My digital project was to create an Omeka exhibit discussing the everyday uses of civilian firearms. This means I was using digital tools not for analysis or research, but for presenting analysis and research. Most of the research for the project I had already done for another class, but the process of creating an exhibit forced me to think about it in new ways.
First I had to think about organization. Since exhibits are object-centered, and since Omeka is object-centered, I had to present and organize the information around objects. My objects would obviously be firearms, but there are many different 18th century firearms to choose from. I decided to pick the most common firearms, and discuss each individually, making each type of firearm its own page. This allows me to present the information in a straightforward and easy to understand way, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each type individually, which I felt would be ideal for an audience unfamiliar with 18th century weapons. I considered displaying the firearm types mixed together, with each exhibit page being organized around uses. This would make it easier to compare and contrast the firearms, but I decided it would be unnecessarily complex. I chose to avoid firearms with specific military uses, such as wall-guns, as they would not be owned by civilians and are not very common anyway. I was not sure if I should include pistols, but I decided they would be an excellent counter to the other weapons, and would help make the point that there is a big difference between elite and common firearms.
Making an exhibit also forced me to break information into manageable chunks that still supported each other. I found myself often moving information between the main exhibit page text and the captions on the firearms. Unfortunately, this means some information I exported to the captions is relevant to the firearm being discussed but not directly relevant to the specific picture of the firearm the caption is attached to.
The process of exhibit making also made me distill the most important information about civilian firearms out of the pages of research I had on them. Good exhibit labels need to be short, and writing short labels that are engaging is always a difficult process which requires cutting away at extra information to get at the core points. However, the end result is a concise, user-friendly presentation that makes the same points which could be made in an academic paper, but for a public audience.
One of the greatest benefits of a good exhibit is its ability to make complex arguments understandable to varied audiences. One of the benefits of digital history is its ability to reach large audiences. Combined, this gives historians a great avenue for presenting their research.