The Online Memorial, Moving Beyond the Marble: A “Living” Interface and Born Digital Cenotaph

The sepulchral spirit of war memorials suffuses them with emotion and, accordingly, these memorials elicit a strong emotional response. Memorial visitors typically harbor great expectations of what the static collection of stone blocks and sculptures should evoke. These physical sites are expected to be participatory, interactive, and experiential despite their inherent inertia because they are tangible materializations of memory. Paradoxically, the official online sites representing the memorials, that  have the potential to be truly interactive and participatory by creating a virtual “common space” where users could share their experiences, pictures, and emotions with other visitors and veterans, are neglected. The result, is that these virtual sites are as static, inexpressive, and emotionless as the fixed physical sites they represent. Interestingly, rather than displaying the memorials to best advantage, these sites display the reluctance on the part of many scholars and historians to enter into the digital age. Critics of internet scholarship often bemoan that “the Internet does not distinguish between the true and the false, the important and the trivial, the enduring and the ephemeral. . . . Every source appearing on the screen has the same weight and credibility as every other; no authority is ‘privileged’ over any other.” Yet, this neutrality is what makes a participatory online memorial an ideal democratic forum for remembrance, echoing the neutrality of an encounter with the physical memorial all while moving beyond the often disputed value of the statuary itself.

First, adding a community conscious social networking ability, or at least a virtual message board, to the website could facilitate emotional reflection, memory sharing, and discourse that would serve as a facsimile for human connectedness.  The internet being the most fundamentally democratic platform where members of an imagined community are able interact.  The internet as the “great equalizer,” also re-emphasizes the non-judgmental nature of the physical memorial focusing instead on the  universal and human understanding of war and nation.

Second, memorials tell a story of historical heritage freed from the confines of the written word and linear narratives. In the same way, designers of a web memorial should not be limited to text. Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig rightly wonder, why historians who have been “stuck with boring-looking texts” for so long, do not “revel in the freedom and artistic possibilities of the web.” So often, sites are designed down “to the point where it is simple to use but has lost its ability to convey profound thoughts and emotions.” It seems, that the greatest danger that a memorial website faces is the freezing and embalming of the experience in text. While the most common Yelp reflections for all the memorials refer to the solemnity, somberness, and sobering aspects of the memorials, the second most remarked upon aspect of the memorials was their ability to awaken empathy and arouse dialogue.

In keeping with this, born digital experiences should be living, growing, evolving interfaces; collaborative projects that engage rather than instruct. As Will Thomas explained in a recent roundtable discussion regarding “The Promise of Digital History,” “Every presentation of the past is ‘chosen’ and a representation; indeed, narrative history is the most selective and digested. Digital history probably must be more ‘open’ to be effective.” So the superlative memorial website must share this “open” quality, where users have the ability to shape their own experience by choosing where to go and what to see, just as a visitor to the physical site can walk freely around the site. Text should, therefore, be minimal and “chunked” allowing for an experience that is both “participatory and spatial.” Following this example, in an ideal world, the homepage of each site would include three-dimensional virtual model to simulate an actual visit to the site, in which the user could “walk” through the space and view it from all angles.

In addition to the quasi-religious, nationalistic significance of the memorial, the memorial is also expected to “preserve social ideals for future generations.” The ideal memorial, then,  is both somber and social. This expected duality of purpose came arose from a heated debate that surrounded the societal role of memorialization at the end of World War I, and reignited after World War II. Traditionalists argued in favor of majestic, triumphal memorials which in their opinion properly commemorated glorious sacrifice, while the critics argued that “living memorials” that centered around democratic community life were an attractive alternative to “tawdry ‘monumental’ monstrosities.” Living memorials — dedicated libraries, parks, highways, community centers, and other civic projects—were thought to more “fluidly incorporate traditional memorial strategies…in terms of national identity.” The debate polarized the two aspects of the memorial and, as Andrew M. Shanken further explains in his examination of living memorials, “choosing a form of memorial was tantamount to choosing a form of society.” Most post-World War II communities overwhelmingly preferred memorials that emphasized living projects in contrast to seemingly useless, decaying, and vulgar tomb-like reminders of death.

This debate rages on, and interestingly, tracing trends of repetitive praise within Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews allows for a loose analysis of what a memorial visitor finds most evocative, impacting, and important about the experience that could eventually integrated into the online experience. Interestingly, the “living” attribute of the Vietnam and Korean memorials is a point of continual praise for many of the same reasons this aspect was highly praised by early proponents- connectivity. As one Yelper recalled, “I felt an aura from the wall. It feels as if it’s alive.” This emphasizes, again, the necessity of moving beyond the two-dimensional online approach to engage the user and draw them into a “living” space. As noted by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosensweig:

Digital media also differ from many other older media in their interactivity—a product of the web being, unlike broadcast television [or monograph, a two-way medium, in which every point of consumption can also be a point of production. This interactivity enables multiple forms of historical dialogue—[…] among people reminiscing about the past—that were possible before but which are not only simpler but potentially richer and more intensive in the digital medium. Many history websites offer opportunities for dialogue and feedback.

Harnessing the interactive possibilities of digital media, social networking capabilities could be, and should be, incorporated into the online memorial presence. This can be done by utilizing existing social networking sites and platforms like or emulating the reflective quality of a Yelp or TravelAdvisor site. In many ways, the interactive behaviors that users engage in on the Yelp site mirror the kind of public sharing and engagement that takes place at the physical memorial. In addition, including a Wikipedia-like section could allow veterans, family members, and site visitors (both physical and digital) to share their experiences, the stories of their loved ones, and post images. This interactive quality would reflect the evolving and “living” qualities so appreciated at the Vietnam memorial by allowing visitors and users to leave their mark of remembrance–personalized textual and photographic memorabilia, so to speak.

Early proponents of the “living memorial” in the post-World War II debate often expressed grief over the excessive amount of money that was wasted on stone that could have been used to fund civil projects to advance humanity. Naturally, this debate does not apply in the case of physical sites in this instance since the memorials are already built, but that early desire to raise funds for “memorial causes” and scholarships would be a valuable addition to the National Parks Website. Online memorial websites have the potential to be fundraising sites for civic and national projects and scholarships. Using platforms like or could allow people to raise money in honor of their loved ones. Sites like, for example, is a website that allows people to pledge money for projects without infringing on intellectual copyright or obligating pledged donors to pay for projects that do not receive adequate funding.

The meaning of the memorial is variable and never frozen in time and each of the memorials educes a unique response. So, too, should the websites be unique and variable. By determining how visitors engage with these memorials and their experiential expectations, we can see how the National Park Service might enhance their web presence by creating an interactive, participatory, and engaging multimedia experience that not only replicates but surpasses the physical encounter. Recognizing that the website, unlike the physical site, is something that anyone could visit from anywhere in lieu of a visit to the physical site, accentuates the need for a complete online experience. Properly utilizing digital media provides this advantage. Digital media has what historians Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig call, “quantitative advantages—[website creators and historians] can do more, reach more people, store more data, give readers more varied sources; we can get more historical materials into classrooms, give students more access to formerly cloistered documents, hear from more perspectives.” Digital networks and platforms allow historians to reach to the largest possible audience, and allows this audience of users to interact more easily and cheaply than ever before; therefore, it is the most ideal and accessible medium for collaborative historical study. Website visitors, who would otherwise be unable either physically or financially to make a visit to the actual site would be able to experience and relate to the monument in a comparable, if not superior way. Naturally, websites creators and historians would need to exercise hyper-vigilance to maintain the historical integrity of the site, but with adequate oversight, a memorial website has seemingly limitless potential to serve as an educational tool for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

The suggestions for website improvement presented here are just the tip of the digital iceberg for understanding how new technologies can be developed and exploited to design a site that is both user-friendly and scholarly. Whereas the current websites merely reaches the audience and provide them with essential information, an improved web presence would also respond to the audience. Furthermore, taking advantage of cutting-edge web designs would not only rectify the disparity between physical and digital memorial sites, but would also potentially move the memorial experience beyond the marble and into living rooms and classrooms around the world.

Cited sources in post:

“The Promise of Digital History,” Vol. 95 > No. 2 (Sept. 2008)

Cohen, Dan and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006)

Shanken, Andrew M. “Planning Memory: Living Memorials in the United States during World War II,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 130-147.

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.

Critical Praise for was voted one of the “The Top 100 Web Sites of 2010” by, and rightly so.  The site boasts a total of 57,409 viewable clips and 7 million photos “in one of the world’s largest collections of royalty-free archival stock footage” and offers “immediate downloads in more than 10 SD and HD formats, including screeners in all formats.” As the site reviewer at accurately remarked, “If it got captured for the news in the early part of the 20th century, there’s a good chance the footage you seek is here.” was founded in 2007, by the brother team of Jim and Andy Erickson, along with a supporting group of archival research, film, and Internet professionals, to create “one of the largest privately held online archival footage sources in the world.” The collection is “drawn largely from U.S. government agency sources, the clips and images in the collection are available for license without the clearance concerns encountered when ordering from typical stock footage providers.”  So, this impressive video collection is free to browse and view on site (although, not surprisingly, you do have to pay for use off site) and the still photos are even “available for download as JPEG files, or you may take advantage of our professional photo printing services and have prints delivered right to your door.”

Finally, an archive that is sophisticated, professional, and plentifully sourced. is an impressive example of a modern digital archive. The site is attractive and easy to navigate, browse, and search.  The “browse by decade” visual aid is especially useful, allowing users to browse videos from 1890 to 1990, and take a quick inventory of the available stock.  The decade of the 1940’s is, by far, the largest collection with 23, 188 viewable clips (and growing).  This is, in my opinion, a fantastic and exciting resource for historians interested in twentieth century and contemporary history.

Happy browsing!

Flickr Commons: An Uncommon Resource

The World’s Public Photography Archives

In January 2008, Flickr: The Commons was created with the intention to create the world’s first public photo collection and interactive archive.  Users are able to browse the image collections of 46 participating institutions from around the world, including collections from notable American institutions: The Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, National Media Museum, The U.S. National Archives, and NASA on the Commons.

According to the website, the program has two main objectives:

1.“To increase access to publicly-held photography collections.”

The Flickr format enables institutions to share limited photographic collections (those with no known copyright restrictions) with the general public.  NASA, for example, which has been proudly “on the forefront within the federal government in utilizing Web 2.0 technologies” joined Flickr in 2009 to ensure that NASA images and media could reach an even wider audience.

2.“To provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge.”

The Commons encourages site visitors and users to add tags or comment on the photos to encourage conversation and invite insightful dialogue to complement and enrich the collections.   The comment feature allows knowledgeable users to share information, stories, and otherwise provide historical context.

What is good for the user is also good for the institution?

The Library of Congress Commons Project FAQ page explains how “social tagging and community input could benefit both the Library and the user.” In their initial collection offerings, the Library posted photos that had only minimal identifying information or subject indexing in the hope that users may help shed some light on these otherwise obscure images.  The Library of Congress, and other participating institutions, recognized the value of Flickr Commons’ social community and the potential to tap the “collective intelligence” of citizen users and recruit them to perform the task of “collective cataloging.”

This is not the first time an institution capitalized on “collective intelligence.” In 2001, NASA launched (pun intended) an experimental project that utilized public volunteers, called “clickworkers,” to perform “common sense” routine analysis and assist in the cataloging of Martian craters.  The project was highly successful and the public assistance saved NASA both time and money. So Flickr Commons wisely followed suit.  As noted in a Flickr blog, “many hands make light work.”

The Fruits of Crowd- Source Labor

An article in the March 2008 edition of the The Library of Congress Information Bulletin entitled “Rediscovering Lincoln” triumphantly announced that thanks to “collective intelligence” the Library of Congress was able to properly identify a photograph and, subsequently, three glass negatives of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration that had been wrongly identified as either the Grand Review of the Armies or the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant.

In November, amateur historian and Civil War enthusiast John Richter found several interesting images among the treasure trove of photographs digitized and accessible on the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. He identified them as images of Lincoln at Gettysburg for the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. (The images can be viewed by searching “Lincoln at Gettysburg” on the Library’s Prints and Photographs Catalog and selecting the images of the dedication ceremony at Soldiers’ National Ceremony.)

The potential for amateur historians and historians alike to properly identity photos and uncover “new” visual sources is a truly exciting prospect.  For Flickr, and other crowd-sourced projects, the power is with the people.

Bridging the Digital Divide: Digital History Proves a Promising Tool for the Traditionalist and the Techie

In an online discussion hosted by The Journal of American History entitled “The Promise of Digital History,” eight noted digital historians defined digital history and detailed how it had revamped the historical field as a whole.  The roundtable participants included: Daniel G. Cohen (George Mason University), Michael Frisch (University at Buffalo, State University of New York), William G. Thomas III (University of Nebraska), Steven Mintz (Columbia University), Patrick Gallagher (Gallagher & Associates), Kirsten Sword (Indiana University), Amy Murrell Taylor (State University of New York- Albany), and William J. Turkel (University of Western Ontario).  According to this distinguished group, even the most “traditional,” for lack of a better word, historians have already integrated aspects of digital history into their research, instruction, and publication repertoire whether they are aware of it or not.  As Kirsten Sword points out, “The new media are profoundly changing the ways most historians work, whether or not we are self-conscious about how we are becoming digital.”

Digital technologies have revolutionized the way historians create, supplement, and distribute historical research and scholarship and digital history represents the future of the discipline.  William J. Turkel explains that the use of digital sources “completely changes the landscape of information and transaction costs that historians have traditionally faced.”  Moreover, non-digital scholarship is not even a possibility anymore. “Say you consult physical sources in a library, archive, or museum, write your notes on three-by-five cards, and type drafts on a typewriter,” Turkel explains, “You still have to use networked computers to access finding aids. You have to prepare an electronic copy of your work so that it can be published in paper. Everything is at least partly digital. The idea that digital history can be marginalized depends on the perception that the Internet is somehow external to our real business. But seriously, how much research can we get done during a power outage?”

This dependency on technology has many old guard historians, who enjoyed the simplicity of the Dewey Decimal System and browsing library stacks, shaking their heads.  However, Daniel G. Cohen responds to skeptics who might argue that there is “no substitute for old-fashioned legwork” by pointing out, that while “almost every historian has probably benefited from browsing the stacks and bumping into helpful sources, books can only be arranged on a physical shelf in one way, resources are often distributed across multiple archives, and physical layout and distribution can hide interesting and relevant materials from even the most dedicated researcher.”  In the not too distant future, innovative, technologically advanced research tools could allow historians to browse “virtual shelves” and potentially “bump into” millions of possible virtual sources.  As Cohen explains, David Mimno’s “virtual shelves” “cluster[s] books differently depending on a particular researcher’s choices while also allowing for surprising and welcome finds. He creates these virtual shelves by scanning the full texts of books and applying document-classification algorithms to them. Search tools that look inside books rather than just at the spines or the subject headings are already available, such as Google Book Search. New online library catalogs are coming that move beyond the undifferentiated match lists of a pre-Google era, and I suspect historians will warmly welcome these interfaces.”  The combined experience of browsing customized shelves with access to an “infinite archive” (to borrow Turkel’s phrase) of digital sources sounds like a dream come true for even the most staunchly skeptical historian.

The younger generation is naturally more comfortable and confident with the digital experience.  In the age of interactive video games and social networking, “the virtual world has a very different meaning for a younger audience raised with technology as a given,” states Patrick Gallagher. “We [the older generation] grew into this reality; they were born into it. Our research shows that when people of an older generation interact with technology, they always harbor a bit of fear. A younger audience has no fear and in fact feels much more in control.”  William G. Thomas agrees with Gallagher yet cautions that, “just because students have grown up with a technology does not mean that they understand anything about it. Students are users, as a general rule, and not producers, but if our next generation of historians are going to have a voice in this medium, they will need to be producers. Yet as the first lifelong users of the Web, these students also have a perspective that we need to pay attention to. Many are savvy users who through experience with the medium have their own views on what constitutes an important or useful development.”

So developing, and not only using the new technological tools reactively, is the key.  Amy Murrell Taylor reasons that historians will need to make a huge conceptual shift in how they think about history in order to produce meaningful digital experiences.  Traditionally, historians have explained, presented, and professed their interpretations to an audience and/or reader.  Digital historians, on the other hand, hope to participate, engage, and interact with their “user.” Increasingly collaborative, ever-evolving works or projects that hope to engage rather than instruct have replaced the linear, narrative monograph. “A student who is friendly to digital technology can be quite uncomfortable with thinking about history in new ways. This discomfort may also have to do with being asked to rethink the position of the historian—in ceding some control to the user to define the experience, what control does the historian/creator retain?”  In effect, historians must discard the notion of guiding their audience through a narrative and, instead, create a space that is “participatory” and “interactive” where the “user” of the technology controls his/her own experience.  It would almost appear that the monograph has been replaced with the technological equivalent of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book (or, in this case, site).

Public historians may feel most comfortable cultivating this “dual allegiance,” as Taylor calls it, between traditional and digital history.  This is likely due to the fact that public historians, who often work in museums as curators, preservationists, and archivists, understand the value of creating an experience and an atmosphere that reaches the widest possible audience and attempts to create a multi-sensory encounter (whereas, traditional history only appeals to the sense of sight to stimulate the imagination).  Public historians are also more familiar with the “open” format of digital history, which, as Thomas points out, “shares some qualities with the museum exhibit—its constituent parts are arranged, text is often minimal or “chunked,” visitors can walk through the space, visitors have some choice over where to go and what to see. In this sense the experience is participatory and spatial.”

Not surprisingly, and in contrast, academic historians are typically the most resistant to supplementing their work digitally and surrendering control of their work and are leaving digital history to the next generation.  “Many tenured and tenure-track academic historians assume that digital history will somehow be taken care of by the next generation, which is, of course, practically cyborg,” Turkel jokes, “Unfortunately, this isn’t true.”  Although most historians are now at least “partly digital,” many do not extend their knowledge of digital history beyond the use of computerized source finding aids.  But this may soon change, as historians of the “pre-cyborg” generation era recognize the one of the obvious benefits of digital history– the potential for worldwide proliferation of information.  Publishing works online rather than waiting for publication in an academic journal leads to an exponential increase in readership and enhanced name recognition.  It is also important for historians to remember that digital history is not threatening to replace traditional history; instead, it aims to supplement rather than supplant the monograph and other traditional forms.  In fact, the pairing of traditional historical work with a complementary digital work can, as Taylor writes, allow the historian “to do it all.”  This model, she continues, is excellent “given that I am still quite attached to the monograph, that is appealing—but more significantly, it allows the historian to exploit the strengths of each medium and produce history that is deeper and richer than if presented in only one form.”

– Tracie Peterson

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