So you’ve digitized your materials, used programs such as Tropy to organize your digital files and now you’re ready to put your project online. But how? Paige Morgan provided realistic, manageable and straightforward advice about carrying out the beginning stages of a digital art history project, and there are several of her points that I feel are worth echoing and/or addressing. The first tip that I found especially helpful was “Figure out what the smallest version of your project is, and start by doing that.” I think with DAH projects, it is easy to get ahead of oneself and envision a highly complex project that would, realistically, be way out of one’s technical, time-related and possibly financial capabilities. Starting small allows for the possibility of expansion and doesn’t leave you with a dead-end project that is too complicated for you to finish. Given that many scholars have to undertake DAH projects on their own (in their spare time), this seemed to me like a vital piece of advice. The second of Morgan’s tips that I found to be most useful was, “ Know that the platform or tool which which you build your project may change. Don’t commit to one right away. Experiment.” As most scholars are dependent on third party platforms, software and digital tools, accepting early on that whatever you’re using might change, or even disappear, is unfortunate but necessary. Doing research, talking to colleagues and any other method of information gathering is probably a good idea before committing to a platform/tool.
After the initial learning curve that comes with any new software or digital tools, I found Omeka to be fairly user friendly and could see it meeting most of my needs in the future were I to use it for a digital art history project. I uploaded items easily to my collection; at first, I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to upload multiple images to one item. When working with archival documents, they often have crucial information on both the front and the back. Being able to show the recto/verso of a letter, photograph or any other piece of arts-related ephemera is essential. Through an accidental mouse-click, I realized that adding a second image to an item was very possible and easy to do. While at first I thought the collections and exhibits pages were a bit redundant, as I contemplated future uses of Omeka, I concluded that both features were necessary. Collections allow for related materials to be presented together; items from a singular artist, an exhibition or a theme can be organized into groups. The exhibits feature allows for materials from within or across different collections to be put into conversation with one another and for contextual or explanatory texts to be added. As archival material is often made more significant through contextualization, this is a feature I valued. The VRA metadata plug in is a great feature of Omeka for digital art history projects (Scalar also has VRA core, in addition to other schemas, but more on that below). Lastly, the different appearance themes that Omeka offers, while merely cosmetic, make the tool more appealing to me than Scalar. Art history is a visual field, and I think having different themes that make use of an image-heavy project is a strength of Omeka. [if you’d like to go see my first stab at using Omeka, just click the Omeka option on my top menu bar]
As I didn’t use Scalar as much as Omeka, I am hesitant to say I like it less, but there do seem to be a few features that Omeka offers that make it more suitable to digital art history projects than Scalar. The various plug ins available to Omeka users make the tool flexible and customizable while also providing more opportunities to make the front end of the Omeka easy to use. I had a very hard time navigating Scalar, and it took me quite a while to figure out where and how to upload an image. When I finally did figure it out, I was confused again when it came to filling in metadata. It seemed to me that for each image I uploaded, I had to hand select which metadata schema I wanted to use and which fields I wanted to include. I would have appreciated a more standardized approach so that the risk of forgetting to add a field to subsequent images was decreased. It just seems like extra work that must be done each time an image or item is uploaded. I think that with more time using Scalar, it would get easier to use, but I found Omeka much more intuitive.
Through my research for my SILS thesis, I actually already know of a few art museum archives that use Omeka to publish their collections digitally. While it might come with the constraints of a non-custom digital tool, I think it can be the right option for smaller institutions, independent scholars and the like. I started building a collection of materials related to artists’ working processes; I found digitized archival materials from various artists archives around the web and could see this being a fruitful project for me to pursue in the future.