Exhibiting Digital Collections with Omeka

Digitization has become a necessity in today’s Information Age, an issue widely recognized within the museum community. Many institutions are digitizing their collections to make them more accessible to the public but that’s just the first step. Another question remains: how can institutions exhibit these newly digitized collections, especially if they lack the resources and the knowledge to do so??

If this question applies to you, fret no more! Thanks to Omeka, an open source web publishing system, you can easily upload your digital collections and display them as an online exhibit. Developed  by the Center for History and New Media in collaboration with George Mason University, Omeka provides institutions with a free, user-friendly way to curate their collections.

Users have the option of signing-up for a basic or upgraded plan, depending on how much storage space they will need (as well as how many different sites they plan to create). The basic plan is free and comes with eight downloadable plugins to help manage your site (most of which were created by the Center for History and New Media), as well as four different design themes. Users also have the option to add others as site administrators, supers, researchers or contributors.

Once an account is created, users can begin to upload the items in their collections. Items are organized and archived within the Dublin Core metadata element set, which (according to Wikipedia) is “a set of vocabulary terms which can be used to describe resources for the purposes of discovery.” Basically, Dublin Core allows users to describe the item (video, document, image, etc) and tag it for future searches. Items can then be organized within their respective collection type.

Once items are uploaded and organized, they can be viewed on the public site (to be named by the curator). Here you can see how the website is formatted, view how the theme looks, as well as browse and search for items and collections. One limitation of the basic plan is that it is difficult to format the public site as you like. The themes seem fairly, well, basic, and there isn’t much room for change. Even still, everything is laid out nicely and easy to use.

Last summer I interned with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) within their Museum on Main Street (MoMS) division. MoMS was in the process of creating a new website called Stories from Main Street that would allow the public to upload their own stories (video or text) about a certain topic centering on whatever exhibition was being developed at the time (for instance, I worked on the exhibition “The Way We Worked,” so people could upload stories about labor and their communities). Stories from Main Street was created using Omeka, is extremely user-friendly and looks great. I’m not sure if MoMS used an upgraded plan, but Omeka was a perfect solution for a unit of the Smithsonian that did not have the money nor the staff to develop a high-end website. Omeka.org, Omeka’s formal site, also showcases other Omeka-powered websites such as Lincoln at 200, which we looked at last week.

All in all, Omeka is a fantastic way to create online exhibits. For people like me who are not necessarily tech savvy, you should definitely keep Omeka in the back of your mind if ever working on a web development project. After all, it’s FREE!

9 Replies to “Exhibiting Digital Collections with Omeka”

  1. Hey there! Thanks for the article on Omeka. I am planning on doing a project for my course with Shawn Graham using Omeka as a platform to display and teach about an Inuit parka. I haven’t yet gone into too much detail over the strengths and weaknesses of the tools, but it always leaves me wondering about both the power of online museum exhibitions but also their limitations.

    I am always excited at the potential breadth of potential visitors, but I also think that it is foolish to assume that if you make it, people will come. Many websites are simply too obscure and the topic matter too specific to really draw a notable audience. I think the power of Stories from Main Street however is the crowd sourcing component of it. You only have content if people contribute their content. I suppose having the Smithsonian banner also helps things along too :). Using the public to be involved in the museum exhibit is an awesome advantage too, having people involved in creating an exhibit means that they are invested in that exhibit and hopefully invested in the museum as well. This would be especially valuable for smaller, local museums where getting people to even come can be a struggle!

    I can see many advantages to Omeka, but as (supposed) academics (in-training) we must be critical too. So what are some of the drawbacks and restrictions of using Omeka? As with all museum exhibits, both digital and physical, the tools used to tell the story can shape the way people understand and interpret the exhibit. Perhaps already having some experience with omeka means that you have already faced some of those decisions that make you have to choose to tell one story and not the other. Even how the artifacts or photos are displayed and divided will shape the way the exhibit is understood. What photos are selected to be the main banner of the site? How does this privilege certain stories? Why are those stories privileged? Is it because the photo is just a really awesome shot or is the story just really unusual? Is it the unique stories that we should be telling or is the really special part of Stories From Main Street its very mundaness?

    I have been thinking a great deal about accessibility of exhibits recently and not simply in the sense that can a person with a visual or hearing impairment access this site (either physical or digital), but also accessibility in the sense of who can actually understand and view the site. As English speakers, I think that we are often at fault for assuming that everyone can speak English. In the US, what of Spanish speakers who make up such a large portion of the population? What about Black vernacular? Is that dialect less acceptable to be presented at the Smithsonian? Why? Across the border where I am, I need to thinking about not only the Francophones, but also the people whose objects I am presenting online. Unfortunately, my Inuktitut is limited to pointing to an animal and being (barely) able to utter its name. Is it ok for me to blast onwards with an exhibit about an Inuit parka and exclude the very people whose ancestors made this object?

  2. Omeka is amazing!! From a public history perspective, Omeka allows the public to directly engage with history and get excited about it! Not only can ordinary people get involved with historical sources and develop their own exhibits, but visitors to these sites will also learn history. This is democratization of public history at its best! As you stated, colwillc, the website is easy to use and free. I signed up and started my own omeka page in a matter of minutes.

    I also like how Omeka clearly outlines its audiences and suggests useful features of the site to these different personas (see http://omeka.org/about/). One audience I suggest they add is family historians. The public takes a great interest in their own family history. Omeka would be a great platform to organize and display the history of one’s family through photographs, letters, stories, etc. Omeka might even add a family tree feature. However, to do this, Omeka might have to allow these pages to become private in case family historians do not wish for their private history to reach the public.

    I think Omeka is a wonderful tool to display collections and actively engage with history. I hope that Omeka would consider adding and catering to other audiences, such as those interested in more personal history, to further broaden their appeal and get as many people engaged in history as possible.

  3. After seeing all these great tools for displaying collections and organizing them, the one question that I keep coming to is how to alert viewers to the presence of the data you create. While with Omeka your website may find its way to their wiki or showcase and receive some limited traffic from that or google searches, but to find the personnas your project is targeted is a task left entirely to you. If you are bringing together a historical collection that you want either students, or perhaps other historians to view, how do you alert those audience of your website? While a historian probably has some method to alert their peers to the existence of their website, this only works if the project is not intended for a greater viewership. While Omeka itself seems extremely easy to learn, the average, non-tech savy historian still has many hurdles to overcome. It would be extremely helpful if some of these websites and software provided methods or tools for to help those of us who are not experienced in promoting a website along.

    1. Nathan,

      I don’t know if this is what professionals actually use or if there are certain tools to promote a website, but my initial thought when I read your post was ‘social media.’ Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are ‘liked’ and followed by people who have a genuine interest in whatever subject is being promoted, giving you a target audience.

      I’m not saying make a FB page or Twitter account for the website you create, but connect with other organizations who are working on a similar topic. For example, if I made a website that dealt with steel mills in Western Pa., I’d contact the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh and see if they would promote it on their FB page and Twitter account. I don’t know if there’d be a problem with this competition-wise, but to me it seems like everyone would benefit.

      I think it’s definitely easier to get your content out to the intended audience with the technology now available, especially since a lot of it is user-friendly. Some social media companies also have guidelines on how to promote things on their sites. (i.e. Facebook says unless you’re a huge celebrity, you should post no more than two times a day.)

      1. Social Media can be one answer to the publicity dilemma, but it’s far from a complete answer. The major drawback to social media is that it only targets users of said social media. You might replay with “And your point being?” But hear me out: not everyone is on facebook and twitter, and even those who are may not use it extensively or frequently enough (my mother comes to mind) for social media publicity to draw said audience’s attention. I think Nate’s hit on a real issue here: If you build it, will they come? OR, How do they get there if they don’t know it’s been built??

  4. Christina raised an interesting point that I think warrants further discussion .

    “Is it the unique stories that we should be telling or is the really special part of Stories From Main Street its very mundaness?”

    As Meghan mentioned, Omeka is an excellent platform because it is an opportunity to get the public directly involved and participating in history. But what is the role of the “public historian” in this case? Is it to get the “public” directly involved in creating history in their own ways, or is it to use their trained expertise to select and present pertinent and important information that will appeal to the general publics inquisitiveness?

    With the ease of use that these digital tools provide, are we quickly approaching a point of historical overload? I came across this issue while exploring PhilaPlace. The items added by the Historical Society are in-depth and very interesting. However, the items added by the general public can completely inconsequential from a historical perspective. For example, someone tagged their own childhood neighbourhood with the “historic” information of:

    “I was born and raised in North Philadelphia in 1961 on the 2500 block of north 12th Street. At that time my community was what, I now know, a community should be. The neighbors looked out for each other, the playground with the sprinkler was down the street and kept clean by Mr. Freddie, children played games outside…..”

    That might be a fascinating story to some, but is it historically relevant? I do not disparage these public history sites – I find them fascinating – but at the same time that they allow the untrained public to participate, does it dilute the purpose of these sites to the point where the information they relay is no longer relevant?

    1. allenp,
      I think you mention a very valid concern. My qualm with Omeka and other technology like it is that, for me, it is not enough for the public to simply express an interest in history. I am much more concerned about how they think and talk about historical topics. I think Omeka is great because it appears to be an easy way for people with little background in web design to create their own websites and share their hobbies with a large audience. This can be a positive step in fostering a wider dialogue about people’s shared interests and pastimes.

      However, I am (self-admittedly) cynical about the idea that Omeka and other programs like it will lead to a deeper, more thoughtful discussion about history (or any other intellectual topic) among the public. As you mention, many of the historical sites that I see seem focused on telling somebody’s personal story and neglect (or are simply not interested in) broadening that story into a wider context. For me, the personal account you mentioned exemplifies a lot of the “historical” stories I’ve seen on the web. I share your concern that there isn’t a lot of historical relevance to it. At the same time, just to play devil’s advocate, this particular story could possibly be used in a larger discussion about what constitutes a “community.” Is it simply an area of residential dwellings, or is it a shared set of values about how people should ideally treat one another? However, I think that expanding this particular story into a wider framework such as the one I just mentioned is a stretch. From an academic perspective, I hesitate to say that stories such as this one are relevant to a bigger discussion about larger historical issues. While I think Omeka is useful in some respects, I don’t seek as being incredibly beneficial to scholarly study.

  5. I think this conversation has raised some great questions. Perhaps instead of my two-step approach to digital collections (first, digitizing your collections; second, creating a venue for people to view your digital collections) there can be added a third: once an online exhibit is created (for this instance, let’s just say within Omeka), how do institutions make them known? As Angela pointed out, social media has become essential to any institution for various marketing and PR reasons. Perhaps in today’s digital age, social media is the most fruitful method of promotion, especially among younger generations.

    I also appreciate how Omeka showcases various Omeka-powered sites. If people ever caught wind of the potential benefits of Omeka, perhaps they would check out Omeka.org to view these model sites – once again, another form of self-promotion.

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