Development and Use

Building on experiences acquired from other digital projects, especially online museum exhibitions, museum education, and collecting and archiving websites, CHNM began development on Omeka immediately after we received the grant. We pledged to test and release early and often, so that we could respond to suggestions and fix bugs as they arose over time. As a result of this development cycle, we tagged and released 18 versions of Omeka in three years, in addition to producing two versions of the Omeka.net hosted platform.

Omeka’s success exceeded our expectations, and we are pleased with how well the cultural heritage and academic community accepted Omeka from the earliest stages of development. Since we launched Omeka in its alpha form, it has been downloaded over 10,000 times, and institutions and individuals launched more than 100 new websites with many more in development. Some sites have been recognized for excellence, including the Bracero History Archive (a virtual collaborative archive that brings together materials from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and The Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas at El Paso) that received the Excellence in Public History Award by the National Council on Public History in 2010.

To demonstrate to those unfamiliar with Omeka what types of sites have been created with Omeka, we launched a Showcase and created a wiki page for “Sites Powered by Omeka”. Currently documenting over 100 websites, the showcase demonstrates the diversity of institutions, content, designs, and implementation possible with Omeka. Below are a few examples to highlight the range of museums and libraries using Omeka:

Additionally, we are seeing more undergraduate and graduate level classes incorporating Omeka as a platform for building digital public history, museum, and archive sites. To encourage using Omeka for building capstone projects, we created a separate page in the documentation where professors and teachers can link to their sites and talk about how they teach with Omeka.

We identified small museums and historical societies as a key main user group for Omeka in the grant, and we found that libraries and archives were drawn to Omeka more often than museums because of its strong metadata structure and its interoperability with existing content management systems. In a recent survey (March 2010) of Omeka users, we found that the highest percentage of sites were collections catalogs, with narrative exhibits following closely behind. One of the biggest barriers to adoption and use for museums of all sizes is due to limited access to a LAMP server environment and lacking staff comfortable designing in open-source software.

To remove this barrier to adoption, the team worked very hard to provide alternatives for those interested in using Omeka but who could not provide their own LAMP servers and administrators. First, we offered some assistance in helping users find third-party hosting services that could best manage a program like Omeka on their servers. Next, we reached out to third-party hosts and requested one-click installations and received them from JumpBox and Dreamhost. The final piece, building a CHNM-hosted version, was the most difficult and the most-recently-completed deliverable.

In October 2010, CHNM launched the public beta version of Omeka.net. This service offers any institution or individual the means to launch an Omeka site by removing the technological challenges of installation and maintenance, which is similar to cloud-based content management services offered by WordPress.com, Blogger, and PBWorks, but geared to the needs of cultural heritage. No server or programming experience is required to launch an Omeka.net website, only a username and password. With Omeka.net, any user with an Internet connection can build digital exhibits, map photographs, collect memories from web audiences, or publish new scholarship in a few easy steps.

Building Omeka.net from scratch required two years of planning and development, together with six months of alpha testing from the development and outreach teams. This work has proven well worth the effort, because we have already seen tremendous enthusiasm for using Omeka.net with over 600 websites and over 800 users since the alpha launch in March 2010.

Throughout the Omeka software development process, we tested often and engaged our major partners, and the growing community of Omeka users and developers in various ways throughout these three years. Early in the development process, we relied heavily on our major partner, the Minnesota Historical Center and their Great Rivers Network of small historic sites and historical societies, to field test the software. We learned from their knowledge of museum collections management systems and their experiences in launching online projects at small cultural heritage sites. We incorporated their feedback into the administrative user interface and plugin development, and we continue to seek their insight and advice.

To help our users navigate Omeka’s functionality, we launched a documentation wiki, or the “How To” section, together with the software, and the wiki continues to grow. The section offers step-by-step instructions on topics including installation, working with the archive, building exhibits, modifying themes, editing PHP in plugins and themes, and more advanced topics on the theme API helper functions and building plugins. Initially, the documentation was only written and edited by the Omeka team, but now other community members contribute. To improve the documentation, we convened a documentation working group to discuss better ways to help users, of different technical backgrounds, to find information they might need. We implemented many of those suggestions.

To familiarize new users with Omeka, we recorded and released screencast tutorials on “Screencast Fridays” during the summer of 2008, and continued recording and updating screencasts to keep up with new releases and plugins. Currently 30 screencasts are available on the wiki, and on our Vimeo video channel. We applied this knowledge when creating a detailed developers’ Google group. We also host regular IRC channel chats on Friday afternoons when the Omeka team is available for live support. To keep the code open for development, we have a working copy of the Omeka “trunk” available through Subversion (svn), for serious developers. By providing users, developers, and designers of all technical levels spaces for discussions, we created, and continue to foster, an active and strong open-source community around online collections and exhibition-based software. The result is that Omeka will continue to grow beyond CHNM.