“It’s a great way to engage a wider audience”: John Cummings and the Natural History Museum and Science Museum

This post was written by Joe Sutherland.

John Cummings is not one to shy away from large-scale projects. Fresh from helping build one of the largest Wikipedia endeavours ever – converting the Welsh town of Monmouth into the world’s first “Wikipedia town” – John moved on to become the Wikimedian in Residence at the Natural History Museum and Science Museum (NHM).

His upbringing has played a key role in developing his interests, shooing him onto a path towards the role. “I’ve always had an interest in natural history,” he says. “I didn’t study science at university, but my mum’s a garden designer, I grew up in the countryside… This is one of those roles that probably doesn’t happen that often.”

He held the role at the museums in South Kensington between 2013 and 2014, and helped to promote a culture of openness there as well as exploring what the institutions could do with Wikipedia.

One major aspect of this was looking into content donations, and how they could be beneficial for the museums in promoting their content.

“One of the main ways I encouraged content release under an open licence was just to tell people how Wikimedia projects are made and how many people see the information. It’s amazing – it’s such a wide audience and not just in Britain.

“You can reach people in lots of languages, and amazing projects like Wikipedia Zero [a project to allow free access to Wikipedia in developing countries] give people access to information they can’t get in another way.”

John says that working with the museums provided an avenue to improving Wikipedia by simply tapping into the tremendous resources there.

“It was a wonderful opportunity not only to engage with the public,” he says, “but also with research scientists who have a specialist contribution to make to Wikipedia, built over a whole lifetime of knowledge.

John Cummings at the Natural History Museum
John Cummings at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington
Photo: User:Rock drum, CC-BY-SA 4.0

“The thing about the Natural History Museum is you work there because you care about the natural environment, and people are very willing to spend their time educating the public,” John adds. “Wikipedia is just one more avenue for that, but the great thing about Wikipedia is that it has such a large audience, so that contribution can have a wide impact.”

One major event John helped to organise was with the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the non-ministerial department tasked with collecting and collating statistics on various aspects of politics and life in England and Wales.

“Working at the museums gives you a lot of opportunity to connect with other organisations,” John explains. “One of those was the ONS. They produce all their content under the Open Government Licence which is compatible with Wikimedia projects.

“They produce wonderful infographics about all sorts of subjects that help people easily understand complicated statistics, and we’ve been able to put them straight onto Wikipedia with no change of license, it’s completely compatible.”

He is also keen to take ONS data and feed it into Wikidata, a relatively new Wikimedia project focused on open data collection. “This would allow the ONS to reach a wide audience in many languages very easily,” he says.

This attitude of helping to promote the museums’ work to as many people as possible has been the driving factor behind John’s time in the role. He argues the interaction has given them a chance to reach millions by learning to tap into the global reach of Wikipedia.

“Having a Wikimedian in Residence is a great way to engage with a wider audience that is potentially quite hard to engage with without this kind of bridge into the movement,” he says. “Wikipedia is not the easiest thing to edit in a lot of ways. It’s great to have the understanding of licensing, the rules around conflicts of interest, and other guidelines that the Wikimedia movement has.

“It’s really helpful to have someone internally within the organisation, who’s easily accessible, who’s able to get people started with engagement,” he continues.

“It’s like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument – it’s hard to start off with, but once you get going you kind of feel your way through… it takes practice.”

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