Histories of the National Mall

For those unacquainted with mallhistory.org, Histories of the National Mall is dedicated to the history of D.C.’s National Mall. It provides a variety of interactive ways to learn about the history of the Mall, including the development of the space, the events that occurred there, and the people associated with it. The project is funded by the Roy Rosenzweig Institute for History and New Media and the National Endowment for Humanities

The site starts out with a very colorful, visually appealing homepage. The layout is simple and intuitive.

Despite its apparent simplicity though, there’s a significant amount of information available and organized in helpful ways. Not only are there the four initial options (Maps, Explorations, People, and Past Events) but the site also includes a search bar, so you can quickly find information on whatever interests you.

At the bottom of the homepage, there’s also a very helpful guide to using the site, and a featured article – this article is randomized every time you refresh the homepage, meaning users are exposed to different topics and information every time.

Clicking on “Using the Site” brings you directly to their “About” page. It provides detailed information about the information and content the site contains, and also information on how to use the site. They specifically include how to use the site while the user is on the Mall, encouraging users to connect this digital project even more to the physical space.

Let’s move on to the four categories the site provides!

If you click on Maps, you are, unsurprisingly, directed to a map of the Mall. The map allows you to move around, zoom in and out, and to get a look at the space. Featured on the map are a number of location markers, but there are also color coded circles with numbers. These indicate close groupings of location markers, and clicking on them zooms the map into that area.

However, this map is a lot more interactive than it first appears. If you click the filter setting at the top right corner, you find even more interesting features.

The map allows you to filter the different types of items, but it also lets you choose what era map you want to look at! This is definitely my favorite feature.

On the bottom right corner, it gives you the information on the cartographer and the year it was made.

Selecting a different era not only features a map from that time period, but it also changes the items you can select and take a look at. All of these items are available on the default “All Map Eras” map, so you aren’t missing content if you don’t flip through every map option.

Pivoting from the more interactive element, the site also offers articles on the Mall’s history through its “Exploration” section. These articles are presented in a FAQ-style form, answering popular questions asked about the Mall. There’s only 5 pages of results, so it’s not an inexhaustible wealth of information, but there is a significant amount.

The articles also support the information with images, videos, and oral history. The multimedia elements do give the articles a boost and makes the information more accessible to more audiovisual learners.

On the side, there are also links to related questions, prompting users to dig deeper into topics that interest them and to engage more with the site.

The last two categories, “People” and “Past Events,” are also worth a look.

The People section includes 89 profiles and mini biographies on people associated with the Mall, its development, and its going-ons.

Taking a look at Benjamin Banneker, who helped map out the boundaries of the D.C., we can see the site actually offers a lot of information on each person.

In addition to the information and metadata, you can also download the information in several different formats.

Not only do you get biographical information on the person, but you also get source and citation information, and the site lets you know what map coverage the person can be found on.

The Past Events section offers similar information.

Just like the Persons section, each event is associated with a photo. There’s a description of the event, a date, source and citation information, and different output formats. It also gives information on what map coverage it can be found on, and–for events featured on the interactive maps–it provides a geolocation as well, where the item can be found on the maps.

One question that comes to mind with this site though is communication and how users can ask questions and interact with the creators. The option to contact the site or ask questions is buried in the “About” page, which is only accessible through the homepage and not in the menu bar. At the very bottom, there’s a “Connect” section.

The “send feedback and questions” link directs the user to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media though, instead of a form dedicated to Histories of the National Mall, which could be confusing to some. The other options are to go through Tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter. It is worth pointing out that icons for these three social media pages are available at the bottom or side of each page, but they’re subtle and I know that not every user might notice them or think to follow those links.

All in all, Histories of the National Mall is a cool site! There’s a lot to look through, but not an overwhelming amount. I think the interactive map and FAQ-style exploration pages are the highlights of the project, but the People and Past Events also provide a lot of interesting information. The site is useful for those casually looking through the Mall’s history, but could also be a good diving off point for researchers.

9 Replies to “Histories of the National Mall”

  1. Hi Cameron! I was so excited to see this website pop up again! I didn’t take the time to explore the site last fall, but was glad to take the time to engage with it now. (I also totally forgot it is a part of the Rosenzweig Institute, but I guess that makes a lot of sense.) You make a great point that this site is a good diving off point for researchers! I’m particularly interested in the question “Who protested on the Mall before the famous 1963 March on Washington?” because it pertains to my Practicum’s research. I presume this is a curated selection of questions, and am a little thrown off by the FAQ format – especially considering there is a ‘contact us’ option.

    I did a little clicking around on the information on the above question and about it somewhat informative, but the links are certainly limited in terms of quantity. As we’ve both said, it is a good starting point. I wonder how most people come across this website… do people google history of the Mall and come across this resource? Where is it advertised? Does the Smithsonian or Library of Congress advertise it?

  2. Cameron– great post on a really interesting website! I spoke about this site in Seminar last fall, and it still holds a lot of interest for me. Both you and Ani hinted at some flaws with the site. I, for one, feel like this information is incredibly popular for tourists and locals, and should probably be kept updated. It’s obviously not the most exhaustive or technologically advanced site (compared to some that we’ve seen/used) and I wonder if this is something that should be kept up to date considering the popularity of the subject matter. Also, this site raises ideas of collaboration. Since the NPS technically runs the Mall, it seems like there could be a way to collaborate with them and get some more $$ for a more high tech site. Just some thoughts I had while perusing!

  3. Cameron, thanks for a great post!

    I, like Ani, was wondering the same thing about the advertisement of this website. It does seem like a great tool to use especially for those new to the area or visiting for the first time.
    The website sort of reminded me of what MJ discusses in her book about how immersive history has the potential to be really great. Although these obviously aren’t living history exhibits, it still made me think that this would be a great way to immerse yourself in this history while having a guide telling you more information.
    While this does seem like a great site, it makes me wonder how accessible it is for those who don’t have access to computers or smartphones. I wonder if there could be a way to take all of this information and somehow make it available at the actual location for people to learn and do the activities available on the website.

  4. Great tour of the project Cameron!

    Ultimately, I think this remains one of the most fully realized and well put together mobile friendly digital history projects. I really like some of the explorations they put together, like the one on alternate designs for the Lincoln Memorial. It’s worth underscoring that because they built this as a mobile website it ends up working well on phones but also doesn’t require people to install an app to make use of the content.

    The questions you are all asking about audience and about how folks find out about the site are really great. As noted, it’s not a NPS project and it’s also not a SI project, so it functions in many ways like a kind of open access publication that RRCHNM produced that anyone is free to explore from anywhere but that has particular resonance for folks visiting the space itself.

    In that regard, I’m curious for any other thoughts you all might have about hos the app fits with or does not fit with points that came out from many or our readings this week about space, place, and mobile technologies.

  5. This website is very cool! It seems like it could be useful for K-12 education, especially since many schools take a class of kids to D.C. every year, and the information isn’t overly dense. I think it’s also important that they include questions like “were slaves sold on the mall?” It’s important to tell all sides of history, and racism in the Capital has definitely been an influential part of its history.

    I like that the website is broken up into four questions, making it extremely easy to navigate for any potential audience members. Providing citations is also a cool, user oriented feature that I’m sure makes it much easier to use this website for research. Overall, this is a cool resource that I wish I had when I was frequently visiting D.C. as a kid!

  6. Thank you all for the comments! I know of a research assignment where students had to look up the history of slavery in DC, and a lot of people were actually led by Google to mallhistory.org, specifically the “Were slaves sold on the mall?” question. So it does seem like this site would pop up in similar searches, but I’m not sure if that is a search typical DC tourists would think about. I do think that it would be great for it to be advertised more broadly! We’ve talked about what the endpoint is for digital history projects and when to stop, and I think this project is a good example of just that, while still offering a lot of important information.

  7. Hey Cameron! Great job on this post, this website is so interesting, your right it is a really good jumping-off point for researchers and its also a great sight for tourist to use to learn more about historical sites without having to grab a brochure. The sight illustrates how a place slowly becomes what it is today, which is incredibly interesting with places like the National Mall because of how purposeful its creation was. Poking around the site it’s cool that it doesn’t just discuss history but also discusses how the National Mall works every day. I liked seeing the link that said, “who takes care of the national mall,” a subject that I feel like most people never think about when they go to the mall. However, when I clicked on the link I was a bit disappointed in how the writer brushed past the hardworking people who make sure the mall looks great every day (such as landscapers) and choose to focus on “specialized” teams. But back to the site I also liked the tab that showcases various people both well known and unknown who are connected to the mall (Bayard Rustin was one of them!). This site has its flaws as you and the others have mentioned but I still think it’s a nice way for people to learn interesting new things about one of the most well-known spaces in the country.

  8. Cameron- Great post about this tool. This is one of the only tools I really remember from last semster and I think that is for two reasons: 1) the underutilization of such an awesome tool and 2) the ways in which it can improve.
    1) As mentioned by others on this post, this platform is a really great learning tool that could by utilized by DC natives, global tourists, and students throughout the country. This would be such a great tool for teachers to use while schools are shut down, and many field trips to DC are canceled. The platform is super intuitive and the filter features make it even easier to see what you want.
    2) The features are great, and there are many different ways to interact with the maps. One thing I think would be great is if users could map their own travel based on the info they find. I think this would encourage repeat visitors to “map their path” within the system. Additionally, it would be cool to have a user can comment and share their experience at this space.

  9. This was a super fun mapping program! I really liked that it provided info on the people associated with certain areas and buildings. I can see this being very popular among tourists in the city or Washingtonians wanting to know more about their city’s history. I will say though that I do wonder how programs like this one will impact in-person tours of the city.

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