This week’s adventure into the realm of digital history expanded my understanding and appreciation of the Omeka platform. I created an exhibit about eugenics entitled Fitter Families and Better Babies: Reaching the Public, which explores how eugenicists spread their message to the American public, and how that message impacted individual lives. I once again found the process fairly straightforward, and was pleased that these capabilities are available to public historians.
Now, my exhibit is a small one, and while I kept Trevor Owens’ advice in mind while creating it, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is possible online. That much became clear to me this week, as I navigated readings that casually threw around words like “hadoop” and “warc file” that mean next to nothing to me. But that, I think, is the beauty of Omeka – that someone like me, a true amateur when it comes to the language and technology of the digital humanities – can pull together a successful online exhibit without too much grief and confusion. Sheila Brennan has pointed out the disturbing fact that many museums have a dismal online presence. I feel truly justified in saying now that there is no excuse for it.
Finally, a few thoughts about context: a lot of digital humanists are excited about the serendipitous nature of the web. @TroveNewsBot and museum bots, for instance, can generate content without human mediation, offering a more organic experience and avoiding what Dragan Espenschied called “introducing some order where there was no order.” These tools don’t add the extra context that humans inevitably do. Context is also important in the archives, as archivists strive to maintain the “archival bonds” that exist between a document and the documents that surround it, organic in a different sense. My site, however, lacks serendipity or true archival content. But Omeka does allow historians to arrange items across collections and institutions in new and meaningful ways. That kind of context, I would argue, is just as valid. It may not be the goal of all archivists or digital humanists, but it is at the core of the work that public historians do.