The Virtual Memorial:Reconciling Disparity Between Physical and Virtual Presence


The District of Columbia’s National Mall is home to four memorials commemorating the sacrifice of American soldiers who served in overseas conflicts.  The World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War memorials are national memorials while the World War I memorial, or the D.C. War Memorial as it is also referred to, is a local memorial that honors the 499 D.C. residents who lost their lives. There is no national WWI memorial.  The WW I memorial “is in extreme disrepair, it is hidden away among overgrown trees and bushes, and it is seldom marked on Park Service or other tourist maps or signs.” Ironically, in spite of the WWI memorial’s physical dilapidation, its online presence is the most advanced and well-represented of the memorial quartet.  It is this marked distinction between the physical and virtual memorial sites that I would like to explore in further detail.

The official WWII, Vietnam, and Korean War memorial websites created and maintained by the National Park Service are utilitarian, bare-bones sites that provide basic historical background, answers to frequently asked questions, and a “Photos & Multimedia” page with a few photos and no multimedia (it should also be noted that the Korean War memorial page does not even have a Photos & Multimedia tab). The World War I memorial, being a local rather than national landmark, does not have an official National Park Service website but The World War I Memorial Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation formed in August 2008, has developed a website to “advocate and raise funds for the re-dedication of the DC War Memorial as a national World War I Memorial.” The World War I Memorial Foundation was inspired by Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I (who just passed away on February 27, 2011 at 110 years old), and honorary chairman of the Foundation. Buckles drew attention to the fact that there was no national memorial, a grave oversight compounded by the fact that the local memorial was run down and neglected.  In response, The National Park Service and announced in 2009 that “it would dedicate $7.3 million of ‘stimulus funds’ to the full restoration of the memorial. Once restored and re-landscaped, and re-dedicated as a national memorial, the DC War Memorial will give honor to the heroic deeds and sacrifice of all World War I veterans equal to that bestowed on the veterans of later wars.”

The World War I Memorial Foundation’s website stands in stark contrast to the official National Park Service memorial websites and serves as an excellent model of what the National Park websites could be with some alterations and improvements.  First, the Foundation’s site is visually appealing, displaying striking color photographs that evidence the solemnity and quiet grandeur of the memorial to its best advantage. The poor condition of the physical site is not readily apparent in the images to further exhibit its former (and future) splendor.  The site creator chose to use visually stimulating interactive media whenever possible: using a Google map satellite image of the memorial as well as a video archive.  A “news” page keeps readers abreast of any memorial related news and events, and they offer visitors the opportunity to subscribe to their online newsletter.  Considering this is a non-profit website primarily concerned with raising awareness, obtaining signatures for their petition, and soliciting donations, the website was created with remarkable care and attention to detail.

It is extraordinary that the “forgotten” memorial should be possessed of the most impressive website.  Its striking virtual presence almost mocks its material decay. What is most surprising, however, is not the incongruity of the WWI memorial’s physical and virtual presence, but the disparity between the physical and virtual on the National Park Service websites representing the other three memorials.  That these popular, well-maintained memorials should have such uninspiring online representation is startling.  Perhaps, The National Park Service assumes that an improved online experience is not necessary since they are not concerned with increasing awareness, revenue, or foot traffic; but, by neglecting and letting their websites fall into “disrepair,” they are missing out on the opportunity to transform their sites into exceptional educational tools.  As it is now, the National Park Service’s websites merely provide an adumbration of the memorials, almost concealing more information than they provide.  In the final project, I would like to explore how the National Park Service can enhance their web presence using sites like the World War I Memorial foundations website as a model.

3 Replies to “The Virtual Memorial:Reconciling Disparity Between Physical and Virtual Presence”

  1. This sounds like an interesting project idea. In this modern age where so many people spend so much time on the internet, presenting recommendations for how the National Park Service can update their presentation of historical sites they control could lead to real material change and benefits (as a previous comment suggests)

    When reading this article, at first I was struck by how unfair it seemed that the web presence of the memorial overshadowed the actual physical place. But then in reading what you said a thought occurred. First of all, the fact that the web site is such an improvement is something of a correction of injustice. Secondly, as so much interaction and education is done on or related to the internet, the creation of a developed web site is actually a much better way of getting people into the experience of the memorial. Indeed, we may well witness the transformation of the historical interactive experience, as increasing ease of access could enable more people to get into history. A great website might even persuade people to check out the physical landscape and increase concern for historical preservation. I hope that others see your arguments and incorporate them into the National Park websites.

  2. Having seen some of the NPS websites it is not hard to believe that the WWI Memorial website is much better. I am glad to learn that the NPS is working to restore the site and rededicate it. It is sad that Mr. Buckles will not be able to see this rededication. I think that the physical and digital manifestations of memorials should reenforce each other. They should each serve a distinct purpose to help people understand what it is being honored.
    I wonder if the reason the nonprofit memorial has a better website is because they do not have to follow regulations from a larger organization. That could be what is restricting the NPS websites.

  3. As the premises for our print projects – comparing the translation of a physical site to a virtual space- are very similar, I found your idea very interesting, and also very proactive. It seems that the virtual presence of the DC war memorials should complement, not overshadow or undersell, the physical sites themselves. Tourists often use the internet when researching and planning their visits, especially because DC offers so many options. The type of web presence that you are suggesting for the National Park Service websites (emulations of the WWI memorial site) could potentially encourage visitors to not only stop at the war memorials for their beauty, but to more fully understand and appreciate their national significance.

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