March 03, 2008
By Debbie Ann Doyle
Two new tools for creating online exhibits and walking tours offer exciting opportunities for presenting public history and developing creative class projects.
As briefly mentioned in a recent “What We’re Reading,” the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has just launched the public beta version of Omeka, an open-source web publishing platform designed to help historical institutions develop interactive online exhibits. Developed in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society, Omeka was intended to help small museums establish a digital presence. The platform allows the general public to contribute documents, stories, and comments to web exhibits. Several of the featured sites provide forums for recording and preserving memories of recent traumatic events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Virginia Tech tragedy. Museums have also used Omeka to document local history; Catawba River Docs includes family photos of life around the North Carolina river collected to complement an art exhibit. Sheila Brennan observes on the Omeka blog that each project “demonstrates how Omeka can help cultural institutions engage communities and help them save and construct their own histories.” The platform is available to historical institutions, scholars, and anyone with a desire to develop a digital history collection. Development of Omeka was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
CommunityWalk offers another opportunity to enhance local history. It allows users to create customized maps and walking tours complete with color-coded markers, linked text, and photographs. The Chicago Center for Working Class Studies (funded by the Illinois Humanities Council) used CommunityWalk to create The Labor Trail, a series of neighborhood tours highlighting Chicago’s working-class history. The public can add text, photographs, and even new sites to the existing tours, making it another way to enlist the public in documenting the past.
These projects reveal how public historians are using the digital resources to collaborate with the public to document community history. They also offer an intriguing opportunity for teachers who want to get their students actively involved in interpreting the past.