Omeka: Curatorship and exhibits in the digital age

The great thing about Omeka is that it is an open-source system. The software is what we call a content management system (CMS), and the terminology is mostly self-explanatory: it increases the user’s ability to. manage and showcase digital contents in the form of a dynamic virtual exhibit. For what it offers to historians, museum professionals, and educators, the system is a powerful pedagogical tool.

Omeka’s dashboard. The “Thanks, Roy” theme is a default setting.

The dashboard in Omeka is quite simple: it shows recently uploaded items and recently created collections to be showcased as virtual exhibits. First, the potential lies in its collaborative nature: multiple users can log into the system and contribute to the process of uploading, curating, managing, and showcasing digital objects like historical images. Second, it enables the user to curate each item with a consistent metadata schema.

Dublin Core metadata schema in Omeka.

The standards of the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set (DCMES) are widely accepted among resource management professionals. In this schema, each record has a set of elements or fields – here called properties – which include values that can be based on controlled vocabularies or not. Omeka allows the user to decide whether or not DCMES is the most appropriate metadata schema for each uploaded item, which is great to ensure broad accessibility and interoperability as Metadata Librarian for Digital Collections Jessica L. Serrao informed our class during her talk.

When uploading an item to Omeka, the user is prompted to fill the record’s metadata elements before making it publicly available as a digital exhibit. I have uploaded an aerial photograph of Clemson College in 1964 from the Clemson University Photographs Digital Collection to Omeka to experiment with the tool.

Record “Aerial view of Clemson College buildings” uploaded to Omeka.

When metadata is completed consistently, the item can be showcased in a new public page as part of the user’s own digital exhibit, and it should look something like this:

Public page showcasing a historical record as part of a digital exhibit .

Since this was just a quick experiment, I couldn’t explore other features of the system. But I’m confident that its power lies in the potential for collaboration between multiple users in creating and curating an exhibit from scratch. Hallie Knipp and I had ambitious ideas about how to experiment with this tool. Inspired by the spirit of Halloween, we went to Clemson’s Special Collections and Archives located at the Strom Thurmond Institute to look for historical photographs of the campus during halloween across the years. The hope was to test Omeka’s collaboration potential and create a digital exhibit on Clemson’s Halloween traditions. Sadly, we didn’t find much. And, of course, we were both too buried in work to move forward with the idea.

I can’t help but wonder what all we could have done with Omeka when those elementary and high school students visited the Tiradentes Palace in Rio while curators and cultural managers were reimagining the exhibit. If every group had the opportunity to do a workshop using Omeka at the end of the visit and brainstorm ideas about new digital exhibits with particular focuses on the palace’s history, we could have created the first interactive and fully collaborative public history project in the most important legislative museum of the country.

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