John Archer and Mali’s Mud-Brick Mosques: Exhibit Building with Elevator and Omeka

By Nathan Weaver Olson, DCL Graduate Assistant

Picture a vast interior space, dark and cool, its edges hidden by a forest of columns. The only visible light is that which trickles in through an ornate window screen. You are inside one of Mali’s monumental mosques, a sacred space, and the walls, columns, and even the lofty minaret towers are likely not stone but molded earth, mud bricks plastered with a layer of mud and rice hulls. It is a vulnerable structure in a region of intense heat and seasonal torrential rains, forever dependent upon an army of skilled workers to maintain its elegant and massive form. If cared for, it will last a century or more. If neglected, it will quickly fall to ruin.

In the mid 1990s, Minnesota Professor John Archer, now Professor Emeritus, visited the country of Mali with his camera and an eye for timing and image composition. He took hundreds of images of Mali’s people as well as its natural and built environments. The majority of this wonderful collection is currently housed at LATIS’ Digital Content Lab, where we are slowly adding Archer’s images to the Digital Content Library, which currently contains over 300,000 objects. So far, we have added nearly three hundred and fifty images from John Archer’s trip to Mali to the DCL and organized them into thirty-seven different “works”, each with between one and thirty-nine attached images or “views”. Among the works already available through the DCL is a collection of images of mud-brick mosques ranging from the country’s oldest, to its most iconic and monumental, to more humble examples. It is a unique collection, and now, thanks to Omeka, we have been able to create an online exhibit using many of these images to teach our users about vernacular architectural traditions in Mali while also introducing them to our object database, called DCL-Elevator.

Searching the DCL

One of our goals at the DCL is to make our collections widely available to scholars and students, not only those at the University of Minnesota, but also those working outside of the U. While many items in our collection require the user to possess an X500 to receive access, quite a few of the objects in the DCL are part of our “Open Collections”, objects available to anyone who visits the DCL’s website. Users can currently view Archer’s Mali collection on the DCL by performing an advanced search in Elevator, our database tool, and sorting by collection and keyword.

Elevator includes comprehensive and relatively intuitive finding aids, but here at the DCL we are also looking at additional tools to better familiarize users with the site and its extensive contents. Lately we have begun to do this by building exhibits using Omeka.

Omeka Exhibits

Omeka is an open-source web-publishing platform that is oriented towards users from disciplines within the Humanities. Students, professors, librarians, and archivists can all use Omeka to develop and display scholarly collections. In the case of the DCL, Omeka allows us create exhibits that highlight our collections by focusing the user’s attention on a limited number of objects from the DCL and then sending them into Elevator to find the materials themselves. In practical terms, this has meant festooning our exhibits with links that transport the user to specific images within the DCL Elevator collection. In the exhibit featured in this post, “Mali’s Mud-Brick Mosques”, I put a “Find it in the DCL” link under nearly every image I added to exhibit, as well as a link to an exhibit that Ginny Larson created for the photographer, John Archer.

The structure of an online exhibit, which is essentially a narrative, presents the user with a familiar set of tools for viewing the collection and making sense of its contents. Instead of searching through thousands of images, an online exhibit introduces the user to a finite collection that allows them to approach the more generous holdings of the DCL Elevator database from the vantage point of a specific theme. Because our Omeka exhibits serve to not only showcase the DCL Elevator Collection, but to also extend its pedagogical value for our users, I added a “Further Reading” page to the exhibit as well.

These are all things that anyone reading this post, and especially anyone connected with the University of Minnesota, can do as well. While there are free versions of Omeka available, they have a very limited online storage capacity. But U of M users are able to acquire a more substantial Omeka account through Dash Domains. The DCL has its own domain account through DASH, and through it we have the capacity to access a number of content management applications, including Omeka. To learn more about how to create your own Omeka exhibit, click here for detailed instructions.

“Mali’s Mud-Brick Mosques” is just one of a number of Omeka exhibits that we have been working to create at the DCL in recent months. We should be rolling them out soon. But in the meantime, check out the DCL’s collection and let us know if there are other themes that you would like us to explore as online exhibits.

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