Collected, curated, celebrated: creating online exhibits

The University of Michigan Library customised open source software to create online exhibits.

Extending the presence of physical objects

The process of creating online exhibits is evolving. Traditionally, an exhibit creator needed to have web skills to create a webpage. Now, however, the use of Content Management Systems (CMS) software facilitates the process.

The University of Michigan Library used and customised the open source Omeka software (created at George Mason University) to create online exhibits to extend the presence of their physical exhibits.

The library selected Omeka because it featured built-in Dublin Core, which is a list of fifteen metadata fields. Omeka also has ready-made themes as well as more than ten layouts used to create exhibits.  It was designed specifically to present digital objects, is easy to use, and can be customised. Therefore it was selected instead of other CMS such as Drupal.

Throughout the project, three major challenges were addressed including the findability of exhibits created in Omeka, collaboration between other creators using the software, and creating a custom theme.

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 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 exhibits through the library website and also see exhibits when browsing.


Collaboration between creators was important in our library. Omeka does not support the idea of group authorship. It is mainly used with predefined single-person roles (super user, contributor, admin 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 customised Omeka to integrate roles with a group structure. We organised 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 visually consistent with the University Library 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.

For example, in the exhibit, Sacred Hands, the page “Greek Gospel of Matthew” contains a single sheet of papyrus with two sides. Both sides of the papyrus 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. []

Currently, the University of Michigan Library’s Omeka site contains approximately twelve exhibits with more than 700 digital objects. You can explore the site at 

Nancy Moussa MSI, MS, B.S. is Web Systems Developer at the University of Michigan Library and technical lead of Omeka. 

Nancy's colleagues in this project were Meghan Musolff (Special Projects Librarian for Library and IT and Online Exhibits Coordinator at the University of Michigan Library) and Jamie Vander Broek (Learning Librarian and Exhibits and Programming Librarian at the University of Michigan Library). 

Photo of Nancy Moussa courtesy of Michigan Photography, Austin Thomason.