Introducing the Scalar Exhibition Template

admin 31/05/2017

In the fall of 2016, Carrie Robbins, the Curator at Bryn Mawr College, approached me about finding better ways to showcase student curated exhibitions of our over 50,000 artifacts and art objects. Students curate several exhibitions each year in temporary and borrowed spaces, but the labor that goes into these exhibitions often disappears with the objects when they’re returned to storage. Carrie wanted to find better ways to document and promote the work the students were producing.

To address this need, I wrote and was awarded a microgrant from The Association for Computers and the Humanities to collaborate with Craig Dietrich of Scalar, a scholarly digital publishing platform. Scalar has been designed primarily for media-rich digital scholarship. Through the grant, we sought to extend its applications to digital exhibitions. We achieved this by producing two new page layouts, the “scrolling path” and “people” layouts. Each of these layouts relies heavily on Scalar’s existing features and powerful flexibility. While the layouts were designed by Nathanael Roesch (Ph.D. Candidate in History of Art, Bryn Mawr College) with student curated exhibitions in mind, we hope they’ll be useful beyond digital exhibitions. To see a live version of the template, visit our test site. To see the template in action, check out The Tale of Genji. To try out the new templates on your own Scalar installation, visit the GitHub repo.

Over the course of the project, one of the biggest challenges we faced was conceptual, not technical. We knew that the end product, the template, had two important audiences. The first would be our Special Collections staff and student curators here at Bryn Mawr. For this audience, we knew we needed a local installation of Scalar that we could maintain and archive and that would appear under the university’s domain. We landed on setting up a Scalar install on our brand new domain. As part of the technical development process, we also began to develop a workflow for how we wanted students to engage with the template.

But these weren’t great solutions for the second audience, an amorphous potential public audience. We knew this audience would most likely be using the free hosted USC Scalar or a Scalar instance hosted at their own institutions. They likely wouldn’t be interested in creating books at and even if they were, we weren’t in a position to host and support those books long term. And so we came up with a two-part solution, the first was realized through releasing the code with additional documentation on GitHub through an open GNU General Public License; the second is still aspirational—to release the new layouts on the free USC Scalar site. We’re working with the folks at Scalar to make this happen but in the meantime, folks with their own Scalar installs can try things out, mess things up, and build more things.

This second audience wasn’t quite as imaginary as I’m making it seem. Over the past year, I’ve had multiple folks ask me about how Scalar might be used for digital exhibitions. For the most part, I’d still recommend Omeka for digital exhibitions. Omeka is built to store as well as describe digital objects. Scalar isn’t really built to store objects. In fact, one of its strengths is that it insists objects live elsewhere on the web. It’s power is in linking and embedding digital objects (including objects from Omeka sites!), not in storing them. I do think Scalar is a great fit, however, for digital representations of physical exhibitions or for digital exhibitions in which the digital objects already have a safe, reliable, archivable home.

Further development and refinement of the Scalar Exhibition Template will continue after the grant’s conclusion. If you have questions about the template or suggestions about its improvement feel free to add them in the comments or tweet at me @aliciapeaker.

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