Source: Creating an Exhibit with Omeka

I have talked about metadata in previous posts, and this week’s readings made me feel that my grasp on the topic is elementary at best. I don’t know if I realized how limited my previous experience with metadata was – working with one standard in one very specific field, and even then coming across objects that did not fit “neatly” into those standards. Looking at Jenn Riley’s “Seeing Standards: a Visualization of the Metadata Universe” (PDF) does an excellent job of conveying the true complexity of metadata standards and their applications. It encourages me to continue to think critically about the choices I am making when I create or curate metadata, and to make an effort keep apace with the continually changing decisions regarding these standards.

In creating my exhibit for this week’s assignment, I found myself making decisions about metadata. I decided to focus my exhibit on the topic of graffiti on the Navajo reservation. In my years spending time on and passing through the reservation, I have been continually fascinated by the graffiti, I think in large part due to its transient, ephemeral nature – never the same on each visit, and its visual context in the complexities of life on the reservation. I never had the chance to photograph the pieces I experienced (hopefully someday) so in finding images for my exhibit I had to rely on the decisions and whims of other’s photographic choices. In the process of digging through blogs, flickr accounts, Instagram accounts, and websites looking for the metadata to attach to these images, I found that the context of the digital images was often as complex and opaque as the pieces they were representing. I made some amazing discoveries – for example the “painted desert project” created by artist Jetsonorama, bringing street artists from around the world to create murals on the reservation. This blog was the only place online I could find specifically dedicated to street art on the reservation, and it is limited (understandably) to Jetsonorama’s own work and the work of artists participating in the project. I was interested in not just “professional” street art, but also pieces like gang tagging, and graffiti done by teenagers.

To bring the few images I could find together online, I used Omeka. I first built a collection with the images, and it was here that I struggled with metadata choices – how to credit photographer vs. artist, who has copyright, how to incorporate the “tagging” feature? Ultimately I am not entirely satisfied with my choices, but I learned a lot in the attempt. I also decided to use the “exhibits” plugin to create my exhibit, and found it not entirely intuitive, but still easier to work with then I found Scalar to be. Paige Morgan’s piece “How to Get Your Digital Humanities Project off the Ground” mentions experimenting with platforms and not becoming too attached to one, which I found helpful when frustrated by the limits of Omeka. She also talks about the importance of being able to “consider your project from many angles,”[1] basically from both the theoretical/conceptual and the technical. I found myself struggling with this, I was spending all this time working on the technical, the platform, the metadata, the layout, and felt like the conceptual was lacking. In the commentary I wanted to explore more the connections between: the pieces themselves, the pieces and the community, the artists and the community, and so on. Yet I had to accept that that type of research was probably behind the scope of this project, and the possibility is still there for the future. I also found myself slightly uncomfortable with the idea of making the exhibit public without this context and research. Other scholars we have read have touched on the topic of art historians finding the idea of presenting projects in “beta” mode (which this certainly is) to the public, preferring to remain perfectionists who only present fully realized publications. I was surprised to find that even for a class assignment, making it public really brought some of that traditional reluctance out. All that said, here is the exhibit: Graffiti on the Navajo reservation, suggestions and criticisms welcome!

[1] Morgan, Paige. “How to Get Your Digital Humanities Project off the Ground.” URL: