Observing the Inner Workings of Omeka

Well, if there’s one thing you don’t realize about the Internet before you actually do it yourself, it’s that making a website is a lot more challenging than it looks. And it already looks pretty challenging to start with. Working through Omeka to create our Digital Humanities class site eased the process a little, but it was still quite an uphill climb to get to our finished exhibits.

For starters, searching for the right information to include in an exhibit like ours is hard. I’d imagine ease of access would vary by exhibit topic, but for a website about Perpetua and Felicitas, I found it a lot more difficult than I thought it would be to scrounge up items for display. It seemed that every time I found an object that I wanted to use, someone else had put it up already, or it was under a license that kept it from being shared. There was one painting in particular that was being very stubborn, because it kept cropping up everywhere on Google, but I couldn’t find an original source for it, and so I couldn’t add it to the exhibit, even though I really liked it.
 The mosaic at the left here was something I eventually did find and could use, but that was after sifting through mountains of other pictures and items. And then, even once I had some good content to share, there was so much information that had to come with it. I hadn’t anticipated how much detail would go into the metadata of our items. Half of the the info boxes we filled out for each item were things that wouldn’t have even crossed my mind otherwise, much less have been put in the metadata if Omeka hadn’t pointed them out to me. In the scheme of things, our exhibits probably aren’t as extensive as a lot of other similar websites might be, but the work we put into them was still way more involved than I would’ve imagined. Sorting and classifying all those items and bits of metadata was pretty tricky. But it also made our items a lot easier to navigate in the end. So despite how much effort goes into making collections and figuring out how things should be grouped, classification adds a lot more coherency to jumbles of information.

And I feel like that’s something Omeka does really well as a tool. It provides a smorgasbord of ways to organize whatever data you want to throw at it. The structure of items, collections, and exhibits gives it a unique hierarchy, too, with each rung of the ladder allowing you to do different things with information. One Omeka website can show you a hundred ways to read the same images. You can zero in on a single item, or explore a broader topic with a full exhibit. The sky’s the limit, really, and that’s an advantage Omeka has over a tool like WordPress. This post I’m writing now is pretty much the epitome of what WordPress can do. It lets you blog. You can organize things by tags or categories, if you want, but it doesn’t give you the same complex kind of organizing that Omeka does.

Of course, that can be a place where Omeka falls short, too. I’ve already rambled a bit about how complicated using Omeka can be, especially if you’ve never done it before. So while it does give you the chance to expand upon and organize your information pretty much however you want, it has a much more complicated interface than WordPress. There’s a lot more that goes into an Omeka exhibit than a WordPress blog, and I think which one you used would depend on whatever intentions you have for your own website.

On a slightly different tangent, throughout the process of our class building the Perpetua and Felicitas exhibits, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the blog post we read by Melissa Terras. I feel like I can sympathize with her on a deeper level than I could before. Her whole post was about how difficult it can be to find cultural information that’s available for sharing, and now that I’ve gone through that first-hand, her arguments seem a bit more justified. Though I’m still not quite on-board with the idea of making everything accessible to share and reuse, I feel like Terras was right in calling out online museums and other sites on their lack of helpful resources. Their interfaces, while not extremely challenging, can be a bit frustrating to work with, especially if you don’t know exactly what you want from them. And it seems that so little is actually available on websites like that of the Metropolitan Museum. Many items in the online museum archives didn’t even have images attached to them, and some were guarded under licenses from being shared or reused. I agree with Terras when she says that the rights to use or not use something need to be clearer, and more accessible, because navigating those museums for things related to Perpetua and Felicitas was a huge pain in the butt. If we’re going to go to the effort to share some cultural content online (emphasis on some, because again, not all of it should be shared), then the least the providers could do is make it easy to access.

Overall, I feel like the takeaway from our experience with Omeka is that being able to share, organize, classify, and analyze online content is an invaluable pursuit. Though I can’t say I would personally use Omeka again unless it was required, since it gave me a headache at some points, once we had everything pieced together, it was pretty cool being able to look at all the information we’d scrounged up. If you’ve got the patience and ambition to work with it, then Omeka has the potential to make some really awesome online exhibitions.

One thought on “Observing the Inner Workings of Omeka”

  1. I’m glad you thought it was cool to look at what you all had made.
    And I really appreciate your reflection on Terras’ piece after you’d tried to do something with cultural heritage material.

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