohistoric material and its photographic archive related to African cave paintings. The archive was created by Alessandro Passaré, a Milanese doctor passionate about African art, who contributed to develop the twentieth-century Milanese avant-gardes during the 1950s and 1960s.

Raccolte Extraeuropee chose a selection from pre-Hispanic collections: ceramics and textiles from Perù that are representative of all indigenous cultures from the tenth century B.C. to the Spanish conquest brought to Italy by a Milanese collector.

As we have already explained, the project intended to involve a group of visitors that usually do not go to museums for economic and social reasons. To try to eliminate the obstacles that limit the presence of these categories of visitors, the partners contacted the institutions that coordinate groups of retired people (Auser) and groups of blind people (the Institution for the Blind of Milan). Collaboration with these two institutions made it possible to organize tours for these people. Specifically, for retired people, some conferences/lessons within the university of the third age were organized, and for blind people some hands-on tours with the reproduction of some objects of the collections.

The first activity of the project was to find volunteer archaeologists and Wikipedians. An open call was advertised to look for volunteers able to conduct guided tours in the museums and to teach people how to add new content to Wikipedia. We called these two activities—tour and uploading—Wikitrip.

The volunteers were trained before starting the Wikitrips with the public. The training consisted of the following aspects:

  • University professors gave the volunteers some basic archaeology information that allowed them to have a basic knowledge of the context in which they were going to do the Wikitrips.
  • Museum curators gave them specific information about the collections and the museums with some objects studied more in detail.
  • Wikipedia editors were instructed to add, improve, and correct content and subjects on Wikipedia.
  • An educator, expert in education in the museum, provided some pedagogical information in order to help volunteers to interact with students.
  • Volunteers had specific training in working with disabled people. This part of the training was conducted directly within the Institution for the Blind of Milan. Educators explained to the volunteers how the guides should interact with blind people and in what kind of material the object copies should be made.

When the volunteers were ready, the Wikitrips started. The Wikitrips are divided into three phases. In a first lesson at school, archaeological volunteers and Wikipedians explain to the students the project’s aim. The students are instructed to recognize the objects they will see during the trip to the museum and at the same time they have an initial contact with Wikipedia that becomes for them a way to improve their knowledge and in particular to upload the photos of the collections.

After this initial training at school, the students visit the museum collection, directly in the museum or in the collection storage, as at the Raccolte Extraeuropee. During these visits, students can observe the artworks closely and from the volunteer’s hand. Students can also take pictures of the objects. After going back to the school, the last step consists of reading again the page of the museum and the related data sheets and adding new information, pictures, and links with other pages, or also translating into other languages.

Wikitrips have also started for retired people, for whom the volunteer prepares a real seminar with the opportunity to see the artworks closely. The Wikipedian explains the project and the opportunity to use Wikipedia in a scientific way thanks to the contribution of curators and experts. Retired people are invited to use Wikipedia to add pictures.

7. Collaboration with Superintendency of Lombardy to obtain upload permission for archaeological photos on the Web: Unique in Italy

The particularity of the project Archeowiki is also the experimental collaboration started with the Archaeological Superintendency of Lombardy. This public institution, as a regional branch of the Italian Fine Arts Bureau, has the responsibility to preserve and protect the archaeological heritage in the Lombardy’s region. These operations are ruled by the “Codice dei beni culturali e del paesaggio” (decreto legislativo 22 gennaio 2004, n. 42), which provides that the granting and reproduction of cultural goods are subject to strict rules and reproduction fees depending on the use that is made of the replicas (Art. 108 decreto legislativo 22 gennaio 2004, n. 42).

At first, permission was asked to publish photographs and descriptions of archaeological materials selected from museum beneficiaries of the project on the platform Wikipedia, and the Superintendency expressed its favorable opinion for the project. However, this opinion is subject to particular conditions, which are the reference in the description to the place where the object is stored, the authorization from the Ministry of Culture, and the publication of the images in low resolution. Moreover, Wikimedia and the other partners of the project have attached a particular disclaimer already accepted by the Italian Fine Arts Bureau for the project “Wiki loves Monuments” (, started in 2012. It specifies that the reproduction of the image is only authorized for personal use or for study; for other purposes, in particular for commercial use, a further authorization from the Ministry is required.

The collaboration established between the Superintendency and the project Archeowiki is a real experiment in Lombardy, because there are no other examples of such innovation. It is really hard to find online archaeological contents, specific and controlled by experts in this field, due both to the partial lack of archaeological contents on Wikipedia pages and to the regard of the “Codice dei beni culturali e del paesaggio.” The project Archeowiki has shown a change in the cultural sector: cultural heritage can be enhanced through Open Sources initiatives, which manage to reach a wider audience. The images will be used by many users, skilled and unskilled, for study and research, in a completely new way of approaching and sharing the cultural heritage.

8. Chain reaction – Conclusions

The project has been able to train sixteen volunteers, involve twenty-four classes, and twenty-four teachers for which six hundred students will be involved through the Wikitrips. Moreover, we intend to organize twenty-four Wikitrips with blind people and retired people, that will allow 250 new visitors to be involved.

We have already uploaded 570 new images on Wikipedia. We intend to increase this number through the pictures that the students will add. The aim is to stimulate a chain reaction in archaeological knowledge through Wikipedia. We are confident that pictures and data sheets will be used by Wikipedia users to explain other pages on Wikipedia, diffusing archaeological science and spreading the museum’s collections knowledge in a virtuous cycle.

The project is still ongoing, and a final evaluation has still to be written, but Archeowiki seems to be a virtuous example of how new technologies could help public and private institutions in enhancing their artistic and archaeological heritage, while respecting copyright laws. The use of Wikipedia and mobile digital devices has been a good way to involve young students in a topic that usually does not interest them. Physical contact with objects and their reproduction, and the idea of producing culture on Wikipedia, improved the involvement of retired and blind people. This means that the project has contributed to bringing a new public not only to all the museums involved, but also to the broader field of archaeological studies.


Bertacchi, E., & F. Morando. (2011). The future of museums in the digital age: new models of access and use of digital collections. In Working paper No. 5. Torino: International Centre for Research on the Economics of Culture, Institutions, and Creativity.

Eschenfelder, K.R., & M. Caswell. (2010). “Digital cultural collections in an age of reuse and remixes.” First Monday 15(11).

Irace, F. (2013). “Digitalization takes Command.” In Fulvio Irace (ed.). Design & Cultural Heritage: Immateriale Virtuale Interattivo. Milano: Electa.

Lanier, J. (2010). You Are not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Alfred A. Knopf.

Lovink, G.W. (2002). Dynamics of critical Internet culture (1994-2001). Melbourne: The University of Melbourne.

Metitieri, F. (2009). Il Grande Inganno del Web 2.0. Laterza.

Cite as:
A. Antonini, S. Chiesa and D. Bartoli, Archeowiki: When open-source strategies attract visitors’ presence in museums. A project for the enhancement of archaeological heritage in Lombardy (Italy). In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published May 31, 2014. Consulted .

Leave a Reply