Omeka Exhibition Review

Omeka Exhibition Review

By Willis Chan

What is Omeka?

Omeka originated in 2007 as a project of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. In their own words, “Omeka is a free, flexible, and open source web-publishing platform for the display of library, museum, archives, and scholarly collections and exhibitions. Its “five-minute setup” makes launching an online exhibition as easy as launching a blog. Omeka falls at a crossroads of Web Content Management, Collections Management, and Archival Digital Collections Systems” (About Project Omeka).

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My initial impression, Omeka was an academic technology made to embrace of the new blogosphere and open source culture of the Web. Omeka is blogging for curators, is that it? Yes and no, Omeka eases the transition of material-based, curatorial items onto the ontology of the Web. Its formulaic use of metadata, database structures, CSS formatting, and search make it a strong online exhibition tool for a variety of users beyond bloggers. Strength in the archival and collections management areas differentiates Omeka from platforms such as WordPress and Joomla.

Omeka defines its userbase as:

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The Omeka version  1.2.1 software package comes with a set of four themes and expands to be 3,461 Files in 728 Folders. This is hi-tech ‘media’ for your server that translates into a user-friendly Omeka interface (where the magic happens). Exciting news for the Omeka platform (and for groups in the class) includes a Corporation for Digital Scholarship server-side installation of their software open to the public later this month on

Omeka version 1.2.1 includes following features and plug-ins:

  • Four themes that are easy to adapt with simple CSS changes and theme configuration
  • Exhibit Builder plugin with 12 page layouts and 5 exhibit themes
  • Tagging for items and exhibits
  • RSS feeds for items
  • COinS plug-in making items readable by Zotero
  • SimplePages plugin for easily making static pages


Source: edited from Omeka download files

For Gitelman’s “new media users,” the front-end of almost all the Omeka themes, the navigation is first presented on the top toolbar and then it trickles to listed sub-categories in the middle section. Omeka provides one standard tabbed operation screen and several tabbed themes to display your items, collection, and exhibitions. The overall mission is to provide a unique piece of software to easily customize to your specific needs.

3 Examples from Omeka showcase:

Europe, Interrupted

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Part of a larger series called Inventing Europe, Europe, Interrupted is described as “a collaboration between historians and museums to tell stories about the way technology has helped and hindered the circulation of people, things and ideas in modern Europe…The exhibition consists of thirteen stories, five themed tours and over two hundred images of events and artefacts for you to view and explore” (Inventing Europe). Europe, Interrupted is a great exhibition demonstrating the collaborative use of the multi-user platform to bring together articles and items from many sources. This online exhibition is sponsored by the European Science Foundation in collaboration with the Foundation for the History of Technology. I emphasize this exhibition because of its unique approach to the graphical map representation of the link between Europe and technology:

This material representation was an eloquent spin on the traditional print layout of websites. The traditions of alphabetization or chronology are abandoned for the digital concretization of an abstract concept of connectivity, transport, location, and interaction. Navigation methods were not apparent when first entering the exhibition. Instructions were needed as a first-time visitor as the map seemed static.

Using the dynamic Omeka platform, users can expand the excavation of textual, visual, and sonic materials and their arrangement into a series of web collections and exhibitions. Older-style static web pages would have only presented linear ‘new media’ dossiers of the items in the collection. Unlike forms of archival on the web and in physical settings,  Omeka prevents the risk of corrupting collections with multiple entries. With Omeka, developers are encouraged to mix-and-match items in exhibitions, contribute apps/plug-ins for the platform, provide input on existing features, connect to Web 2.0 sites, and help write the public user manual wiki. It is a young but useful tool to share a wealth of material goods in digital form and have them available to the greater online community.

For our final class exhibition purposes, the Omeka platform allows for multiple contributors and editors within one domain. Unlike other material means, in the digital, two can be creating at once.

Eminent Domain, Contemporary Photography in the City

This was a disappointing use of the Omeka system as it is only a text-based recollection of a photography exhibition about the domains of New York City. For a Omeka website, the Eminent Domain content was highly immaterial and very textual—a direct contradiction to what the exhibit was all about. Perhaps the greatest loss is this exhibit’s inability to share online what Zielinski characterized as the primary goal of media archeology, “The goal is to uncover dynamic moments in the media-archeological record that abound and revel in heterogeneity and, in this way, to enter into a relationship of tension with various present-day moments, relativize them, and render them more decisive” ( Zielinski  11). Barely a single photograph can be found on the pages! This page is an example of what NOT to do under the Omeka system, it adds little to no value to an exhibition.

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Static pages were made for each artist and the site acted as a brochure summary and ‘extra’ to the actual exhibit and collection. Redeeming qualifications as a resource came as links to NYPL’s Eminent Domain online exhibitions (built in Flash) and their interactive contribution program based on the website Flickr.

Lincoln at 200

This was the quintessential site for showing off the capabilities of the Omeka platform. The site was beautifully crafted with a custom theme designed with graphics and a large collection of items influencing the exhibition’s purpose:  educating the curious about the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln and his contributions to history.

“In the web exhibitions on this site we have sought to offer a thoughtfully curated selection of historical documents and artifacts to help us, living in 2009, make sense of Lincoln and his own times through the evidence of primary sources. Our web exhibition is just one of hundreds of publications, exhibitions, events, and activities taking place all over the U.S. and on the Web in 2009 in commemoration of the Lincoln bicentennial.” – Lincoln at 200, About the Project

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Lincoln at 200 is a collaborative project of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the Chicago History Museum, and the Newberry Library. The Institute for Museum and Library Services has generously provided funding for this Web exhibition as part of a series of initiatives to commemorate the Lincoln bicentennial.” – Lincoln at 200, About the Project

Lincoln at 200 creates such a rich interface that a user can’t help but explore elements further (aided by the Omeka). The items offer a user ‘visitation’ into the objects, scenes, and moments of Lincoln’s time. The website focuses on three main components of Lincoln’s history: Lincoln & The Westward expansion of 1809-1860 and The Fiery Trial: The Civil War & Slavery. The highest praise of the site goes to the huge archive of items. Each historic photograph, letter, and document in this online Lincoln exhibition can be viewed individually. In-depth detail and cataloging are provided to scholars with the click of a button.

First and foremost, the items need to be uploaded into the Omeka archive. The advantage of using Omeka is the representation and tagging of items. Items can become their own agents in the Omeka content management system; each item element having its own page, tags, and story. Items can be organized into collections, but they become taggable, browseable and searchable upon upload. Collections or items can be further augmented for a purpose by making an exhibition. Drawing from Foucault’s work on the materiality of media, Jussi Parikka emphasizes that “…specificity and singularity should be some of the key “aims” of a media archaeological excavation…Taking into account both the singularity of the object and the problems with traditional history as a “narrative mode of describing reality” is a worthwhile mode of excavation”(Parikka and Hertz). Omeka is intended to be interactive and informative with multiple levels to explore. Omeka helps you do this media excavation with its items-based narrative content system. A visitor can visit an online Omeka exhibition, choose an object of particular interest, observe extended object details, higher resolution exposures, and explore similar objects via tags or collection categories.

Relating back to our readings, items can also be thought of as the immaterial (digital file of sonic, photographic or textual representation) form of what was a physical ‘time medium’. As Zielinski would define the exhibitions and items on Omeka as time media, “All techniques for reproducing existing worlds and artificially creating new ones are, in a specific sense, time media” (Zielinski 31). An Omeka is an artificially created world, coded by computer language, translated onto the screen for both the curator and visitor to use. The items are representations/digital reproductions of existing worlds. The Lincoln Omeka emphasizes networking of objects and their histories.

The participatory elements demonstrated in the Lincoln and Europe examples demonstrate that exhibitions can be more open and dynamic. Jussi Parikka expands upon this point, “Instead of being anti-institutional, it is perhaps more relevant to build methods of participation and openness within institutions. Though to date media archaeology has primarily been articulated by a few thinkers, such as Zielinski and Huhtamo, it is engaged with many new ways of addressing media history. The future of media studies is a study not only of media, but of archives and temporality. It is a constant creative tension of the old with the new” (Parikka and Hertz). Omeka is one approach to confronting this tension by bringing old offline curatorial-form exhibitions online. The system is not limited to the digital exhibition of material artworks; Omeka can also house volumes of digital works, sound libraries, pure text libraries, and multimedia. Omeka is a successful attempt to bridge the gap between the curator of artifacts and the modern web designer.

Further Readings and Resources:

Omeka Showcase:

Civil Rights Movement Archives:

Objects of History, Gold Nugget Virtual Object:

Making the History of 1989:

Okapi Omeka Theme:

Omeka on Twitter:


Siegfried Zielinski, “Introduction: The Idea of a Deep Time of the Media” and excerpts from “Fortuitous Finds Instead of Searching in Vain: Methodological Borrowings and Affinities for an Anarchaeology of Seeing and Hearing by Technical Means” In Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2006): 1-11, 27-38.

Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz, “Archaeologies of Media Art” CTheory (April 1, 2010).

Lisa Gitelman, “Introduction: Media as Historical Subjects” and excerpt from “New Media Users” In Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008): 1-22, 59-64.

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