Jackie Mann, like many of today’s college students, grew up using Wikipedia. But she’d never really thought about contributing.
“Wikipedia was a source of knowledge outside of school,” she said. That changed when she got to DePaul University. One of her favorite professors, Dr. Morag Kersel, announced that she’d be using Wikipedia in her Anthropology course.
“After years of nearly every teacher forbidding students from using Wikipedia,” Jackie said, “I was excited to find out: would this change the rules about using Wikipedia for school?”
It turns out the assignment didn’t just change the rules. By bringing her classwork out into the real world, it opened doors that just don’t open with a regular writing assignment.
Dr. Kersel assigned students to choose an “old world” object (one from Europe, Asia, or Africa) that had somehow arrived in Chicago. Then, the students would create a Wikipedia page for it.
“Other students chose things like a piece of the Berlin wall, which is now in a train station,” Jackie said. “Ethiopian bread and Swedish painted horses were interesting and creative choices, and when presentation week came around, I was genuinely fascinated.”
Jackie, a senior studying Anthropology and Art History, was interested in a mosaic fragment she’d found at the Art Institute of Chicago. That fragment depicts a man with a giraffe, and probably dates back to Syria or Lebanon during the 5th century. She said it reflected her interest in the difference between the original purpose of these artworks and their current role as museum objects.
“My mosaic was created as an art piece for an upper-class family to decorate their home with,” Jackie explained. “Now it’s in the Art Institute of Chicago, a wealthy institution. This, in a way, helps my object retain its past identity as a symbol of success and wealth.”
Jackie started a Wikipedia article on the fragment, drawing on Wiki Ed’s trainings to get through the more complicated parts. After that, she said, it got to be pretty simple. She drew on academic databases, thinking carefully about the quality of the sources she found.
“I also had an entire university library at my fingertips, which came in handy,” she added.
A few months later, Jackie was approached by Dr. John Shanahan, an Associate Dean of DePaul, to act as a student docent at the Art Institute of Chicago. She was asked to talk to the public about the very piece she’d written about on Wikipedia. It’s part of a partnership with the Art Institute that provides students with free entry to the museum and held special events highlighting the partnership.
“On the night of the event, I claimed my name tag and made my way down the museum corridors to the gallery my mosaic called home. There, I shared my thoughts and research with a few curious visitors and offered to answer questions as people walked by.”
Backed by the research that went into writing the Wikipedia article on the fragment, Jackie was able to expand her own thinking about the object with the people she talked to. She was able to incorporate her research into her own ideas about the way time can change the context and understanding of art.
“I focused on not just what the mosaic was when it was created or how it got to the museum, but also how the 1,500 years it had existed since its creation had changed it, and what this meant in the wider context of the art world.”
She says that Wikipedia was an important part of her own educational goals. She wants to bring more knowledge about the art world to the public. Thanks to the Wikipedia assignment, she could practice this kind of public outreach and engagement online and in a museum.
“Education is, or at least should be, an accessible resource for all to use and enjoy,” she told us. “By creating a Wikipedia page and then presenting my research in a semi-public place, I felt as though my work had reached more people than ever before.”
Jackie is now earning her MA in art history at the University of Texas at Austin, with a focus on Byzantine/medieval art. She hopes to eventually work in museum curation or archives, preserving artifacts for future use.
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