A brief guide to online exhibit platforms

Online exhibits can be a great way to engage users in your collections. Whether these are standalone narratives or designed to consolidate or compliment exhibitions and experiences in the physical spaces of museums, libraries, galleries and archives, it’s important that these exhibits are accessible and user friendly for both visitors and curators alike.

We often work with organisations developing online exhibits and in this blog post we will share what we have learnt from using platforms such as Omeka, Omeka S, WordPress and some other more bespoke solutions to create easy-to-explore online experiences and narratives.

Each platform has its strengths and weaknesses and some might be more suitable for particular projects or collections than others. 

Factors such as how easily curators, librarians and other staff can update and maintain collection information and whether visitors can easily navigate the exhibit can have a huge impact on the success of your online project, so it is important that you choose the platform that offers the best option for the particular experience or story that you want to curate.

Here, we will look at four platforms that we’ve tried and tested so that you can decide which option will best suit the needs of your organisation. And while these are by no means all of the exhibit-building platforms available, they are the main contenders that we consider when building online exhibitions for our clients. 

We tend to choose open platforms where possible, prioritising ones that are standards-based and that support getting data in and out again. Vendor lock-in is a definite deal-breaker for us.  

Omeka Classic

We have been big fans of the original Omeka platform for a long, long time. Ease of installation and hosting are just two of the pluses in the Omeka Classic column, and it offers a great experience for people wanting to get a collection site up and running fast.

Interoperability (the ability of different systems and software to use each other’s data) is a big feature requirement for exhibits that can draw on content stored in different places, and this platform also supports a lot of collections standards (Dublin Core metadata, OAI-PMH etc).

Another plus is that, because it’s been around for a long time and was such a game-changer for self-hosted collections sites, it offers an impressive range of community add-ons as well as documentation and support. 

Exhibits in Omeka Classic are usually created using the Exhibit Builder plugin which lets you create a series of pages with navigation, credits and links to the items in the collection. 

Screenshot of the edit page for Exhibit Builder plugin
Artefacto | Artefacto – Digital Agency Exhibit Builder plugin

Exhibit Builder can be extended with the help of additional community plugins that can add those extra bits of functionality that your site requires. For example, if we want our users to be able to click on an image to view a larger version of it, we can add the LightBox Gallery plugin developed by Anna Michelle Martinez-Montavon.  

We can also include International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) images via some great community plugins for Omeka – IIIF is a standardised way of sharing images and other kinds of multimedia content on the web. And thanks to community plugins like IIIF Toolkit and IIIF Embed, you can utilise content from around the web as well as publish your own in an open and reusable way. 

There are many more plugins available via the main Omeka plugin directory including lots of additional tools for Neatline integration. But you can also find some great plugins on Github too. (Editorial for collaborating on building an Exhibit, Carta for integrating Leaflet maps) 

We’ve also added our own ‘exhibit’ layout blocks. This provides us with more flexible options to integrate our exhibits with our site theme. The downside is that this usually requires a custom plugin. But, if you do want that extra level of customisation, the available documentation provides pretty thorough instructions showing how to include your own exhibit plugin.

Omeka S 

We work a lot with Omeka S, including building dedicated exhibits platforms for organisations. Omeka S offers a lot of the same benefits as Omeka Classic, but with a fundamentally different approach. 

While there’s a bigger list of differences to consider, the main benefit is the support for multiple sites from a single installation. 

Instead of having multiple exhibits within your single Omeka website (ala Omeka Classic), you can create dedicated websites for each exhibit. All from the one Omeka S installation.  

The strength of Omeka S is that it allows curators to remix content within the platform into different exhibit sites. Curators can select particular content from collections to create new exhibits which highlight current themes or tell different stories. You can create pages in a more modular way by dragging and dropping different ‘blocks’ of content together. 

Omeka S - page editing screenshot
Artefacto | Artefacto – Digital Agency Creating a page with blocks – from the Omeka S sandbox

There are blocks for adding images, HTML, external content, lists of pages and more. You can also add extra page blocks via modules such as Blocks Plus

As Omeka S is relatively new (2016) compared to Omeka Classic so, while there’s not quite the same range of modules available, there’s still an impressive collection. Both Mirador and Universal Viewer IIIF viewers are supported via modules, as well as video, slideshows and other content elements, and once again, the developer documentation and community support is pretty ace. 

WordPress

WordPress’ main selling point is often its ubiquity, but now with a pretty major shift to a more modular approach, it is becoming a strong contender for exhibits. 

With the release of the Gutenberg editor in version 5.9, WordPress has adopted a ‘block-based’ approach which lends itself well to creating engaging and flexible online exhibits. This is a modular approach that lets you drag and drop page elements together to create interactive web content. 

Beyond this WordPress’ strength has always been its extensibility. As well as millions of plugins (ok, 59,616 at the time of writing), you can add the features you need when you need them. Read more about using WordPress plugins to add dynamic content to your site in our previous post here.  We’ve talked about choosing plugins for WordPress before

You can also include content from different sources thanks to OEmbed support – this means you can add content from YouTube, Instagram, TikTok or a myriad of other sites just using the link in an Embed Block. You can find more information on supported embeds here.  

When it comes to interoperability and integrations with collections, Digital Asset Management or other archive platforms, WordPress does have its limitations: for example there are currently no standalone plugins for IIIF or OAI-PMH integration.

One solution we’ve used is Tainacan, which turns WordPress into a digital repository platform. It also gives you metadata, controlled vocabularies, faceted search, OAI-PMH and other fun collections features that the core WordPress is otherwise lacking. 

And now, with support for Gutenberg blocks, it’s a strong option for creating online exhibits that combine the flexibility of WordPress with the standards you expect from more specialised collections platforms. 

Spotlight

Spotlight is a plug-in for Blacklight, an open source, Ruby on Rails-based discovery interface for searching an Apache Solr index. 

We’ve tested Spotlight, and the installation was smoother than we expected, particularly considering it requires Java. It has a bit of a steep curve to getting up and running but despite this, it’s still a solid exhibits platform with a lot of neat features out of the box. (That said, we do work primarily in Rails so that doesn’t mean it will be straightforward for everyone.) We haven’t yet used it in production but it’s still on our watch list. 

Spotlight has some decent onboarding, which is something that often gets overlooked in these kinds of software. We like that you can easily add IIIF images and JSON images as well as uploading images. 

Blacklight - getting started screenshot
Artefacto | Artefacto – Digital Agency Getting started with BlackLight Spotlight

The out-of-the-box appearance options are easy to use but quite limited compared to some of the other platforms available. You can add a masthead image and manage pages as well as metadata fields, but beyond that, you will likely need to develop a custom theme so it doesn’t have quite the visual flexibility of WordPress or Omeka. 

Blacklight is one of the shining lights of open source in libraries so we’re happy to see these kinds of extensions available. As an exhibit platform, Spotlight platform makes sense if you use Blacklight within your organisation already or if your dev team is Rails-based. 

Other options

This is far from a comprehensive list of all the available platforms for creating online exhibits but hopefully it presents a useful comparison of some of the main players. Platforms like Google arts and culture present some interesting examples of immersive online exhibits but it is currently only available to ‘partners of Google Arts & Culture’ and we also have some hesitations about Google lock-in.

We’ve also been looking into Collection Builder recently which uses a static site generator (Jekyll) as the base of an exhibit website builder. 

There are also lots of ways to roll your own solution if the content or the workflow you use doesn’t suit these platforms – something we’ll explore in the next post in this series.

We hope this post has given you some ideas about how you might start with online exhibits. You can check out some of our recent exhibit projects on our Portfolio, but please get in touch if you have any questions, or if you need help with getting collections online.


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