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Content Management & Exhibits

Omeka Online Exhibits: Better Than Museums?

Omeka is a free online exhibit space for museums, archives, libraries, and other organizations. There are different versions for different organizations, who have different uses for the software. Omeka also has plugins, which makes customizing the online exhibit to your company’s needs as easy as a download. It is possible to create timelines and attach information to a map. Professional historians prefer Omeka because it enables them to provide correct metadata for their evidence of which traditional websites are not capable. Omeka combines a digital archive with an online museum exhibit.

Omeka seems like a public historian’s dream because they can cite their sources and share their information with the public. Public historians need websites like Omeka because there are citizens that cannot travel to the museum, do not have time to come to the museum, believe they are not welcome at the museum or think they would not enjoy their visit. Omeka can bring the exhibits of the museum to the public that is unwilling or unable to come to the museum and could convince others that they are welcome at the museum or pique their interest and bring others to the museum who may not otherwise visit the museum. Museums in China are now digitizing their exhibits because people are no longer visiting them because of the Corona Virus that is rapidly spreading through their country.

However, Omeka cannot replace traditional museum exhibits. The interactive elements on the Omeka website cannot compare to those found in a conventional museum. Also, museum patrons who view the online display lose the benefit of going to a museum with other people; they cannot strike up a conversation about the exhibit with a total stranger. Museum patrons utilizing the online exhibition also cannot discuss the content with docents and curators. This discussion could be geared more toward their interest, and they would leave the traditional museum exhibit with information personalized to their interests. This additional information would not be found in an online Omeka exhibit because there is not enough space to put every piece of information and evidence related to a topic in an online exhibition. There is also no substitute for seeing historical artifacts in person. While digitizing the content and historical objects of the museum, so those who do not have access to the museum or its records, is important, digitization, and online exhibits, at least for now, cannot replace the traditional physical museum exhibits.

4 replies on “Omeka Online Exhibits: Better Than Museums?”

Lydia,
I completely agree that Omeka is a great resource. It really helps with digitizing artifacts like letters, maps, etc. I also agree that it cannot replace a good old fashion museum exhibit. There is nothing quite like being able to see an artifact in person whereas a photo online just doesn’t do it justice.

That’s a very relevant article you mentioned! I hadn’t thought of how the Corona Virus would affect tourism and museum viewing, but it makes a lot of sense and I’m glad that there are efforts to keep exhibits and historic sites “open” digitally.

However, you also raised good points on how visitors cannot get a personalized experience just by visiting digital museums. Although they can control their path through the site, it is true there aren’t any human guides to answer questions and provide more insight. I really like how this aspect of digital vs. museums can be articulated clearly. This is because my reason for liking physical museums more than digital exhibits isn’t quite as concise– that is that physical objects seem to bear more gravity and weight to them. Figuratively as well as literally.

Therefore, while I agree that digital exhibits cannot replace physical exhibits- I’m curious to see if this may change in the future as physical exhibits incorporate more digital features. A fictional example might be how in the beginning of Night at the Museum 2, the physical exhibits are replaced with holographic representations.

I also agree with the fact that Omeka is important and a useful tool! I definitely support the idea that Omeka cannot replace physical museum exhibits for everyone, because the experience is so different. However, I will say that the public might become more drawn to Omeka than traditional museum visits for the reasons you mentioned in your post, but also because they don’t have to fight to see objects and documents. Everything is already laid out right there for them to click through at their own pace, and struggling to see over the shoulders of groups of people, listening to crying children, and waiting patiently behind “do not touch” and “do not pass” lines are not factors in the experience. This might be another thing to think about in terms of Omeka eventually replacing physical museums for a lot of people, especially those who are not invested enough in history to care if they can be right next to the artifact or not. There is also the issue of people being allowed to touch artifacts, which is an ongoing debate in the public history world anyway. Allowing museum visitors to touch objects could engage them more and be very valuable, but museums are slow to open up the opportunity. Audiences may feel that, if they cannot touch the objects anyway, then why go to the actual museum when they can see the object online? It’s just something I thought about while reading this post! I really appreciated the fact that you brought up the situation in China as well, because I felt that you made a valuable connection to how digital history and public history are practiced around the world for different reasons, which is something we often don’t talk about. Interpreting and presenting history to the public is not just an American thing, but sometimes I think we get so caught up in our own culture and the origins of the field in our country that we don’t pay enough attention to how historians in other nations practice in the field!

Where Omeka, and other digital systems, are most valuable is not really with museums, but rather bringing paper resources to the front. Every time a source is pulled from an archive, it is damaged. Every time a historian goes through a file of papers, oils are left behind, degrading the paper. With a website that primary source is something that everyone can see and everyone can use. That is the path that I can see bringing even more digital material to the front, rather than bringing artifacts.

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