“Art on Call” (Abigail Seaver)

Washington, D.C. has some incredibly cool historic sites; it’s one of the reasons there are over 18 million tourists annually from all over the world. Some of the best historical projects in this city are off the beaten path, and many of them elude even longtime residents. My favorite one, and the one that inspired this digital history project, is Art on Call.

Art on Call is a call box restoration project that took place in the early 2000’s. Many neighborhoods around the city contain abandoned call boxes that were used by police and other emergency services. These were slowly abandoned as radios and cell phones took over our daily lives, and instead of uprooting them they city just left them unmaintained. There were over 1,000 boxes located within the city limits, and the organization Cultural Tourism DC refurbished 145 of them between 2000 and 2009.

Each neighborhood formed committees on how their individual call boxes would look, and then researched/commissioned different artists to carry out their plans. These neighborhoods include Capitol Hill, Cathedral Heights, Cleveland Park, Downtown, Dupont Circle, Forest Hills, Georgetown, Golden Triangle, Glover Park, McLean Gardens, Mount Pleasant, Sheridan/Kalorama, Southwest, Tenleytown, and Woodley Park. Most of them speak to the vibrant history of the surrounding land, with some abstract art projects also thrown in. Each also has a marker indicating why the art was chosen and its relevance, usually on the backside of the call boxes.

Unfortunately, there are no online resources for this project and it has remained dormant since funding was cut in 2009. As I have come across these while out in DC I have continually looked up more information on them, but have found nothing except for sparse websites and a few blog posts. Vox (a liberal online news organization) uploaded a YouTube video describing the project in detail, but still no online resource remains for people who want to see and experience these call boxes virtually.

Here is where I need the help of the class – I am going to pitch three ideas on how to create an online catalogue for this project, and I need to get feedback on which on people feel would be the most accessible for both residents of Washington, D.C. and online history enthusiasts.

My first step is to document as many of the existing 145 call boxes, taking a picture of both the art and the caption describing the context of the box. I will upload the pictures in Wiki Commons so that anyone can have the rights to use them, and then I would like to do one of these three options:

Option 1: Create a Wikipedia page dedicated to this project, linked from the general topic page for Call Boxes. I can create a photographic chart that people can scroll through that will provide them the neighborhoods, the photographs, and a written description of how the box was designed with the physical space in mind.

Option 2: Create a My Map on Google that allows people to see the pictures and a description of each call box through Google Maps on a browser or the app. Someone has done a variation of this, but many pins are missing photographs of the call boxes and none of them explain the historical context of call boxes.

Option 3: Use History Pin to upload and describe all the call boxes for people online and on mobile devices. I am hesitant to use this one because I feel like it is more limited to users – someone walking around DC and googling “random art call boxes” wouldn’t necessarily stumble across it.

This is going to be my final project, so your input would be most appreciated! And I am open to other options, so please feel free to lead me in a different direction if you have a better digital platform in mind.

2 Replies to ““Art on Call” (Abigail Seaver)”

  1. This is a great idea! I love seeing the call boxes around the city, and was saddened to hear funding was cut for the previous project. In regard to your three options, maybe the “My Map” would work best for attempting to find and engage an audience. I generally like the idea of using HistoryPin for this type of project, but as you said it’s not exactly easily accessible to users. The Wikipedia page fixes your Googling issue with HistoryPin, but the idea of having a “map” that can link directly to an app sounds user-friendly and easily accessible. Those are just my opinions though, since I think any of the three options would work well.
    Good luck I can’t wait to see the end result!

  2. This is a really neat idea! Documenting these works and making that documentation available online is a great project. Whatever way you go about providing access to these, I think getting them up on Wikimedia Commons is the most important part.

    As for your three options, I think all of them could be good ways to go. With option one, a challenge there is going to be figuring out where in Wikipedia it can live and the fact that you are left up to the whims of Wikipedia editors. That said, my guess is that if you made a page that was a list of the boxes that it would have a good shot of making it.

    Of the other two, the My Map is likely going to be relatively straightforward to build. That said, I’m not sure how widely folks discover and make use of these maps.

    HistoryPin is nice in that it has the custom tours, but as Allison noted, it has it’s own discoverability challenges.

    One other thought, you might think about trying to edit the call boxes into a bunch of different Wikipedia pages. That is, you could well get the images you take embedded into some of the Wikipedia pages about neighborhood or the various events and people depicted in them. My guess is this approach to trying to integrate the call boxes into other pages is likely the one that would get them viewed and engaged with the most.

    So I think there are ups and downs to any of those platforms. In any event, I think your documentation project is the heart of this, so I’d focus more on that side than the these discoverability platforms.

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