What is Omeka?

Screenshot of University of Michigan Online Exhibits Homepage

Omeka is a tool made by George Mason University. It is a free open source web-publishing platform that is used by different institutions for different purposes. Libraries, museums, archives and scholarly collections use it for creating online exhibits because of its friendly interface and ease of use. Scholars use it to publish their essay or dissertation; museums use it to display their digital objects and create online exhibits; libraries use it to create digital exhibits from  the digital objects in their catalogues;and archives use it to share their collections and histories.

Even though Omeka is designed for ease of use with no IT expertise in mind and comes with a lot of ready-made themes and plugins, it can be customized.  It gives programmers opportunities to create custom plugins which will provide features and functions not available out of the box.

U-M Library’s Use For Omeka

A couple of years ago, the University of Michigan Library selected Omeka to be the tool used by online exhibit creators. We used the locally hosted version that allowed us to customize the tool to suit our Library’s needs. The Library’s online exhibit website is the home of the tool. Our pilot was released in May 2012 using Omeka version 1.5 and included 4 exhibits.  In February 2015, the site was migrated to Omeka 2.1.4 with more than 20 exhibits published. We customized the tool to meet the following goals:

Findability and Searchability

Findability is important for online exhibits. We want people to be able to search for and browse Omeka exhibits on the University of Michigan Library’s Drupal website. Our goal was to add online exhibits to our search index and to get Omeka’s exhibits into our website’s browse functionality.

Searchability was accomplished through creating XML and Drupal 7 views. In order to facilitate browsing, we tagged Omeka exhibits with the Library’s existing taxonomy for browsing, which we call High Level Browse, or HLB. With these two changes in place, users can now search for Omeka’s exhibits through the Library website and also see exhibits when browsing.


Collaboration between online exhibit creators is important in our Library. Omeka does not support the idea of group authorship. It is mainly used with predefined single-person roles: superuser, contributor, and researcher. Those roles either gave the user all the freedom to edit or create an exhibit or no access to any exhibit except those he or she created. However, at the U-M Library, we customized Omeka to integrate roles with a group structure. We organized Library staff into one or more groups and gave all of the members of each group editing privileges on all of the exhibits created by the group. Users within each group were then able to work together to create exhibits.


Finally, it was important to us to brand our online exhibits and to provide continuity with the University Library’s website. Therefore, we created a custom theme in Omeka that is accessible and visually consistent with the U-M Library’s website. Also, we designed a new layout for the Omeka exhibit builder tool. The software’s built-in layouts forced users to leave the context of an exhibit and visit a separate page to view the metadata for each digital object. Our custom layout allows exhibit creators to display each of their selected digital objects’ metadata and all associated digital images on a single page.

Screen shot of American South Map of Clark Library Literary Maps ExhibitFor example, in the exhibit, Clark Library Literary Maps, the page “American South” contains a single sheet of American South Map, with two parts. Both parts of the map are viewable at once in thumbnail size, and the user can toggle between the two in a larger viewing area on the page, all without leaving the context of the exhibit to learn more about the item (see the screeshot on the left).

What Is Next With Omeka?

Nobody can predict the future, but the Omeka community is growing and we notice an interest in the tool from some faculty and students around the University and beyond.  The built in support for the Dublin Core, which is a list of fifteen metadata fields, ease of use for building exhibits websites, batch uploads for digital objects, and facilities for importing and exporting digital items from and to Omeka make it interesting to digital humanities and museums.

Outside the Library, Omeka is being explored as a classroom tool. I envision the tool can be available to other classrooms in the future. There are many themes available with Omeka and these can be customized to create websites. It would also be interesting to link Omeka to Canvas (a learning management system) as a tool that can be used for creating a profile for each student’s works for each class.

For more information about University of Michigan’s Omeka installation, please see this conference presentation or contact the Omeka team at ask-omeka@umich.edu.