Omeka – an online exhibits framework

Tom Scheinfeldt contacted me through a comment on the Electronic Museum blog. He’s MD of the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) who among other things produce Zotero – a kind of semantic webby bookmarking toolbar.

Omeka logoCHNM have recently produced an open source application called Omeka (Swahili for “to display or lay out goods or wares”..) – a product specifically pitched at museums or other cultural institutions wanting to put their collections and exhibits on the web.

To date the offerings in this space tend to follow one of two distinct and reasonably unsatisfactory flavours: Either you choose an ‘out of the box’ templating and publishing system (albeit with the promise that you can “edit your own templates”) which come with systems like MultiMimsy or TMS, or you choose to start from scratch and build the entire thing from nothing.

Omeka - ExhibitThe former is generally pretty bad form for the user: most of these products are generic, badly designed and force museums to follow a prescribed path of development with little flexibility to change or choose their collections management system. The latter is complex and expensive, and although carries with it huge amounts of flexibility, it also has the burden of any bespoke system.

Tom and his team noticed that over the course of several years working with the museum sector that:

We found ourselves building more or less the same website over and over again, or at least the feature set

They also noted that although there were tools for curators, there weren’t any for educators or webmasters: the ‘front of house’ people who wanted to create online exhibitions. They decided that they would build some of these common approaches into a framework application for delivering narrative exhibitions online.

Omeka AdminOmeka is an open source application which you download and install on your LAMP web environment. It draws content in real time (i.e isn’t a “tick and publish” like many of the other systems in this space). At the moment you export your data from your collections management system and import it into Omeka for delivery to the web, but Tom was quick to point out that this is “just an intermediary step” and that they’re working on a database abstraction layer which will allow for “live sync” with existing collections managements systems. This is great news, and absolutely the direction that needs to be taken more in our sector.

Tom and his team used the metaphor of a blog to guide their thinking on development. They:

“…thought it should be as easy for museums to publish online exhibitions as it is for individuals to start a blog…and in many ways WordPress has been our model…

They have a drag and drop exhibit builder, a strong API and also a plugin architecture which allows users to add their own functionality. All of this is very positive news given the approaches taken to date with the systems I’ve mentioned above – very clunky, very web1 and with bad UI’s for both users and administrators.

I’m in the middle of installing Omeka to do some “real world” testing but it certainly looks and sounds very positive to me. If anyone out there has experience using Omeka (or the other systems I’ve been rude about) then please comment away. Examples of institutions using Omeka can be found on their website.

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