Omeka/Neatline Roundtable: Part II, Technicalities and Takeaways

Omeka/Neatline Roundtable: Part II, Technicalities and Takeaways

Sunday, November 30, 2014

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. Read Part I here.

GY: Prior to this project I didn’t have any background in the digital humanities. I had never thought very deeply about the epistemic and methodological implications around digitizing history. I had the double burden of being both relatively unfamiliar with the digital humanities discourse and extremely unfamiliar with computer coding and the Omeka platform. Learning and thinking critically about both the technical and discursive side of things has been an interesting challenge. What kind of technical background did you each have when you first sat down with Omeka?

NR: None. I’m on Facebook, but I’ve never blogged or created a digital project before. I played around with Google Maps a little bit when I first started thinking about how to create the mapping component to my dissertation, but it turned out not to be the best software for this project. I had no computer coding or programing knowledge at all. So, it’s been a real learning curve for me.   

CW: I have no coding or programing knowledge whatsoever. I do have blogging experience, and I have thought a lot about audience in a digital environment in my previous museum communications work. I don’t have any collections management, information science, or statistical expertise, and I’ve become interested in thinking about site navigation and informational architecture, about what kinds of data we want to associate with images, and how it links to other things on the web. That kind of logic is not intuitive to me.

GY: Did either of you find Omeka to be user-friendly? What has been your experience as you learn these digital skills?

NR: I have not found Omeka to be particularly user-friendly. I think Neatline is pretty easy to use, and it’s usually relatively easy to find the answers to whatever problem I am having there. But with Omeka, nothing is intuitive. It takes a really long time to figure out how to do something simple.

CW: And mistakes often have domino effects. One little tweak to what you think is an adjustment on one page and it messes everything up.

GY: Very true! Although the great thing about Omeka is that it’s open-source. Omeka is meant to help scholars organize, achieve, and share their research with the public. However, that being said, it is not very user-friendly. Because it is an open-source program the technical support one is accustomed to for commercial products is, understandably, not available. The only technical support available are user-generated blogs. Shifting through the thousands of posts is very tedious task. You basically have to try and see if someone else has had a problem similar to yours, hope that another poster has answered their question, and then hope that the posted answer can also be used to solve your problem. It’s a profoundly inefficient way to fix problems.

NR: I’ve had a hard time interpreting those forums because they are written by people with a lot of coding or programming knowledge and they tend to speak in a language that is not familiar to me at all. They might be talking about a problem I’ve encountered, and they’ll say ‘here use this code,’ but I won’t even know how to get to the place where I alter that code. Omeka assumes a pretty high level of computer programing knowledge and when you don’t have that knowledge, it can be very challenging to navigate.

CW: One of the reasons we chose Omeka is because of the knowledge resources on campus, the fact that Nicole had been already working with it as were other folks on campus – at the College level and at MITH (Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities). Early on, we had a really helpful workshop with Trevor Muñoz from MITH. He reverse-engineered a few sites that were built in Omeka, in a speculative way, pointing out which plugins a site used or whether it was built entirely using CSS. (He also pointed us to the awesome Cooper Hewitt Labs blog for creative ideas.) We were able to select our theme and plugins to actualize the elements we liked already aware of which wouldn’t require additional technical knowhow.

How well is Omeka meeting your needs, Nicole? I think it’s interesting that you are using it for both pedagogical and research ends.  Is it proving to be the right platform in both cases or is one a better application of it than the other?

NR: Well, it will be interesting to see how it works when I actually teach from it this winter, but so far it seems to work well. What I need it to do is quite basic. I have a collection of images that I’m teaching, and I have them linked to a map and timeline in Neatline. I think the major ‘win’ I had with my site was realizing that it’s possible to add PowerPoint, three-dimensional models, and videos to the map and timeline. That feature really expands the pedagogical capabilities of the site. For my Naples Neatline, it has worked out pretty well so far. There are some minor annoyances because it’s not completely customizable, or at least I don’t have the skill set to write custom codes. I didn’t have huge expectations when I began, and I have been relatively pleased thus far.

GY: I particularly like the didactic function of Omeka. Being able to upload PowerPoints and other media files allows Omeka to potentially be a useful study tool for student. Moreover, for our own exhibition, we are working with two stakeholders—the AMA and the university’s art gallery—who have museum education projects. I can imagine that we might upload PowerPoints on our site for educators to use in their classrooms.

CW: I really love, in the case of a group project like ours where everyone is following somewhat dispersed lines of research, the idea of having a repository, not just an archive, where all these incidental, anecdotal, really cool things we discover along the way can have a life independent of the necessarily more rigid confines of a physical exhibition. Things we might normally look at, learn from, and pass over or absorb into a more polished form. A digital companion can show the process of curating in a more transparent way, possibly. We don’t know if this is how it will turn out because it still very much a work in progress but the potential is there.

NR:  I am intrigued by this idea that your Omeka site allows you to reach community members who may not be tuned in to things happening on campus. How do you think the Omeka site will affect the numbers and types of people who come to the exhibition?

CW: I actually tend to split the online audience and the physical, in-person audience. I don’t necessarily think that there will be any overlap. I mean I think the Omeka site in one way is a promotional tool for the exhibition and may bring slightly different foot traffic, but I imagine it more as a way to make the exhibition available to people who are in other university departments or concentrations of interests in this topic that would not be able to come to Maryland and also as a way to extend the conversation around these issues after the physical exhibition has closed.

GY: I was actually hoping, although I am not sure we have the people-power to realize it, but I would love to see the site be bilingual. If part of goal of this online exhibition is to illuminate and recover histories which have been marginalized from the canonical art historical discourse it seems to me that we should then strive to make our work as accessible as possible. Making our site bilingual would allow the work we are doing to have a greater reach. Aspirationally, it would be wonderful to see more community members access the resources being brought so close to them, but for a number of reasons (accessibility, the culturally competency of our content) that may not happen and the digital companion may not be able to help us realize that goal.

CW:  It’s also a nice step in the interpretative process to think about people having pre-visit or post-visit experiences that involve the site, giving layers of information that prime visitors to interact differently with the objects, without trying to overly proscribe some particular way of reacting, actually helps people connect some of these issues we raise in the show as continuous with their lives outside of the gallery. It could make the in-gallery visit more meaningful as a result.

GY: I worry about the long term sustainability of creating content on Omeka, a platform which does seem to update with some regularity. That means that sometimes old plugins will not function on the new Omeka platforms. If part of our project, at least in part, is archiving our thought process and the exhibition, how do we square that with the ephemerality of a digital tool? It’s a huge concern.

NR: It is a huge concern, and I don’t think there is a solution yet. You have very little control when your research or class is hosted online because you don’t control the technology. An immense amount of time goes into making these digital interventions, and if Omeka is obsolete in ten years, we’ll lose everything. It’s one of the biggest concerns I have about using these tools for teaching, because if you invest time in making great PowerPoints, you don’t have to worry about this issue. There is no way, that I know of, to protect this Omeka or Neatline work.

CW: What kinds of ways have you thought about for saving the assets in your site outside of your site, like the information and structure of the research you have done? Like an Excel or Word document of all of the different headings, for example. Are there ways to back that up outside of Omeka?

NR: I haven’t spent the time to save those things, and I don’t know what the most efficient way to do that would be. I have the chapter from my dissertation that I extracted things from, but the items, record headings, descriptions, and metadata only exist on the site. If something happened to Omeka it would all be lost.

GY: Archiving our thought processes is just as valuable as the final project.

CW: I’m curious what kinds of organizations or individuals we would especially recommend Omeka or Neatline to. I think about really small museums and libraries (who do not have budgets for a web developer team) that have collections and no way to exhibit them. It’s a logical fit. Omeka’s function as a collections database is useful, a free version of MIMSY or The Museum System. There is great value in the way Omeka can handle data.

GY: I think, Nicole, your use of Omeka is really exciting. You are visualizing networks and bringing them into your academic research and making them available to students. I think giving students the ability to visually understand history, allowing them to visualize the intersection between time and space, is exciting and has a lot of potential for the way we teach and present material.

NR: I think the Neatline platform makes the material more exciting and approachable for students. The artworks that we’re teaching become more than just photographs of things, they become objects that exist in a particular time and space, and in specific relationships to one another.

After your experiences with Omeka do you think you would ever undertake another Omeka project, or a different digital project?

CW: I didn’t know much about the Neatline aspect of Omeka, and that seems really promising. I would go there again. We had three options for this project that fit within our professor’s goals for the course: WordPress, Omeka, and Scalar. I’m coming away with renewed respect for a simple platform like WordPress or Squarespace for basic web-publishing when you don’t have that collections need. I also have continued interest in Scalar. I work on contemporary art and am interested in integrating multimedia into my publications, when dealing with sound art or video or performance where the still image doesn’t go far enough in support of your argument. I think Scalar is really interesting as an almost cinematic publishing platform that lets you display and annotate all kinds of media. I don’t compare it with Omeka, though. It serves a very different purpose.

GY: I love the Neatline aspect of Omeka, and I think it’s one of the more compelling reasons to use it. Neatline’s ability to show the movement of artists, objects, and ideas is very powerful, and I would certainly use it again with my own research projects.