As Murtha Baca points out in the edited volume Introduction to Metadata, good metadata is an investment that ensures that your resources can remain useful and accessible through all the changes in hardware and software that are still to come. While I personally have not given this topic much thought in the past, it is clear that metadata planning and updating is an essential part of online collections and exhibition design that many public historians must become familiar with. To get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, I took a closer look at two online exhibits to compare their use of metadata.
As might be expected, recent online exhibitions mounted by the National Archives are comprehensive in their use of metadata and thoughtful about its presentation. The exhibit “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” has as its dual mission the preservation and presentation of materials relating to a now nearly vanished Jewish community in Iraq, which were discovered in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service’s building by the U.S. Army in 2003. Photos of items in the exhibit are uncluttered by too much metadata–usually just their date, creator’s name, and a brief description–but they link to a single record for each item with much more detailed information organized in the categories “Bibliographic Information,” “Format,” “Preservation,” and “Metadata.” The archive also provides a helpful guide to searching the collection that notes what kinds of information each object was catalogued with. Because the goal is to make this large archive as accessible and searchable as possible, the investment in extensive metadata makes sense, but I also appreciated how that information did not clutter the exhibit pages themselves.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an online exhibit on Nazi propaganda that is decent, but not as comprehensive. The artifact gallery allows you to search by year, format, and theme (out of a list provided), but the artifacts themselves do not display a full complement of metadata when clicked on. In addition, I wonder about the choice to set up a predetermined list of themes by which to search: it seems somewhat restrictive for such a gallery. In developing our online exhibit, my group will have to think about how much time we want to devote to metadata, and how much of it we want to directly display alongside the artifacts.