digital humanities

Digitising the Butter Wrappers  

Figure 1: The Butter Wrappers in the Butter Museum, Shandon, Cork

The Butter Wrappers

I work in the Butter Museum, where we have a collection of original parchment butter wrappers, framed and hanging on the walls. Each creamery in the country  – and in 1955 there were 157 of them – had its own wrapper. With the coming of the bright lights of the supermarket shelves, and the inability of the parchment wrapper to protect the butter against that light, the foil wrapper took precedence and the parchment wrapper all but disappeared. The once ephemeral and ubiquitous is now the rare and treasured. There are 67 surviving wrappers in our collection. 

I propose to host a digital exhibition of these surviving butter wrappers. 

Before I started writing this essay, my primary objective for the exhibition was to promote user engagement and to foster a community of butter wrapper enthusiasts. The consideration of tools in the project has, however, forced me to reconsider, and to approach the project from another point of view.

The Existing Online Catalogue

There is a catalogue of the museum’s website butter wrapper collection online already, costing the museum nothing. The catalogue consists of a PDF of scanned wrappers and is hosted by 

However,  imagining this alliance from a user viewpoint, it is clear that this dependency on Issue should not continue. Firstly, the catalogue, named as “Butter wrapper catalogue bdraft” is surrounded by advertisements – hardly the ideal user experience introduction to someone from Borrisoleigh looking for their ‘Golden Valley’ wrapper: 

Figure 2: How the catalogue looks now

Our Borrisoleigh user would have to intuitively understand that the wrappers are arranged in alphabetical order and flip through them until he arrived at the desired Golden Valley wrapper. He certainly wouldn’t be able to access this wrapper independently of the catalogue – it remains hidden inside, and a Google search of ‘Golden Valley Butter Wrapper’ would reveal images of wrappers from the United States. He wouldn’t be able to download the wrapper from the catalogue, if he wanted to print one for himself – the consequences of a decision the museum made back in 2013 when this initiative was undertaken.  The images of the wrappers are not of high quality and some wrappers look crinkled – reducing the quality of the viewing experience. The catalogue is not responsive – accessing it from a mobile phone means that you can barely make out the writing on the wrappers themselves – the arrangement manages to make all the wrappers look equally boring. The arrangement of the wrappers in a catalogue like this makes no allowance or reference for their differing sizes. 

From the Museum’s viewpoint, the alliance is disadvantageous other than the fact that was free to undertake this digital publishing. It would be relatively difficult to add another wrapper to the collection, were one to be found ‘down the back of a drawer’ – the catalogue has already been published, so updating it on Issue would mean involving them again. There is no attempt at user engagement; if our Borrisoleigh visitor wanted to comment on any aspect of the wrapper – maybe where he is aware that the design was used elsewhere – he would have to email us. This removes the conversation from the context of the wrapper itself, where other users could have commented. As regards sustainability, if went out of business, or if they decided to stop or place limitations on this free version that the Museum is availing of, it would have consequences for the catalogue that the Museum could not control.  

A Digital Exhibition – Considerations

  • There would be only 67 wrappers in the exhibition. It would be a one-off, and not an on-going project. Sustainability could be an issue if there is little user engagement and if there was an accompanying disengagement by museum staff once the exhibition went online.
  • The exhibition would be unique: we are not aware of any other digital butter wrapper collection. Therefore issues of interoperability are not as important as they could be. 
  • Funding would be made available to cover server and storage costs. I would be undertaking this myself, with no project payment. There are grants available for this kind of enterprise, but they are not being considered for the purposes of this essay. 
  • At the time of writing this essay, the issue of copyright had not been clearly established. This issue alone has the power to stop the entire project in its tracks. Although the Museum own the wrappers hanging on the walls, the copyright belong to the creators – the designers of the wrappers. Many of the designs are over 70 years old. The copyright may have expired, it may have been acquired by the creameries from the designers, or alternatively it may have been acquired by the co-operatives that took over the creameries. The issue of publishing the wrappers in the public domain was never addressed by the Museum when making the catalogue available online. 

A User Centred Design

I initiated a process of user centred design to further interrogate the importance  of exhibiting the wrappers in an environment that would allow some of the affordances described above. I submitted a simple questionnaire to four real-life user personas: a graphic designer, a local historian, a food guide who regularly brings guests to the Museum in Cork, and a museum curator[1]. For the purposes of brevity, I will simply acknowledge that some of the user issues as identified above were also identified by the user personas, and in addition, that one commonality of response was iterated by each user: what they would like to see changed was the lack of contextualisation surrounding the individual wrapper as it stood now in the catalogue. As one user contributed: “Historic photography or advertisements relating to the wrappers that present them in real-world contexts might serve to ground them further in (the) public imagination…(you) might include maps of distribution, images of the creameries they came from, and video or audio content embedded where appropriate.” [2]

Digitizing the Wrappers 

The wrappers need to be (re-)scanned. It was pointed out during the survey that the image resolution in the catalogue was too low[3]. Furthermore, several of the wrappers in the catalogue appear crinkled and thus appear to have not been treated with standards applicable to a digital exhibition. However, taking the framed wrappers off the walls, scanning them in a controlled environment and reframing them again is a long and laborious job, so it is important to do the rescanning once and properly. It is to my advantage that there is a relatively small number of them (67) and that most of them are roughly the same size (26cm x 14cm).  I interviewed John Foley of Bite Design, who has much experience in this field, and has worked with the Museum in the past. He recommended scanning the wrappers in resolutions as high as 2400dpi – resulting in an overall digital repository which would approximate 10G in size[4]. For user interface purposes, the images could be displayed as thumbnails as low as 72dpi (in lossy formats like JPEG) but these could be linked to higher resolutions of 300dpi and even 600dpi. Consideration would have to be given to the image editing software associated with the scanner to ‘correct’ crinkles and other issues in the new scan – and also at what stage cosmetic retouching overtakes correct archival representation. 

Digitalizing The Wrappers

Initially, the most important consideration I had for hosting the exhibition was generating user engagement around the wrappers, and by extension, generating interest in the Museum, similarly to this Twitter interaction below:

Figure 3: Composite Photo of Twitter Interaction

It would be relatively easy for me to build a WordPress site featuring a butter wrapper per post (see below) and building around them an attractive hierarchical interface: 

Figure 4: An example of the WordPress Interface

However, in undertaking this exhibition I am representing the Museum. For an exhibition – or more so, an exhibition process –  to be taken seriously, it helps to have a platform that has in-built archival standardisation – including following ISO standards. The free version of Omeka is custom designed for projects like mine: a small institution with a small budget; a small number of items to exhibit all of like size and type, which could be batch loaded from a CSV file in Excel and retuned on the platform as required. In the end, what cannot be ignored is what Omeka declares as one of its central pillars: the associated use of metadata which conforms to ISO standards in the form of Dublin Core. If no user comments section could be incorporated into the Omeka section of the exhibition, we would include one, a click away on the Museum website – an example of Omeka and WordPress working together to produce a desired outcome. 

The following is a comparison table of Omeka and WordPress as seen by me, a museum assistant and not a trained digital archivist, if I was to undertake a project like this for the Butter Museum: 

Design: version is free, with limited functionality, but enough for the Museum’s needs in hosting an exhibitionYes, with a huge range of themes and plug-ins immediately available for use 
Design: Open SourceYes. Immediately available on its own server. Offers a more attractive version when self-hosting (this latter consideration is attractive but not within budget as described for this essay)Yes, immediately available. 
Design: CMSOmeka is a dedicated content management system. It was built specifically with museum and archival display in mind.Works with a category and tagging system; pleasing hierarchical structures can be built around the items
Design: Ease of Use Very easy to set up an exhibition immediately; however it has a small supportive community relative to WP. Self-hosting means taking on responsibility in some issues (server compatibility, discontinued plug-ins)WordPress is set up for immediate use; a vast supportive community; some privacy and security concerns. 
Design: Standards AdherenceDublin Core;  certain subject fields can be restricted to ensure consistency; controlled vocabulary. Doesn’t apply – WP is essentially a blogging site. Customised metadata fields could be added but would take time, energy and additional coding skills
Design: MaintenanceLittle (off the shelf utilisation)Some (additional functionality would need to be added)
Design: CustomisableLimited, but enough to achieve an attractive user experienceVery high; a wide range of highly tested features available. Many plug-ins previously tested and verified 
Design: Creative and ExpressiveLimited, but (like Customisable) enough. The clean, professional looking interface is already set up Very much so – WordPress allows this as part of its design
Design: Coding Skills required for advanced use Little needed to in order to achieve the desired exhibition parametersCoding required to achieve the functionality this designer believes should be applicable when hosting an exhibition like this 
Design: Batch File LoadingYes, with CSV files. This feature isn’t as important as it could have been (there are ‘only’ 67 wrappers)This designer is not aware of a similar process in WordPress
Website: SustainabilityYes, especially with the limited free version; low payment for site hosting (large image files can be held offline until needed – payment for server space can be accommodated as the website grows)Yes, besides the relatively low payment for site hosting 
Website: InteroperabilityYes – although not as important as it could be. Interoperability between other archives does not apply as the exhibition is uniqueWould require additional coding to achieve a level of desirability
Website: SEO Yes, but not as immediately friendly as WP. Omeka is not designed with SEO keywords as priority Relatively easy to set up SEO keywords 
User: Responsive for devicesYes Yes
User: AccessibilityLimited on free version but Minimalist/Winter/Seasons has been cited as applicable for visually impaired (see photo below) Yes, many themes are Accessibility Ready with additional filters
User: Comments SectionCan use the plug-in Simple Contact Form; this can be linked to the Museum website. This designer is not aware of any plug-ins that enable open user comments Yes, enabling a major ambition of the Exhibition: building an online community of butter wrapper ‘followers’. The success of this section could ensure future sustainability of the Exhibition
User: Ability to find Individual Wrappers of Interest; inside and outside the ExhibitionYes (appropriate tags and keywords)Yes with  a ‘Butter Blog’ style of presentation, where each wrapper occupies a post 
ConclusionsFits very well, for a professional Museum exhibition. There are 67 items of like format. There is no need to add more than what is available off the shelf. Can offer some user engagement , especially when linked to the WP site hosting it. Would fit well, if this was a personal project. Would offer much user engagement. User may find it initially easier than Omeka to navigate and leave comments. 

In the end, Omeka make the artefacts themselves the focal points, with themes and plug-ins built around them. A WordPress ‘butter wrappers blog’ is very tempting to foster user interaction – maybe it could even lead to the discovery of more wrappers. But Omeka offers this as well – or at least a version I can  live with – and all the associated richness of the metadata. Ironically, the similarity of the Omeka interface to WordPress is another reason I would choose Omeka. In the end, choosing the platform came down to balancing the affordances against the constraints – and Omeka confers legitimacy in an archival setting. Omeka it is.

Figure 5: An example of the Omeka Interface

Why Exhibit?

Throughout this essay, I’ve had the pleasure of speculating why I might take particular steps, how I’m going to implement them, and select certain methodologies and tools if I was to host a digital butter wrapper exhibition. The essay parameters forced me to re-evaluate my original goal in setting up the imagined exhibition. ‘User engagement’ is not an end in itself – it is the result of good website design. As they say in sport: “Play well, and the result will come naturally.”

But why exhibit the wrappers at all? Well, besides the pleasure of the creation – the conception, writing and display  – of this exhibition, a conversation that I had with Aoife Dorney, a lecturer in Visual Communications in the Munster Technological University, stays in my mind and gives me impetus. She explained the strength of the identity that had been forged between the people and the land a few generations ago, and the power that the butter had as an living symbol of that identity.  “Butter is unique in Ireland in that it is literally the fat of the land,” she explained. “When we ate of the butter, we took back ownership of the land in a way that was immediate and certain. The names on the wrappers were beyond just place names – they gave us ownership. The wrappers packaged this certainty, but also pointed a path back to our imagined past and made real our Celtic Revival. They brought this promised land to our fingertips: they conferred upon us who we were, and who we wanted to be.” As the times changed and the people moved to the cites, this significance diminished and was replaced by everyday concerns of securing mortgages for pocket handkerchief houses and apartments. It is perhaps fitting that in this time of the resurgence of the Humanities – in Digital form –  we scholars can re-present these icons – these symbols of community, and reinvest in them that  power for a new generation. 

Dominic Moore 

May 2021

Thanks to: 

Peter Foynes, Director of the Butter Museum, Cork

John Foley, Bite Design

Aoife Dorney, Lecturer in Visual Communications, MTU

[1]This is the questionnaire that I provided to the four users:

We are investigating the possible exhibition of Butter Wrappers later this summer, and are interested in implementing the best possible design to do this.

I’m hoping that you, as a user of the Butter Museum website, will help us in this implementation by considering the following questions.

We have a butter wrapper catalogue already installed on our website.

Leaving aside any perceived  limitations of the website itself, it would help us if you considered the following questions.

  • How would you rate the catalogue as a device for exhibiting the butter wrappers?
  • Does it show them to their fullest potential in your eyes?
  • Would you like to see any accompanying information with the wrappers?
  • Is it important to you to know more about the creameries that the wrappers came from?
  • Can you think of any other processes, design or otherwise, that would improve your user experience with the wrappers as they are exhibited now?
  • In an ideal world, how would you design the wrapper exhibition?
  • Can you think of any more points that may be interesting to us as we go about designing the butter wrapper exhibition?

Thank you,

Dominic Moore,

The Butter Museum. 

[2]A strong point was made (from two of the contributors) for the images to be downloadable – so that children could colour them in; this added an educational possibility I had not considered. Another contributor commented that the Junior Cert History programme now involves a local history project/module, and that highlighting the wrappers online could lead to presentational possibilities in the Museum – maybe a PowerPoint exhibition, or printed postcards of the wrappers.

[3] My graphic designer remarked: “…they are too low res – they can’t be examined closely or be of any use beyond the catalogue”. It is interesting to note that this was not a universal perception: the images were praised by another user for their “high-quality”. It became clear during the writing of this essay why there was, from my point of view, a lack of concern as to the image quality of the wrappers. The images were kept at deliberately low resolution to prevent them being downloaded and then being framed/sold on or otherwise used by users who were accessing them for free. The idea had been to keep higher resolution files in a hard drive which could then be utilised to print images onto aprons for the Museum shop. The success of this venture can be judged by the fact there were six apron sales in eight years. My belief that the Museum have little to lose and much to gain by allowing high resolution images to be downloadable on request, or to present them in appropriately high resolution on the website, and to allow interaction and engagement with the public on a level that would be appreciated. 

[4] The cost of a scanner capable of delivering resolutions of this size would be approximately €800. 


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