The Digital Gallery: Omeka and Online Art Exhibits

I have been mulling over the notion of creating [digital] periodical art exhibits for some months now. I had wondered what kind of publishing platform could be utilized for such a project and whether it was even possible without a graphic designer and site architect on hand. While other questions still loom (and I will get to those shortly), the recent release of the open-source database software Omeka has been a synchronous event in light of my interest in online exhibits – one that assures me of two things: A. There is a broad need/demand for a publishing platform that allows librarians, museums, scholars, and archivists to organize, curate, and share work with the public. B. Now we can actually do this!  As Matt Huculak mentioned in his report on the Toronto conference and recent developments in digital tools, the new Omeka software appears as if it is going to be an immensely useful and easy way to manage archives and collections, as well as create – you guessed it – digital art exhibits.

Maybe it is the frustrated art historian in me, but over the course of three years working at the MJP, I have never been able to shake the feeling that there needed to be a more organized and visually-appealing way to showcase the fascinating art work and advertisements hidden away in the pages of our magazines (and this goes for magazines housed on other digital archive sites, as well). As evidenced on my own art-heavy website, I am naturally inclined to group images together in a way that is both visually and viscerally appealing – though clearly in a much more casual and instinctual way than a true curated exhibit. This, of course, is a hobby; it is a project that allows me to set aside the rather strict academic expectations of my work, excavate from a variety of online sources, and simply “play” with ideas and connections. But, if we consider the vast differences between a site like the MJP and my own personal site, what seems to be missing is a kind of in-between realm for visual art online: a realm between the labyrinthine and often-intimidating academic database and the personal and eclectic visual buffets that have become so popular since the advent of sites like Tumblr, Flickr, and We Heart It.

While online exhibits are still considered a secondary or less serious alternative to real or material exhibits, I believe digitized periodicals and illustrated books — which can rarely be viewed in person in their original form — hold vast opportunities for creating academic and educational forums for the display and exhibition of art work that would not otherwise be available to the public (or would only be available with much funding and difficulty). My gut feeling tells me that very few people outside of the field of periodical studies even know much of this art work exists. But they would love to know, don’t you think? I also believe that much of it gets buried in complex databases, with no simple or straightforward way of accessing or synthesizing it.

I’m truly excited about Omeka, and now I feel like I can get to the really pressing Who-What-When questions. Who is on board? What will our first exhibit be? And, when will we start? The possibilities seem endless: Tobacco advertisements between 1900 and 1922. Depictions of women and technology. Portraits. Neo-realism. Harlem Renaissance political cartoons. Travel photography. The mind whirls…

My idea is still only in the beginning stages, and I would love to receive feedback from others on this idea. If something like this were to be academically-rigorous, it would need the same attention an actual exhibit would require in that it would be curated around particular themes, artists, or time periods, set in a specific historical context, and include educational/theoretical components for scholars, students, and art enthusiasts. And if it were to reach people, it would need to be visually captivating!

I look forward to hearing back from the other magazine folks on this as yet very general idea. If something like this were to work, I suppose the next set of questions would address issues such as: would this project need funding? Would this be a joint project that involved certain already-extant databases and digital projects (Hmmmm…this would be a great in-house project for the MJP, would it not)? Would it be a joint project or an independent project? The list goes on…



One response to “The Digital Gallery: Omeka and Online Art Exhibits

  1. What a great post! I think using Omeka is a totally smart idea. It looks like it can used collaboratively, yes? So, it would be easy enough to get people at different institutions with similar interests working on the same show. It also strikes me as really useful for creating supplements for monographs and anthologies. Books on modernist lit and modernist mags are limited by the expense of color illustrations, which means a significant aspect of modernist reading as it was done at the time is lost. It’s easy to imagine an Omeka exhibition created to go alongside a book, especially in the not too distant future when our students will be reading course materials in e-book format. I know I want to do this!

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