Building a Compelling Digital Exhibit

Mervyn Street from behind at the cattle yards near Well 8. Canning Stock Route bush trip, July 2007. Photographer: Tim Acker ©

Mervyn Street from behind at the cattle yards near Well 8. Canning Stock Route bush trip, July 2007. Photographer: Tim Acker ©

Building a digital exhibit is a lot like telling a story

Every moment, thousands of media items across the web are uploaded and immediately logged into databases. Petabytes of big data are washed through search engines and algorithm-driven services try to make sense of them by converting keywords and locations into statistics and numbers. There is something to be said about big data and the information we can gather about human behavior from the analysis of views and likes on web 2.0 sites, but trying to make sense of huge masses of data on the human scale can be quite an undertaking. The internet is a great place to share stories and archive knowledge, but curation and storytelling via a small collection of data can create an intimate experience in a sea of voices.

Whether large or small scale, good data and lasting data is about relationships; it is about creating information to describe and define every asset of a moment in time. In most media-rich websites, linkages are automated by tags and keywords, so that thousands of similar items can be later browsed and discovered, but curated relations and stories often start out small, they can guide a user through a compelling story from a unique perspective, and help introduce visitors and outsiders to new concepts. Small stories have a great power to open minds and create shared experiences. Building a digital exhibit is a lot like telling a story. In this post, we explore concepts of storytelling by showing you how to curate a digital exhibit using Mukurtu CMS. We will use the collection-type and related items to weave together a story and provide visitors with paths to explore digital heritage collections.

Mukurtu CMS is an open source software, maintained by WSU-CDSC, that CoDA uses as a platform to create many of our community-based archives and exhibits. From 2011 to 2016, we partnered in the development of Mukurtu CMS, directed by Washington State University’s Dr. Kim Christen Withey, and in 2015 built a secure hosted service for many of our Mukurtu-based projects and partners to have a safe keeping place online. Mukurtu was developed so that communities around the world can archive and share their traditional knowledge in culturally appropriate ways.


One of CoDA’s specialties is helping people and projects adopt the software and use it to meet their grant-mandated digital stewardship needs, or to create community libraries and archives that deliver cultural materials back to members near and far. In 2013, we were challenged to build a compelling archive and digital exhibit for non-profit’s multi-year, award-winning, Canning Stock Route Project. FORM handed over hard-drives with more than 20,000 images and hundreds of videos to create a meaningful online database of media and stories from the project. Though this was a daunting task, we organized and archived media with embedded metadata for every item, and built MIRA – the Canning Stock Route Project Archive which launched in November 2013 from a curated selection of project histories, art, and narratives.

To this day, MIRA stands as one of the most visited and admired archives CoDA has had a part in building and we can credit that to the compelling visual and curatorial storytelling techniques employed within the site. From the community-inspired graphic designs built by Humann, to the stories and media featured on the front page, and relations built from those items to different entities which create a fantastic mural, Mira stands as a compelling archive which can be shared and preserved for future generations.

In MIRA, and other Mukurtu-based archives, there are two different types of assets: there are media (In Mukurtu 2.0, translated as scald atoms. Read more about the scald media philosophy on Drupal), and there are digital heritage items (DH items). While it is fundamentally important to have media – such as images, videos, PDFs and audio – in the archive, Digital Heritage items bring the database to life. DH items are the needle and thread upon which relations are built, and a multi-dimensional record is created.


If you are just starting to build a Mukurtu archive or exhibit, you may be overwhelmed by the amount of media assets you have and how to curate and prioritize those items, and organize them into a narrative (or an exhibit) for visitors and newcomers. To start out, I will borrow from step 3 in Joe Lambert’s Digital Storytelling Cookbook, (CC-NC-SA, 2.5 2010) a guide created by the Produced by the Center for Digital Storytelling (now Storycenter).

Step 3: Finding the moment
Finding and clarifying the insight and emotions of the story can be the most challenging and rewarding part of the storytelling process. As the storyteller becomes clear about the meaning of their story, we want to help them tell their story as a story by identifying a single moment that they can use to illustrate their insight. To help storytellers find this moment, we ask a series of questions: “What was the moment when things changed? Were you aware of it at the time? If not, what was the moment you became aware that things had changed? Is there more than one possible moment to choose from? If so, do they convey different meanings? Which most accurately conveys the meaning in your story? Can you describe the moment in detail?” Once this moment of change is identified, we help storytellers determine how it will be used to shape the story. Digital Storytelling Cookbook

Here are some tips to help you on your way

1. Find up to 10 items in your entire collection that speak to you: If you have a tremendous amount of media, it may be helpful to pick a handful of your favorite images or video and move from there. With MIRA, we started building out from some of the most prized images and videos featured on the front page. In Mukurtu 2.0 you can create a new collection which represents your story or exhibit. You will add more information to these digital heritage items in the next steps.

2. Ask WHY and other ‘W’ questions: Start with one item of media and ask WHY…Why is this image special, significant? Why does it stand out in an inventory of 20,000 images. Why is this more than an image… What. What “type” of Digital Heritage item will this media asset be added to? Here we borrow from the Codifi data model which relates PEOPLE, PLACES, EVENTS, and THINGS to media. Specifically, the Mira Canning Stock Route Project broke these down further into the following categories:

  • People
  • Stories
  • Artworks
  • Places
  • Videos
  • Images
  • Oral Histories
  • Events

Identifying the different types of digital heritage will build a broader picture when you start to build relations.

Where, Who, How. These details will be logged into the form required to create a digital heritage item (ie: contributors, creators, location). It is very important that you answer these questions regarding the DH type NOT the image. If it is an event, who are some of the creators, where did this event occur, are there any stories about the event?

3. Create Digital Heritage Items and relate them to each other: A relations log can help keep track of any DH items you may need to upload next, or -if it is already uploaded- what relations you should create next. And you decide where to go next. These relations are the curatorial tuning which will guide a user through your database.

Your log could look a bit like this:

Every New item which fills the row should get its own row on the sheet. See how the relations actually do exponentially increase??

Every New item which fills the row should get its own row on the sheet. See how the relations actually do exponentially increase??

4. Make a list: Once you decide which Digital Heritage types are important in the creation of your archive, make some lists of more important items you would like to add. You can then add these items in bulk if you download the Digital Heritage Template!

5. Have fun, and create meaningful stories: Think about how you prioritize and filter your items. Perhaps not all 20 frames of one portrait sitting need to be published, however they should be archived if you have enough space. Similarly, if there are many edits or derivatives of a single image, consider choosing one to represent the image and archiving the original.

Get started, go for it, and let us know how it goes!

Other tips can be found on the Mukurtu Support Page and in our blog. Find ways to get Mukurtu at