Omeka/Neatline Roundtable: Part I, Goals and Audience

Omeka/Neatline Roundtable: Part I, Goals and Audience

Monday, November 24, 2014

 Editor's note: In the blog post that follows, and that which follows next week, Cecilia Wichmann, Grace Yasumura, and Nicole Riesenberger lay down essential bulding blocks for this Department's adoption of Omeka and Neatline as viable platforms for many digital projects envisioned in the Department's future. As we see with clarity that future, it will be because we stand on the shoulders of these three giants (with apologies to Newton).


Nicole Riesenberger, Cecilia Wichmann, and Grace Yasumura have been experimenting this semester with the open-source, collections management system Omeka and Neatline, its mapping and timeline plugin. In this two-part series, they sit down together to compare notes on three rather different projects and to reflect on lessons learned.

GY: Let’s start by introducing our Omeka projects.

CW: So Grace and I are working on an Omeka site that will act as a digital companion to a real life exhibition at the UMD Art Gallery in March 2015 curated by Abigail McEwen’s Aesthetics of Exile class. The idea is to host a collection of objects online, artworks that will be in the show or related to the show, from the collection of the AMA ǀ Art Museum of the Americas, augmented with a lot of interpretative material that the class pulls together.

NR: I’m building two separate installations of Omeka, and I’m using the Neatline map and timeline plugin for each. One site, related to my dissertation, focuses on charting the intersections of art and politics at the Neapolitan court in the late fifteenth century. The second installation is for a course on fifteenth-century Italian art that I hope to teach during UMD’s Winter Term 2015.

GY: Let’s talk about primary (and secondary) audiences for our projects. Cecilia and I have a number of different audiences to consider. Perhaps the most obvious is the university community–college students, faculty members, and staff—who will visit the show and then be directed to the website. But we also thought about how the digital companion could reach a much larger and more diverse audience. We have been thinking about the potential for reaching out to the community members in the surrounding area, particularly as our work focuses on Latin American art and there is quite a large Latino community around our university.

CW: It is also something that can be used collaboratively by our institutional partners at the AMA, The Art Gallery, our department, and here in the Collaboratory. Each has its own audience, and our site can circulate within each of those constituencies.

NR: The audience for my fifteenth-century Italian art site is most immediately the small group of undergraduate students in my course. As an online resource, however, this site could potentially be used by anyone teaching a course on fifteenth-century Italian art, or by students wishing to gain a greater insight into the topic. My Naples site is mainly geared toward scholars with an interest in Early Modern Naples, but I think it is composed in a way that is also accessible to the non-specialist. I hope that one day, if I am able to publish my dissertation, I will have this nice, freely available, digital component to my research. And this is an important aspect of the project, because there is such a dearth of English-language scholarship published on Naples, and photographs of many of the surviving artworks from the period are also difficult to come by. So, my Omeka site will make a lot of this material accessible online, for free, for the first time.

GY: Has digitizing your project changed, particularly with regard to your Naples Neatline, the way you have organized your dissertation or the way you have approached your research, methodologically speaking? Or did you already have an idea of how you wanted to represent the data and Neatline lent itself well to it?

NR: I think it has changed a little bit. When I started my dissertation I was not so focused on mapping networks. I knew I wanted to do something with digital maps because I’m interested in showing how Naples is interconnected with other parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. Through my dissertation I want to combat this stereotype of Naples as isolated from the rest of the world, and I knew digital maps would be a great way to achieve that. When I began experimenting with this mapping project I started thinking about how I might also use maps to recreate networks of artists, ambassadors, and courtiers interacting and moving through European courts. So, I guess the digital project has caused me to start thinking much more geographically about the arguments I’m making.

In terms of my course on fifteenth-century Italian art, the Omeka/Neatline site has completely driven the organization of the class and the material I plan to teach. Thinking about teaching from a map has forced me to use more of the map, to really teach all of fifteenth-century Italy and to divide our time in each location more equally, rather than spending ⅔ of the class in Florence.

CW: Grace, how do you think building the digital companion has changed the way our class is approaching curating the physical show?

GY: That is a really important question. I think one of the neat things about Omeka, or more generally digitizing a project like this, is that it allows you much more fluidity. In a gallery the objects are static and when you place them somewhere on the wall they can only exist next to a certain number of other objects. However, Omeka allows you to place objects in dialogue with many other kinds of objects (not just the ones you have access to for the physical show). Omeka affords you the opportunity to tell stories that you may not able to tell in the gallery, because of limitations of space or wall text length, for example. As we know, objects don’t just tell one story. When the objects live online there is a great potential to flesh out their complex and complicated histories and socials biographies. The story one tells online need not be linear in the same way that the story one tells in the gallery might be.

CW: Neatline is really useful in this respect because it allows us to interpret the objects we’re working with not only through text but with other images and media.

GY: It sort of opens the world up in a way that you are not always afforded in the gallery.

NR: Do you feel that the digital component has put any constraints on the exhibition you’re organizing, particularly in terms of what materials you have image rights to and what you are able to put online?

CW: I think normally it would. If this were an exhibition with loans from multiple collections, image rights could be an enormous undertaking. We have a lot of freedom in the sense that we are working with one collection and the AMA is very amenable and appreciative of the opportunity to get these images out there. Time is our biggest constraint given the technical effort that goes into building a site alongside solving conceptual curatorial problems.