Omeka Exhibits for Mapping Border History

For the final project in this class, we created a website/exhibit using Omeka that combined the two halves of the class content.

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Next week, I will be writing up the contemporary project, but this post is about teaching mapping and using historical maps to talk about border history.

Tools Used in this Project:1

Historical Map (Omeka/Neatline)

Creating a new record in neatline.

The first project students worked on was a historical map. Each student was responsible for contributing their own piece of history, a site where the border between the US and Mexico “came into being” or was reproduced. The basic form of this historical mapping exercise was scaffolded across the term to introduce mapping principles, explore how maps express historical arguments, and finally, familiarize students with Omeka and Neatline as tools.

Putting books on the map as geolinked Omeka items.

I really like teaching mapping to my undergraduate history courses because it helps denaturalize how scholars craft information into arguments and appeals to students with diverse learning styles. Maps contain arguments as much as essays do, and I find that students benefit from explicitly thinking about maps as visual essays and vice versa.

The Codex Quetzalecatzín. [Mexico: 1593] Library of Congress Record:

Historical maps, moreover, are fantastic media for understanding change over time and particularly the way that nations and empires code value across space. In the case of the US/Mexico Border, we are looking at a space of contestation between empires that became a site of policing, militarization and exclusion. Early in the class, students could compare maps created for Spain and Mexico to those of indigenous communities in the region and then see how these maps in turn had different cartographic priorities to French, German, and Anglo explorers. As we moved towards studying how the US conquered and then negotiated the divided space with Mexico, maps visually represent the link between knowledge collection and colonization.

A map of Mexico showing borders before the US/Mexico War.
Map of Mexico, 1847
J. Distrunell, 102 Broadway, New York [Public domain]
  1. Initial Analog Mapping Assignment: as part of the ice-breaker exercise on the first day, I gave students 10 minutes to draw a map or picture in answer to the question: Where do you consider to be home/Where do you come from?2 Once students created their maps, they presented to each other in pairs and introduced each other to the class. This led to a group discussion about the choices everyone made to include certain kinds of imagery, scale, information, etc. This takes plenty of time but can be adapted as a jumping off point to talking about other class themes such as community and memory.
  2. Formal Analog Mapping Exercise: I introduce the study of formal mapping with a lesson adapted from the introduction to Dym and Offen’s Mapping Latin America.3 Students have to identify what choices go into making a map and how mapmakers highlight or obscure different types of information.
  3. Introductory Omeka and Neatline Assignment: what is an Item, and what can you do with it? Find this full exercise here.4
  4. Midterm: For the midterm, students responded to the prompt: [The Mexican-American War did not create a “real” border between the US and Mexico. When and where did the border come into being? Draw a line and justify your choice from 2-3 of the readings.] This midterm exercise involved very little technical expertise, as students could choose to simply trace a line in marker on a printed map, and was easy to grade because it did not take the form of a formal essay. However, students did have to make a textual argument to complement their visual argument and reference course readings.
  5. Final Neatline Exhibit: Students worked in pairs or individually to adapt their midterm answers into Neatline records. Students submitted temporally and geographically tagged items in order to understand how time and place markers can be used to make an argument.5
  6. Reflective Final Essay: This was a personal, reflective essay asking students to introduce their contributions to the map and integrate both historical and contemporary work. The formal prompt was: What is a border and how does it create or alienate community? Answer with reference to 3 readings from the class and also your own experiences in group work.
Public view of a neatline record using the SIMILE timeline with a stamen watercolor map.

By putting everything on one big map, we could play around with representing the link between dates/events/places, and also see how different design choices affect our ability to read and interpret maps.

Paired with readings about the history of a borderland becoming a land full of borders, these activities also encouraged students to ask critical questions about the maps we are most familiar with.6 Colonial maps that we may look to in order to understand “how things were before” were often acts of colonization in themselves, reflecting aspirational borders rather than contemporary realities. Lines on maps reflect choices that obscure other possibilities for representation and understanding. In their reflective final essays, I asked students to be intentional about applying insights from critical historical learning to their contemporary projects, the subject of the next post.


  1. There are many, many digital mapping tutorial resources available. See for example the lessons at Geospatial Historian and Programming Historian.
  2. Generally I like to keep ice-breaker prompts open-ended because in my classes because this exercise won’t help build community if it forces undocumented students or students with complicated family dynamics to out themselves or lie.
  3. Jordana Kym and Karl Offen, eds., Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011),
  4. We did not spend as much time exploring the full potential of Omeka’s exhibit-building powers. For example, students can learn a lot about proper attribution and research best practices through the Dublin Core metadata Omeka enables.
  5. A note on the the Historical Maps: They are, in this first iteration of the class, primarily pedagogical. This means that I am not as concerned about their final form or their design for public consumption. The end result, as you will see if you look around the site, is messy. If I were to do this again, I would have students nominate historical/temporal events for the map and then go through a process of peer revision where we decided which and how to best represent all of these events together.
  6. See our geolocated syllabus here. Readings on the borderlands will be the subject of a future post.

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