The Powell Cotton family were explorers, soldiers, women, anthropologists, naturalists, film-makers and more. Their astonishing archives and collection form the core of the Powell Cotton Museum (PCM) in its country park, and include the world’s largest elephant specimen and the first room-sized habitat-display diorama (a form of exhibit best known through the examples at the Chicago Field Museum and American Museum of Natural History). Its Victorian and Edwardian collections are still actively used by scientists today but are comparatively little known for their historic significance.
Masters students on the programme Science, Communication and Society at the nearby University of Kent visited the museum on the invitation of museum staff to explore possibilities of increasing museum internet presence and communicating its contents in both historical and contemporary modes.
An initial meeting quickly confirmed that there was no Wikipedia presence for the museum – only for Quex Park as leisure venue. A number of themes were identified to feature as subsections in the revamped ‘spine’ page: Percy Powell Cotton (1866-1940); Antoinette (1913-1997) and Diane Cotton (1908-1986); dioramas; original species type specimens; and filmic archives (including an extensive collection of ethnographic films). Each student took responsibility for one area. The next challenge was to find other pages related to these themes and edit and link them as appropriate. The existing diorama page, for example, required considerable work as its discussion was restricted to theatrical examples; a brief history of the major American museums’ examples had to be researched and inserted.
One student experienced early difficulties when his first draft on the PCM’s founder was flamed by Wiki editors for ‘blatant promotion’ of the Museum. This highlighted an interesting circular challenge of how to establish the historical importance of previously little-known, yet genuinely significant figures. Using primary sources does not help, as the Wikipedia community actively prefers its references to be secondary.
The students learned many things along the way, from technical HTML skills to archival research. Their work resulted in at least merit level marks all round, and gained the desired profile for the museum.