In my second blog post about the US Suffrage movement, I ‘m taking a closer look at one of the sources: The Scrapbooks of Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller. After sharing short biographies of both women, I will present and analyze the sources.
Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter, Anne Fitzhugh Miller, were both active advocates and financial supporters of the women’s rights movement. Elizabeth Smith Miller was the only daughter of famous abolitionist landowner and Congressman Gerrith Smith and lived her life in large houses known for as centers of hospitality and philosophical discussion. Her childhood home in Peterboro, New York, was widely known as a refuge for reformers and nineteenth-century thinkers. Elizabeth Smith Miller continued this tradition at her estate, Lochland in Geneva, New York, which became known as a place suffragist supporters and social reformers frequently visited. Elizabeth’s only daughter, Anne Fitzhugh Miller, grew up in this environment and lived at Lochland for her entire adult life, helping her mother to uphold its atmosphere of hospitality. They became particularly active as a mother and daughter team after the death of Anne’s father in 1896 that persuaded the New York State Woman’s Suffrage Association to hold its annual convention in Geneva, among other initiatives. Later, Anne Fitzhugh Miller founded the Geneva Political Equality Club (GPEC) and served as its president for over a decade. GPEC became a thriving organization and the largest in the state with almost 400 members by 1907. The political and social connections of the Millers allowed the Club to attract a wide range of nationally and internationally known lecturers such as the prominent suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was also Elizabeth Smith Miller’s cousin. Furthermore, GPEC served as a model for the formation of other local Political Equality Clubs like the Ontario County Political Equality Association. Anne Fitzhugh Miller also held office at the New York State Women’s Suffrage Association and participated in statewide national suffrage activities, held public speeches and represented New York State at a U.S. Senate hearing regarding women’s suffrage.
In this post, I will present the scrapbooks of Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter, which they compiled from 1897 until 1911. The collection is available in digital form on the Library of Congress website: Miller NAWSA suffrage scrapbooks, 1897-1911. The collection contains seven scrapbooks, the first ones covering the years 1897-1904, and subsequent ones covering one year each. What is most interesting, in my view, is that the scrapbooks function like source collections about the women’s suffrage movement on their own. They include newspaper articles, pamphlets, programs and photographs, and also personal items like letters. While the scrapbooks cover mostly the women suffrage movement and suffragists in New York State, especially the Geneva Political Equality Club, the New York State Women Suffrage Association, and the National American Women Suffrage Association, the scrapbooks also include sources covering the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled frequently, while staying in close contact with British suffragists.
I will take a closer look at pages 37 and 38 of the first Scrapbook from the years 1898 and 1899 and present the contents and difficulties associated with those sources. Since the pages document the same topic with different sources, they are especially interesting for a critical source review. The subject of both pages are GPEC meetings. Page 37 includes the program for the meeting on Dec. 19th, 1898, page 38 the programs of the meetings in January and February 1899. One can see that the meetings were usually held at the same location, on the same weekday and at the same time. Furthermore, the programs contain the agenda items like lectures, discussions or elections. There are matching newspaper clippings announcing the meetings or reporting about them. Additionally, there are two letters with their envelopes attached to both pages. Already those two pages contain a lot of information, in this case about GPEC, compiled from different sources. A newspaper article from The Geneva Courir, for example, contains detailed information about the February Meeting of GPEC. It reads almost like a detailed protocol, and the meeting’s agenda items are described, in addition to very detailed information like the absence of Anne Fitzhugh Miller and her representation through second Vice-president Mrs. Perkins.
The scrapbook is a collection of various sources, including official as well as private sources, which offers insights into the suffrage movement in the US, and about GPEC in particular. Still, it’s important to be aware of certain problems with this type of source. First of all, it is not obvious what kind of sources Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller included in the scrapbooks and which ones they did not. Furthermore, the origins of their sources aren’t always clear. The newspaper clippings mentioned on page 37 and 38, for example, don’t always include the newspaper sources and dates. Sometimes there is more information provided by handwritten notes, such as dates, but the origins of the sources are frequently missing. Additionally, there is a downside with the digitized version of the scrapbook. The letter from Mrs. Ver Planck on page 37 for example, is folded to save space inside the scrapbook. However, the page is only scanned with the folded letter inside so that one cannot actually read it in the digitized version.
The scrapbooks are rich sources for the development of the US suffrage movement, especially considering the background of the two exceptional suffragists who created the scrapbooks, the variety of sources that are included, and the time period of more than a decade. While not every clipping can be exactly assigned to its origin and the digitized version of the scrapbook does not allow every source to be analyzed, the scrapbooks contain many interesting sources that enlighten the organization of women’s suffrage organizations and movements.
Editorial note:Marietheres Pirngruber is studying Global History (M.A.) at the University of Heidelberg. Her primary focus is on women’s and gender history, and she is especially interested in studying the transatlantic suffrage networks of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is currently completing her remote internship at the GHI. On the occasion of women’s history month, she shares some of her interesting research on US suffrage history on href.
Finding primary sources is essential for any historian, yet during the ongoing pandemic it is also the biggest struggle. Online collections have provided much needed access to primary sources. Therefore, I’d like to highlight a collection from the Library of Congress (LOC), the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Records, which is partially accessible online. To situate the sources in context, I will briefly explain how NAWSA developed, when and how it was established, and what goals the organization pursued. I will then share examples of some the sources that are part of the online collection. Finally, I will discuss some problems related to the inclusion and exclusion of materials in the collection.
The National American Women Suffrage Association, which had about two million members, was the largest voluntary organization to advocate for women’s suffrage in the US. Established in 1890, it was formed through the merger of two existing organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Both associations were established in 1869, and their rivalry was rooted in their disagreement after the Civil War about the 14th and 15th Amendments. While some leaders, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, opposed their ratification unless women would be included, others, like Lucy Stone, supported the Reconstruction amendments, believing they would pave the way toward women’s suffrage. Subsequently, Stanton and Stone formed the two different associations, along with their allies.
In the following decades, social restrictions for women were challenged and undermined, like the idea of a “women’s sphere” at home and women’s main duty of being a wife and mother. Women also increasingly gained access to higher education. Even though many women attended colleges and universities by 1890, women’s suffrage was a long way off. In 1890, the two associations merged, a development driven by a younger generation of suffragists, including the daughters of Stanton and Stone. Finally reunited, NAWSA pursued a variety of ways to achieve women’s suffrage. While in the 1890s some women achieved suffrage victories in Western states, most other campaigns were unsuccessful.
In the twentieth century, however, suffragists developed innovative campaign strategies like suffrage parades and open-air meetings to make NAWSAs suffrage work more visible, which had a huge impact. While the movement remained divided among a variety of factions and organizations, the suffragists achieved a major victory with the passage of the 19thAmendment to the US Constitution, ratified in August of 1920. Following this milestone, NAWSA evolved into the League of Women Voters, dedicated to supporting international women’s rights movements and advocating for voter rights and women’s participation in politics.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association Records available at the Library of Congress contains over 26,000 items mostly covering the period from 1890 to 1930. Almost 2,000 of these have been digitized. The NAWSA records are part of a LOC topical campaign called “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote” launched on the occasion of the 100thanniversary of the 19th Amendment. Transcribing and digitizing the sources makes the sources more accessible and brings together stories from women participating in the largest reform movement in American history. The collection also allows scholars and students to explore and understand the movement. The materials in this particular collection were donated from the personal libraries of numerous members of NAWSA, including Stanton and Stone, but also from later NAWSA presidents like Carrie Chapman Catt. The collection contains various textual sources like newspapers, books, pamphlets and scrapbooks but also photographs. The collection is organized according to NAWSA’s original structure into different topics like “Woman and Work” or “Parenthood and Related Subjects”. Besides biographies of members of NAWSA within the book section, there are also quite peculiar sources like the book “How it feels to be the husband of a suffragette” published in 1915 which was in possession of Carrie Chapman Catt and contains a humorous story of a suffrage supporter married to a suffragist. Other sources, like the scrapbook of suffragist Elizabeth Smith Miller and her daughter, Anne Fitzhugh Miller, are within itself like a collection about the women’s suffrage movement. While they collected newspaper articles, programs and pamphlets there are also personal items like letters included. Especially interesting is that they also incorporated sources about the suffrage movement in Great Britain which show the connection between the movements across national borders.
Sources generally reflect a specific perspective on historic circumstances. However, they can only offer a glimpse into the past through a very subjective lens and therefore always have to be viewed critically. The biggest problem with this collection is that its contents originate from NAWSA’s members which were mostly well-educated, middle- and upper-class white women from the northern States of the US. Therefore, the sources can only reflect their perception on different issues and automatically exclude perspectives from women from the working class, women of colour and women from the southern States. Keeping that in mind, the sources are still very interesting and reveal what materials those women collected, whom they collected it for, and how they hoped to use it. As always, the interpretation of the collections depends more on the formulation of one’s research question than on the diversity of the sources. Furthermore, the collection provides insights into the structure of the largest women’s suffrage association in the US and its members. Finally, while always keeping in mind that the sources ought to be interpreted critically, the Collection of the National American Woman Suffrage Association Records is a wide collection of sources, which can provide an interesting perspective on the American Woman Suffrage Movement.
Recently we sat down with Sebastian Bondzio, the 2021 Gerda Henkel Stiftung Digital History Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Dr. Bondzio is a historian affiliated with the Chair for Modern History and Historical Migration Research at Osnabrück University. His research fields include digital history with a focus on “historical big data” and digital methodologies; he also has interests in the genealogy of cultures, migration history, and the history of knowledge.
Dr. Bondzio began his academic career in 2006 in Osnabrück where he studied philosophy and history. In his master’s thesis and then his Ph.D. dissertation he developed a database of German soldiers killed during the First World War. His 2018 Ph.D. thesis, published in 2020 as Soldatentod und Durchhaltebereitschaft. Eine Stadtgesellschaft im Ersten Weltkrieg, used methodologies drawn from digital history and the history of emotions to examine how societies were able to wage war despite their devastating impact on their citizens. He is currently a senior researcher of the Data Driven History working group at Osnabrück University, where he has worked on using digital methods to analyze Gestapo records and to use migrant registration cards (Ausländermeldekartei) to study the spatial distribution of migrants and questions about the administrative production of knowledge relating to so-called “Ausländer.”
At the GHI and the RRCHNM, he will be working on a project to model and research the process of German migration to the United States during the 19th century using the Castle Garden Immigration Center database, which encompasses more than 4.2 million records. His goals include examining both the development of the record-gathering process and how immigration authorities acquired knowledge about migrants through the production of such records.
What motivated you to specialize in digital history?
Being a digital native, working with computers was part of my life for as long as I can think. I can still remember my first programming course in 1995 on QBasic and trying to convince my father to give me more time on his PC. For most of the time, this was just a hobby. It was only when I met Christoph Rass in Osnabrück that I got the feeling that now is the right time and place to combine my interests for historical research, critical analysis and digital workflows.
Between 2013 and 2017, together we developed a lot of small- and medium-sized digital projects and worked on refining our methodology. Being invited to cooperate with a whole range of different partners and seeing the historiographical potential digital approaches can have in many different contexts, I soon started to concentrate more on working with and analyzing large sets of structured historical data. As my experience has grown, I’ve become more and more convinced that as historians we must be able to create and analyze our own datasets according to the standards of our discipline to conduct proper research. This, among other things, requires developing a digital literacy and updated forms of source criticism.
What opportunities does digital history offer to the larger discipline?
Going digital can change how we conduct historical research on a lot of different levels. First and foremost, access to historical sources can be improved and the more prominent documents have become more accessible. Little by little, we also see niches being filled. The current pandemic underlines the importance of this undertaking. But we would be missing out on a lot of opportunities if we don’t also apply digital tools for analysis of collections of digitized sources. Only this approach will open up new perspective for research and give us more comprehensive findings. Large stocks of sources can now be evaluated as a whole and provide new insights into important historical processes.
On the other hand, the traditional core of historical research will remain mainly unchanged by digital history. Simply generating findings from historical big data is not enough. We still have to interpret our findings in meaningful ways. Trying to explain the findings from Digital History often sparks new, non-digital research. In the past, this has proved to be a starting point for a productive conversation which can help bridge the divide between ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ approaches and paves the road towards integrated research.
In 2018 you co-founded the research group Data Driven History and became its Senior Researcher. Can you give us some information about its approach?
One of my dear colleagues in Osnabrück once pointed out that all historical research is data-driven. He is totally right. Every piece of a source we use can be considered data. The unique characteristic of data driven history in my working group is that we produce and analyze large sets of digital historical data that cannot be analyzed manually. In 2013, I started small by visiting archives to collect data on about 7,500 soldiers who died in the Great War. But soon we were handed a dataset on about 11,000 victims of the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp, which we analyzed using GIS and other digital tools to research the structure and the impact of the Nazis’ mass murder.
These results motivated other institutions and memorial sites to approach us, including the Arolsen Archives and the NIOD (Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) in Amsterdam. In 2018 we received a DFG project grant to study one of the few remaining Gestapo card files. In collaboration with the state archives of Lower Saxony, we digitized approximately 50,000 index cards and developed a workflow for automatic data extraction and its digital analysis. This enabled us to study both the inner mechanisms of the Gestapo and the role of knowledge production in the implementation and stabilization of the Nazi regime.
How can digital history change our understanding of how we approach migration history and the history of knowledge?
Sets of historical big data allow us to model processes of past migration with a high level of detail and differentiation. Identifying and analyzing processes of migration over decades or even centuries becomes possible. In this longue-durée perspective we can not only see the migration phenomena which contemporaries were aware of and wrote about, but also those groups, spaces, and periods which were marginalized by the dominant narratives.
But we need to be careful not to become too captivated by the historical data we use: One branch of migration history currently focuses on how individual and institutional actors interact in so-called migration regimes to negotiate the various conditions and structures of migration. The large datasets I analyze were mostly created within such a migration regime, and to the present day powerful administrations and other institutional actors produce “knowledge” about migration (most often about migrants) under a modernistic episteme, in which attributes are ascribed to individuals. The “knowledge” created by this “datafication” of migration is then used by institutional actors in various ways. If we remain aware of the contingent emergence of our datasets, we can use digital history methods to also identify components of the migration regime’s mechanisms and workings and the usage of different types of knowledge in it.
What do you hope to achieve at the GHI Washington?
Being granted the Gerda Henkel Fellowship for Digital History and coming to DC feels amazing. In the past, working with several hundreds of thousands of pieces of data has proved challenging, but was manageable in the end. Here I hope to be able to take the next step: preparing about 4.2 million records on German immigrants for research. This presents some new hurdles. On the one hand, performance of the database needs to be enhanced. On the other hand, the emergence of this body of knowledge needs to be researched to be able to analyze it according to our discipline’s standards. By cooperating with colleagues at the GHI and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, I hope to succeed in preparing the dataset, identifying relevant sources in the archives, and developing a research proposal for third-party funding.
What do you like about Washington DC?
After being in mid-size Osnabrück for a long time, arriving in a metropolis like Washington DC is quite a thrill. There are historical monuments everywhere, to which time has attributed complex layers of meanings. Going there and sorting them out is something I really enjoy.
But, more importantly, coming to DC means becoming part of a network of highly skilled and motivated researchers. Digital history is a central part of historical research here. Both institutes I am affiliated with, GHI as well as RRCHNM, are organized in a way that things get done. Here are specialists I can talk to, resources that can be mobilized, and most of all there is a lot of personal dedication from everybody, which makes doing historical research even more rewarding. I feel privileged and grateful to be a part of this.
Thanks to Atiba Pertilla for edits and suggestions on improving the English language version of this interview.
We would like to extend a warm welcome to our new Digital History Fellow Jana Keck. Her fields of research include German and American Literature and Culture in the Nineteenth Century, Periodical Studies, and Digital Humanities. She began her academic career at the University of Stuttgart, where she studied English and Linguistics. In 2017 she received her Master’s from the University of Stuttgart with her thesis “Gottfried Duden’s Bericht über eine Reise nach den westlichen Staaten Nordamerikas (1829) and Its Emigration Stimulus.” In the same year she joined the DFG-funded research project “Oceanic Exchanges: Tracing Global Information Networks in Historical Newspaper Repositories, 1840-1914” as a Doctoral Researcher. She is also a member of the CRETA/Center for Reflected Text Analytics, funded by the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF).
Recently we sat down with Jana to discuss her academic career, her work, the field of digital history and its impact on the field of humanities, as well as her current goals and duties at the GHI Washington.
Could you give us some insight into the Oceanic Exchanges Project?
In 2017 I started working with an international team in the DFG-funded research project “Oceanic Exchanges: Tracing Global Information Networks in Historical Newspaper Repositories, 1840-1914.” The project was striving to gather researchers not just from different academic fields such as cultural historians, computational linguists, literary scholars, digital curators and humanists, but also from seven different countries. Together we collected over 100 million pages of digitized newspapers in order to examine how, in the nineteenth century, news, texts, and concepts traveled, how stories adapted in different environments when they traveled, and how news networks functioned.
How and why did you become interested in Digital History?
I became interested in the subject through my PhD supervisor when I was studying English and American Studies and Linguistics at the University of Stuttgart. While working on my Master’s thesis on German travel literature to the United States in the nineteenth century, my PhD supervisor told me about this upcoming project in digital humanities and wanted me to be part of it. However, since I had not studied digital humanities, I knew there was a lot of “self-study” and “catching up” to do. So, I took some courses and, in doing so, I really became interested in programming. I think it was because there was a familiarity to it that reminded me of linguistics, especially the focused and logical aspects that make up linguistics. I realized that it gave me the opportunity to combine my different fields of interest and not be relegated to one field. The more I went out and saw how other fields were working, the more I gained a deeper understanding of my own field. That is how it all started. I attended programming courses, workshops in computational linguistics, and I started working not only with people from the humanities but also from other fields not traditionally associated with the humanities. What I love about it is not only that it is a “newer” discipline, but also that I get to work with people from different fields and that I am able to take on different roles. We often define the humanities as one big field, but it has as many differences as History and Computer Science. Historians may define a certain term one way while linguists use it completely differently. I find it important to communicate these differences to make what we are talking about more transparent.
Can you tell us a little more about your PhD project?
I was inspired to begin my project by the Oceanic Exchanges Project but also by one of the former Projects called “The Viral Texts Project” initiated by Ryan Cordell at Northeastern University in Boston. Cordell was studying reprinted texts in nineteenth-century American newspapers, which prompted me to focus on nineteenth-century German-language newspapers and the phenomenon of editors sharing texts. One of the most interesting questions was whether this phenomenon is to be found among migrant newspapers and, if so, what kind of texts they shared. This means that I am not interested in one particular newspaper but rather in what newspapers printed in German in the nineteenth century in the U.S. have in common. My hypothesis is that German newspapers were used as a form of community building, since there was not one German identity among immigrants from German-speaking Europe. Germany was then only a geographical expression. The immigrants would have defined themselves in more local or regional terms: such as from Baden or Bavaria. Once they arrived in the US, however, they were seen as monolithically German by the receiving culture. What they had in common as opposed to their “American” neighbors was their “Germanness.” Through the newspapers, they developed a shared German migrant experience on both the local, national and even transnational level. Analyzing the information they exchanged through the newspapers – from hard news to jokes, from emigrant lists to poems – sheds light on how they constructed a German community across states and decades. It reminds me a lot like social media platforms: so to speak, I am investigating how a specific community shares their tweets and how they change once they travel through time and space.
What DH methods do you apply and what are your findings so far?
I began with a corpus of 60 newspapers from 17 different states over a period of roughly 80 years. I am using text reuse detection algorithms to identify and cluster texts that were printed several times in the same and in different newspapers. However, the amount of data available made it impossible for me to read all the material closely, so I found a way to computationally classify these different texts into different genres. This genre classification will make it possible for other researchers in the field to access and work with the material in the future. Currently, I am working on combining different supervised and unsupervised methods to classify different texts on the basis of the training data set, for example, indicating whether they are poems or hard news, etc. The next step is to determine if the system is also able to classify these data sets if they are previously unknown to the program. It is working very well in differentiating between news versus fiction and even within the news section between lists and advertisements, for instance. However, it runs into problems when it comes to genres in fiction. It is difficult for the system – but not impossible – to differentiate between a poem and a joke. I am positive that I will find a way to fix this and if not, it is one more finding on a theoretical level.
What other Digital History projects are you involved with at the GHI?
I am still new to the institute, but I already have been involved in a lot of meetings regarding the German Heritage in Letters Project. One of the visions I have is to combine the newspapers and the letters in order to find out what they have in common: from people to ideas. Also, an incoming DH fellow wishes to use the fellowship provided by the GHI and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation to create a database of German immigrants in the same timeframe. It would be very exciting if we could combine the three different projects that all fit so well into the current research profile of the GHI which is focused on Digital History, the History of Knowledge, and the History of Migration and Mobility. To work in such a stimulating context is just very rewarding!
Interview by Alexa Lässig, with thanks to Sarah Beringer and Casey Sutcliffe for the introduction and proofreading.
I have vivid memories of visiting the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas as a child in 2007. Fredericksburg, hometown of German-American and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, hosts this expansive museum complex in honor of Nimitz’s role as Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet in the Second World War. This museum complex includes the original Nimitz Hotel, with an exhibit about Nimitz’s life, and the George H.W. Bush Gallery, with a larger gallery covering the entirety of the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The old gallery as I remember it, featured three walk-through dioramas, each immersing oneself in a specific scene from the war: the deck of a Japanese submarine just before the attack on Pearl Harbor about to launch an authentic mini-submarine, the deck of the USS Hornet as it prepared to launch Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s B-25 bombers for the raid on Tokyo, and Henderson Field on Guadalcanal at night. Of these the Henderson Field display was the most memorable. The whole setting was dark to simulate night on the island, with ambient jungle sounds in the background. Shortly after entering, one would come across two mannequins of US Marines loading boxes. One was an animatronic, and pressing a button on one of the boxes would make him rotate his head and awkwardly move his plastic lips as a recorded voice spoke to you about the experience of Marines of Guadalcanal. Further on, a US aircrew of two mannequins repaired an authentic Wildcat fighter aircraft on one side of the path. On the other side, further way, was a wreckage of a Japanese aircraft. As one walked through this life-sized diorama, the sound effect of an approaching bomber aircraft could be heard in the distance, getting closer. The Japanese launched several single-aircraft night raids through the fall of 1942, with the sole intention to deprive the Marines of sleep. The bomber would be heard approaching, doing several low passes over the airfield, then dropping a single bomb. The “bomb” would explode off the path, violently rattling the wreckage with a flash of orange light. The experience was definitely scary for ten-year-old-me, and I remember it changing the way I thought about war. I had always been aware that war was terrible, but this diorama was the first thing that made me understand the terror of it. The darkness, the anticipation, and the suddenness of the explosion made it clear to me that death in this setting could have happened at any moment. It may seem ridiculous to think that a dated, decaying, and by today’s standards, kitschy museum display could have an effect like that. But it did on me.
One can then imagine my disappointment when I visited the museum again in 2009, shortly after its highly-anticipated renovation. The new gallery was highly digitized, with many large-screen interactive displays, and colorful panel walls displaying blown-up photographs, maps, and blocks of text covering every aspect of the Pacific War. But the immersive experiences of the old museum had all been removed. The mini-submarine was now the centerpiece of an impressive audio-visual display, with film footage and some effects projected on a flat screen behind. The replica of the larger submarine that carries the mini-sub was however no longer there, along with the Hawaiian Islands mural that had accompanied both of them. The Guadalcanal diorama was completely gone. The Wildcat was still in the museum, but displayed on its own with no physical contextualization. Only the Doolittle Raid diorama survived in part: The B-25 was still there on what looked the deck of the Hornet, with the original mural still behind it, but with the mannequins and a significant piece of the flight deck removed.
I will admit that I was able to learn a lot from the new displays. Cutting the dioramas saved on space, allowing for the display of more artifacts and incorporation of new digital elements. The space between the dioramas in the old museum, from what I can remember, were very antiquated, with photographs and small text panels pasted onto walls, and less artifacts to be seen. But I still feel like something was lost with the removal of the immersive displays. A helmet in a display case, accompanied by text or a film explaining what it was, would not have brought me to that same understanding of the experience on Guadalcanal as that diorama did.
It turns out that this phenomenon of increasing digitalization and decreasing physical displays has been a common story for museums on recent history.
The Disappearing Diorama
Dioramas, which portray a scene with a sculpted foreground that blends with an intricately painted background to create a three-dimensional illusion, became popular museum exhibits in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These physical displays, often made with exquisitecraftsmanship, were an effective way to transport a museum visitor to another place or time before the age of widespread photography and film. The American Museum of Natural History in New York is world-famous for its intricate dioramas of animal taxidermies in their natural habitats. Indeed, nature and natural history are the most ubiquitous subjects of dioramas, with just about every such museum in the world exhibiting such displays. The Museum Koenig in Bonn, Germany even took the time in 2003 to restore all its animal dioramas to their original 1923 condition.1 They are still popular attractions, being one of the significant draws for visitors in the case of the AMNH and the Musuem Koenig. Old dioramas have become museum artifacts themselves as important a part of the heritage of a museum as the dinosaur bones or ancient pottery that accompany them.
Dioramas portraying scenes of human history, however, are becoming increasingly hard to come by in the museums of Europe and the United States. Many have disappeared from museum displays since the start of this century, owing to several different reasons. One is a renewed emphasis on displaying actual artifacts over space consuming crafted displays. The Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg removed most of its walk-through World War I trench diorama in 2009 to make way for new exhibits covering other American conflicts and displaying more military artifacts (A small part of the trench does remain at the beginning of the museum gallery, and fortunately the background mural painted by a former German soldier in 1968 has also been retained).
Another reason is dioramas can inaccuratelyportray their subjects, especially if they are older. While natural history can be considered static, human history is very dynamic and perceptions of it are constantly changing. For example, several natural history museums have removed diorama displays of Native American cultures. This has been done because some of these dioramas no longer show what is considered an accurate portrayal of these cultures, and also because of the problematic nature of exhibiting indigenous cultures in natural history museums (I.e. alongside animals) instead of social history museums. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History removed its Native American Dioramas in 2002 for these reasons.2
Finally, there are the museums that removed diorama displays to update and modernize the way they told their stories. A remarkable example of this is the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, near Ottawa, which recently underwent one of the most dramatic museum overhauls of the past twenty years.
When it first opened in 1989, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, as it was then known, offered a unique gallery unlike anything that had been seen in a history museum before. The museum’s “Canada Hall” took visitors on a journey through 1,000 years of Canadian history, from the arrival of the Vikings in Newfoundland up to the 1970s. To do so, the hall featured a number of life-sized walk-through dioramas portraying scenes from throughout Canadian history. These included, among other things, the interior of a Basque whaling ship, an eighteenth-century Quebec town square, a Victorian main street in Ontario, a 1930s grain elevator in Saskatchewan, and a 1960s Vancouver Airport lounge. All of these scenes were under a domed ceiling illuminated in the color blue, giving the illusion that one was really outside. Buildings in each scene could be explored, all with furnished rooms and artifact displays integrated into the scenes.
This immersive method of telling Canadian history proved to be very popular with visitors, and by the mid-2000s the Museum of Civilization was the most-visited museum in Canada.3 Immersing visitors wholly in historical environments, it can be argued, was more impactful than cabinet displays of artifacts. Seeing the objects in the context of their use gave them much more meaning.
Canada Hall was, however not without problems. From the beginning it was criticized by some historians for its focus on settler history and neglect of the First Nations, the indigenous peoples of Canada. The First Nations were covered in a separate gallery of the museum, but their stories from post-Columbian Canada received comparatively little coverage in Canada Hall. In addition, the reconstructions gave prominence to particular provinces in each era, while neglecting what happened in the same era in other provinces. The Maritime Provinces were only covered in the exhibits on early history, whereas the Pacific Coast only received treatment in the mid-twentieth century exhibits. This presentation also left little space for more detailed accounts of specific stories from Canadian history, such as those of migration, politics, and wars. This was Museum President Mark O’Neill’s chief criticism of the hall when he set out to renovate it in 2013.4 Under his leadership, the Museum of Civilization was renamed the Museum of History and underwent a $25 million overhaul. This remastering of the Canada Hall stripped away all of the immersive displays, replacing them with the modernistic text-and-image panels, touch screens, and glass artifact cases common in contemporary museums. A 1907 Ukrainian settler church from Alberta, the only authentic building in the old hall, was the only structure to be retained in the new Canadian History Hall.
This new exhibit gallery opened in 2017. It allows for many more aspects of Canadian history to be displayed through visitorsthrough text, videos, and artifacts, and does a much better job at incorporating the experiences of the First Nations. Yet it does not provide nearly as immersive an experience, and stories prominent in the old gallery have become less so in the new one, not without controversy. Canada’s New Democratic Party voiced its anger over the removal of a reconstruction of a union meeting room from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, probably the most significant event in Canadian labor history.5 This display had a multi-media presentation with recorded voices of strikers playing, making it as if the visitor was among them in the meeting hall in 1919. Artifacts relating to the strike were displayed in cases on both sides of the hall. In contrast, the strike only gets a single panel in the new gallery, easily missable after a series of huge World War I panels and cases. A police badge, armband, and billy club appear to be the only artifacts representing it now.
Something significant was gained, but something significant was lost as well. That is the case with Canada Hall and all other museums that have undergone these kinds of renovations in this century.
The Textbook Problem
The original Canada Hall also faced understandablecriticism for its alleged “Disneyfication” of history. As is often the case with history education, there is a debate over how much “entertainment” over education should be present within a museum. Dioramas can be seen as dated, hokey displays, with little educational value and serving no purpose other than to terrify young children, and that historicalinformation is best conveyed through reading.
But how would one make an attractive exhibit design this way. I have noticed from recently developed museums that there is an increased emphasis on reading text. Walls of it cover every exhibit divider. There are some screens playing short films, to add to the experience, and floating artifacts are displayed in otherwise bare display cases to show the visitor “these are the things that were used by these people.” It is a different kind of immersion: an immersion in the information, or in the technical side of the history. One can read about the statistics regarding the usage of an artifact, but cannot actually see how the artifact was used or feel connected to someone who used it.
With this increased reliance on text and photographs, it becomes difficult to think of one question: why go to a museum at all? With reading and looking at images making up most of the exhibits, how can one distinguish the experience from, say, reading about the subject on an iPad at home? I remember my father saying that the new Pacific War Museum gallery was like “walking through a giant textbook.” This is a fitting description, in that museums are moving towards displays that will convey information effectively, but not attract visitors. Few people have ever been excited about reading a textbook. One might answer that the artifacts would be the draw, but artifacts can speak for themselves only so well. Artifacts that are well-known, like Abraham Lincoln’s hat at the National Museum of American History, will attract visitors with little need for contextualization because most visitors will already know its significance. A regular top hat, though, will not be able to speak in the same way, and visitors will not flock to see it. A description of who wore the hat might help, but even so it will still have little relevance to the museum visitor. One could go onto the museum’s website, search the collections, and read the description for the top hat there. With increasing digitization, there are fewer and fewer reasons for people to leave their homes and pay entrance fees to see such objects.
As I wrote in my first article of the “Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis” series, museums must give people reasons to come visit by providing unique learning experiences. This will be especially important once the pandemic has passed and people are considering where they want to go out again. A museum that only offers an experience comparable to reading a Wikipedia article might have difficulty attracting visitors again. If dioramas are too dated to do so, a new technology might be able to fill the role.
Virtual Reality: The New Diorama?
Virtual reality has exploded in the last decade, become accessible for everyday consumers via new home technologies. An increasing number of video games make use of VR, and some VR programs have already been made by historical organizations. The American Battlefield Trust, for example, made a virtual reality experience of the Battle of Petersburg last year, available to view on YouTube. VR completely immerses a viewer in a time and place with digital recreations, sounds, and actors. It creates an environment more dynamic that what could be provided by a static diorama.
It is no surprise, then, that some museums and historical attractions have already made use of this technology. A German firm called TimeRide has recently produced VR tourist attractions in Cologne in Berlin, the former simulating a tram ride through the city in 1910 and the latter simulating a tour bus trip through 1980s East Berlin. The Royal Air Force Museum in London created a VR ride experience simulating the “Dambusters” raid of 1943, with visitors sitting in crew positions of a Lancaster bomber. Most noteworthyhowever, is the creation of the Migration Museum in Germany.
The Documentation Center and Museum of Migration in Germany (DOMiD) has been working for years to create a museum dedicated to immigration to Germany. A physical museum building is expected to open this year or next year in Cologne, featuring a massive collection of artifacts relating to immigration in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To promote the establishment of the museum, the DOMiD developed the “Virtual Migration Museum,” which made its debut in 2018. This “museum,” which can be viewed entirely through home technology, digitally recreated environments experienced my migrant workers in twentieth-century West Germany. These include apartment buildings, a factory floor, and a railway station. Visitors will also be able to view photos of artifacts from the upcoming physical museum.6 In a way, this experience is like a digital successor to the old Canada Hall, recreating social history environments to be explored by visitors. The VR experience, available for Windows, Mac, mobile, and the HTC Vive VR headset, can be downloaded at https://virtuelles-migrationsmuseum.org/en/download-en/. Might this in fact be how we experience museums in the near future? Completely “from home?”
Conclusion: The Case for Physicality
I personally would hope not. The new technology is exciting, and has the potential to make a visit to a museum building even better, displayed alongside artifacts. Imagine how easy it will be to alter and update “VR dioramas,” and how little space this technology would take up. That solves all the problems presented by physical dioramas. Even more impressive experiences cold be made with more intricate technologies not available at home. Museums should take note of this as they re-imagine themselves for the future.
Yet I also hope that physical dioramas do not completely disappear. Even with increasing digitization, they can still pain vivid pictures because of their tangibility, being seen and understood by a visitor without having to look through a headset. I point to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia as an example. This museum uses detailed tableaus to portray scenes from the Revolutionary War that were not illustrated in the many paintings and sketches of that time. In this manner, the dioramas illuminate scenes not always visible in the popular memory of the war: George Washington breaking up a fistfight between his troops, dejected Continentals retreating from their defeat in New York City, and fourteen-year-old London Pleasants donning a British Army uniform to escape slavery in Virginia.7 These scenes, though static, are brought to life through the detailed life-sized figures that create personability for a visitor, coming face-to face with people from the past.
As museums continue to evolve, they should make use of the best of old and new exhibit technologies to immerse visitors in history. Screens and text should be balanced with physical displays that create environments to make a comprehensive experience. VR can complement these displays, providing for further immersion and interactivity. With all of these in place, they could bring a young person to understand and respect history the same way a stiff, aging Marine animatronic did for me so many years ago.
“Winnipeg General Strike exhibit being dismantled in Ottawa museum,” Winnipeg Free Press, last modified May 25, 2015, https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/Winnipeg-General-Strike-exhibit-being-dismantled-in-Ottawa-museum-304914601.html. [↩]
As summer begins in Germany most establishments have reopened in some capacity, including museums. All are still operating under restrictions, with limits on numbers of visitors and mask requirements being ubiquitous. All museums, municipal and private, are required to adhere to national and local government regulations. This series so far has covered municipal and state-funded museums, but not a privately-run museum. This article will investigate the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg, one of the largest private museums in Germany, and how it is handling COVID-19.
The International Maritime Museum is located in a circa-1879 harbor warehouse in Hamburg’s Speicherstadt (“City of Warehouses”) near the city’s port. The museum’s collection was gathered by Hamburg journalist and maritime enthusiast Peter Tamm, who began collecting after receiving a toy boat from his mother at the age of six in 1934.1 The museum opened in 2008, featuring a collection of around 40,000 model ships (including Tamm’s toy boat) and a plethora of shipping and naval artifacts. The museum has eight floors total, each dedicated to a specific theme of maritime history or technology. The themes range from exploration to merchant shipping to navies, with significant attention to Hamburg area and German maritime history. The lower floors focus on early maritime history and navigation, with exhibits on Classical-era sailing, Early Modern exploration, piracy, and the international slave trade. The middle floors feature exhibits on navies, with several artifacts related to German naval history. One notable display here features an officer’s uniform from every navy in the world. The upper floors display most of the model ship collection, a gallery of maritime art, and space for temporary exhibitions. There is also a highly-detailed hip simulator, with a recreated cargo ship bridge. Groups of visitors can work together to guide the ship into Hamburg’s port, with guidance from experienced sailors who advise the simulation.
The International Maritime Museum followed similar procedures to public museums in Germany when the coronavirus hit the country, and closed its doors on March 16th, 2020. During the closure period, the staff made routine updates to the museum’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages, keeping guests informed about what was going on. On the Facebook page they had been posting a picture and description of one of their models almost every day since 2016. This task became increasingly important during the pandemic closure. The museum recorded above-average activity on their social media pages, with more likes and comments than ever before. In addition to posts about each of the models in their collection, the page also posted highlights from some of the museum’s other exhibitions, such as navigational instruments and travel ephemera. Additionally, a museum guide livestreamed two tours of the museum in the month of April: one in German and one in English. These tours reportedly had over 45,000 views.2
The museum reopened on May 7th, with limitations in place. Guided tours are not taking place, and the ship simulator is closed. However, these are slated to start again on July 1st. Visitors are required to maintain social distancing and wear masks while inside the museum, and to wash their hands thoroughly. These procedures are the same as what has been seen at other museums featured in this series. Peter Tamm spoke of the museum’s reopening:
“As a private museum, the closure ordered by the authorities hit us particularly hard. The past few weeks have been difficult, but our museum has a new look when it reopens. We have carried out cosmetic repairs and cleaning work and hopefully many enthusiastic visitors will find new exhibits on many decks. “3
Despite the difficulties presented by closure for a private museum. The Maritime Museum took the opportunity refurbish its displays and add new additions to its galleries. A new temporary exhibition, titled “Johannes Holst – Painter of the Sea” opened with the museum’s reopening. This gallery features detailed ship paintings from early twentieth-century German marine artist Johannes Holst, previously held in private collections and not accessible to the public. The exhibition runs until July 19th.4
The International Maritime Museum weathered the worst part of the COVID-19 crisis doing much of the same things its municipal counterparts did. It engaged an audience through social media, inviting them to experience the museum from home. In doing they attracted attention from a greater number of viewers than they had encountered before, potentially attracting many new visitors for the post-lockdown months to follow.
Matthias Gretzschel and Michael Zapf, Am Anfang war das Schiff – Das Internationale Maritime Museum in Hamburg – Sein Stifter und Gründer Peter Tamm (Hamburg: 2012), 10. [↩]
“Die Wiedereröffnung am 7. Mai,” Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg, last modified May 5, 2020, https://www.imm-hamburg.de/2020/05/die-wiedereroeffnung-am-7-mai/. [↩]
Julia Wycital is in her final semester in the American Studies BA program at the University of Heidelberg. Her interest in history was sparked early, during her school years, since she enjoyed reading and learning about Ancient Greek legends and myths. In 2018/2019 she was an exchange student at the University of New Mexico, where she developed a strong interest in US immigration policy and its history. Her other historical interests include the period of the Second World War. Julia Wycital completed a (partially remote) internship at the GHI in the spring of 2020. Href was lucky to recruit her as an author for our blog series on the impact of COVID 19 on cultural heritage institutions in Germany and beyond.
During the current COVID crisis, people around the world have felt more physically isolated than ever. Yet, digital media have offered an exciting range of experiences to explore history in a virtual environment. For example, the German National Library currently offers seven virtual exhibitions in German and English accessible from anywhere around the world. From the exhibition “5000 years of media history online,” in which you can learn about the importance of Egyptian hieroglyphs as one of the first written systems of humanity, to the exhibition “Arts in Exile,” online visitors have the opportunity to still engage with history as COVID-19 has forced cultural institutions to close their doors this spring temporarily. The German National Library (DNB) has been collecting and archiving over 30 million media items in the German language since 1913. While education and culture are the responsibility of the individual German states, there exists one national library is decentralized in its structure, with two branches, one in Frankfurt am Main and one in Leipzig. This is a result of the postwar German division and reunification.
I took a closer look at two of the seven virtual exhibitions, both of which have been permanent exhibitions at the German National Library before. The exhibition “100th anniversary of World War 1” is the reopening of the First World War Collection of 1914, which was first set up by the Deutsche Bücherei, one of the antecedent institutions of the DNB and founded 1912 in Leipzig. This exhibition showcases different aspects of everyday life’s hardships during the war, including the blockade of food imports or the propaganda used on young German schoolchildren. Visitors of the online exhibit can switch between eight categories. For example, the “Media World” and “People” during the First World War are offering information in the form of a gallery and an introductory text on the subject. In the category “Collecting the War,” the audience learns that in 1914 many believed that the war would soon end victoriously for Germany. That is why such a numerous and diverse range of documents from this time have been preserved. In this category, the visitor has access to newspapers, posters, photographs or a map titled “The ships sunk by our submarines according to position and number” from 1918 that were circulated during the war. Moreover, the category “Propaganda,” contains, among other propaganda material, digitalized drawings from German satirical journals. Before the start of the war, these journals were an outlet for social and political criticism of German society, but eventually they had to submit to the official war narrative. Overall, the exhibition offers significant insights into life during the First World War.
Compared to the First World War exhibition, the virtual exhibition “Exile. Experience and Testimony” concentrates on the process of emigration during the Nazi regime, including the Second World War. It is usually exhibited permanently at the Frankfurt branch of the German National Library. On the DNB website, the exhibition is structured similarly to the First World War exhibition; three different categories inform visitors about the actual process of escaping, biographies of eight exiles, and countries of refuge. One part of the display of the escaping process highlights the support system the refugees needed to leave their country successfully. The exhibition then shows documents and photographs that were often connected to international aid organizations. They forged passports if the refugee had no valid identity papers or gave information on escape routes. Moreover, using a letter of Sigmund Freud from August 7, 1938, the exhibit shows that renowned individuals also lent their names to organizations such as the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom. In the category “People in Exile” the DNB introduces among others the Austrian lawyer and librarian Clementine Zernik, whose license to practice law was revoked because of her Jewish background when the annexation of Austria in 1938 occurred. Zernik then emigrated to the United States but could not follow her career as a lawyer and instead started working for the group Austrian Action that supported Austrian emigrants. The virtual visitor can take a look at her document of disbarment for a lawyer or at her box with mementos, such as postcards, tickets, etc. from Vienna. This virtual exhibition profoundly communicates the complexity of exile between the years of 1933 and 1945.
The virtual exhibitions of the German National Library are a great way of curating museum content to a large audience during a time when visiting in person is not an option. The two exhibitions that I presented in this blog post are informative resources for learning about the First World War in all its variety, and about the phenomenon of exile during the Nazi era. But one problem of these online exhibits is that they mostly consist of editorial content illustrated with pictures of documents. They cannot replace the firsthand experience of encountering documents or objects in a permanent exhibition and feeling the history behind them. Nevertheless, the online exhibits of the German National Library offer educational spaces to engage with German history and individual biographies and fates
 “Portrait of the German National Library.” German National Library. Accessed May 18, 2020. https://www.dnb.de/EN/Ueber-uns/Portraet/portraet_node.html
Almost two years ago, the Library of Congress launched the crowdsourcing platform By the People, which invites volunteers to transcribe, review, and tag digitized images of manuscripts and typescripts from the collections of the Library of Congress. The project runs on the open source software Concordia, developed by the Library of Congress to support crowdsourced transcription projects.
Among the manuscripts made available for transcriptions are documents in German script. In a fascinating recent blog post, David B. Morris, the German Area Specialist, European Division, at the Library of Congress, discusses the art of Unlocking the Secrets of German Handwritten Documents.
The blog post will be particularly interesting for contributors to GHI’s German Heritage in Letters Project, which uses Scripto as the platform to crowdsource transcriptions of German letters, including letters written in Kurrentschrift.
On April 30, 2020, the German government began to lift some of the lockdown restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the number of new infections per day in the country decreased. Museums, along with public parks and churches, have been allowed to reopen, as long as they follow federal social distancing guidelines.1 German museums will now be able to draw in visitors once again, but the visiting experience will be very different from what it was before. The opening procedure of the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, with social distancing guidelines in place, provides a demonstration of how life will continue in Germany amid the pandemic.
The Stadtgeschichtliches Museum is the municipal museum of the city of Leipzig. It consists of eight exhibition buildings spread out around the city, each containing galleries pertaining to a topic of local history or culture. The museum’s main building at the sixteenth-century Old Town Hall contains a permanent exhibit of the city of Leipzig’s cultural history from the Middle Ages to the present. The nearby Haus Böttchergäßchen, a modern building, features space for rotating exhibitions about further topics of city art and culture. This building also houses an interactive children’s museum aimed at museumgoers ten and under. FORUM 1813, located next to the city’s famous Battle of the Nations monument, is a small museum dedicated to the Napoleonic Wars and the decisive Battle of Leipzig of 1813 that saw the defeat of Napoleon in the German states. The Schillerhaus, located north of the city center, features an exhibit in a farmhouse where poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller spent a summer in 1785. The Museum Zum ArabischenCoffe Baum holds an exhibition about coffee in Germany inside the oldest coffee house in the country, which opened in 1711. The Sportmuseum, next to the Red Bull Arena, covers regional athletic history and contains one of the largest sports-related collections in all of Germany. Finally, the Alte Börse, Leipzig’s seventeenth century customs house near the Old Town Hall, hosts lectures, readings, and other events put on by the museum organization.2
Like other museums in Germany, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem closed all of its facilities to the public in March 2020. On May 7, due to the lifting of restrictions, most of the museum’s facilities have reopened. Only the Children’s Museum and the libraries in the Haus Böttchergäßchen remain closed. Because the pandemic has not fully passed, special regulations in line with government recommendations are in place for museum visitors. All exhibition spaces will limit the number of visitors allowed inside at the same time. Visitors must remain six feet (two meters) apart from museum staff and each other, and must wear adequate mouth-nose coverings. The museum is encouraging visitors to use electronic payment for admissions rather than cash, and is engaging in regular disinfecting and cleaning of the facilities. No screening is required to enter, but hand sanitizer is offered for all visitors at entrance areas. All visitors are also asked to respect hygiene measures by regularly washing their hands, coughing into their arm, and keeping their hands away from their faces.
Because of the almost two-month closure, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem postponed all of its upcoming special exhibitions and extended the duration of the exhibitions on display at the time of the closure. During the closure period, it also started a new online exhibit. Titled Hoffnungszeichen, (“Signs of Hope”), the exhibit features images and descriptions of artifacts from the museum’s collection that provided hope for city residents in past years. The first artifact exhibited was a communion chalice from 1632, a year when Leipzig suffered from a plague epidemic amid the Thirty Years’ War. The purpose of the exhibit, according to Musuem Director Dr. Anselm Hartinger, is to show that this generation of Leipzigers “are by no means the first generation to be confronted with general societal challenges, pandemics, wars and upheavals in Leipzig, [who] learned to live with them and ultimately found a strengthened new beginning.”3 The exhibit also allows visitors to submit their own stories, photographs, and comments relating to their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic in Leipzig. On May 7, the museum opened a corresponding physical exhibition in the Haus Böttchergäßchen, featuring the objects the museum showed online and a selection of the digital submissions from visitors.
By following federal guidelines and encouraging visitors to do the same, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem has managed successfully reopen as the pandemic continues. In doing so it provides a model for how museums elsewhere can reopen, though time will tell if these measures will effectively prevent the virus from spreading more in lieu of a full lockdown. The new exhibition demonstrates this museum’s recognition of COVID-19 as an important historical event that will be studied extensively in the future, and an intention to contribute to its documentation within its community.
“Unsere Häuser.” Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.stadtgeschichtliches-museum-leipzig.de/besuch/unsere-haeuser/. [↩]
“Stadtgeschichtliches Museum setztdigitaleHoffnungszeichen.” leipzig.de. Stadt Leipzig, March 24, 2020. https://www.leipzig.de/news/news/stadtgeschichtliches-museum-setzt-digitale-hoffnungszeichen/ [↩]
Editorial note:Betty Schaumburg is an intern at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C. She is about to graduate with a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Her High School exchange in 2012 in Wisconsin sparked her curiosity in US history. During the course of her undergraduate studies, she also participated in the exchange program of Heidelberg University and spent her junior year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. There, she narrowed her historical interest to the post-Civil War era, Reconstruction and the New South, which contributed to the topic of her Bachelor Thesis.
When I registered my Bachelor Thesis in the beginning of March, I had little idea how my research would be impacted by the looming threat of Covid-19. What started out as the exciting final stage of my Undergraduate Studies, turned out to be a rather complicated and uncertain process. Not only have near to all vital public research institutions closed, but even online book stores showed great delays in literature deliveries. As a direct result, many students who are currently in the same position as me, as well as fellow researchers who are in the midst of their projects, have found themselves stranded and exposed to these unconventional times. This entry aims to describe how in the age of a pandemic I personally have adapted to the unusual circumstances in the duration of my research and utilized digital research in the midst of this Covid-19.
During the course of my academic exchange year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, my interest in the Lost Cause mentality in the US South has manifested itself so greatly that I knew I would incorporate this topic into my Bachelor thesis. The fact that the Civil War outcome still has such a tremendous influence not only on political discourses around the country, but also on the academic sphere of universities and their students, triggered my interest in the topic of my thesis, which is dealing with North Carolina universities’ response to the rising opposition against Civil War remnants on these campuses. Since my Bachelor thesis primarily focuses on US soil, I narrowed my sources down to the American periphery.
First, I researched newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post for articles discussing rising protests on North Carolina campuses surrounding Confederate monuments to get an idea about the national significance of these debates. What struck me most was the deal the University of Chapel Hill made with the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans concerning UNC’s controversial Silent Sam statue on their campus. According to the New York Times, the university reached a temporary settlement of $2.5 million with the division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to remove the statue from campus, in return for the division to take care of the monument. Immediately the questions “How influential are Confederate groups on North Carolina campuses? How do campuses address their controversial monuments?” came into mind.
Consequently, I started searching on UNC’s website for internal sources about their statue and was successful. UNC offers free access to archive.org and their annual Alumni Reviews, which also contain articles about the completion of Silent Sam. While the reviews about the monument and newspaper articles of the revealing gave me a broad overview about how people at the time perceived the statue, the actual dedication speech by Julian Carr in 1913, exposing racist content, is available for free on the internet. As a result, I started to search through selected campuses’ websites for released articles addressing controversial names of campus buildings, statues, and their dedication speeches, which led me to successfully retrieve several documents. Then, on the other hand, I researched statements released by the University administration addressing either the removal of named statues, or plans to regard them as historical artifacts to create a direct comparison of different perspectives throughout the University system. However, while it was difficult for me to find out how exactly the Confederate groups influenced or not influenced those decisions, I at least able to collect a spectrum of the statue’s and building’s timeline and the University’s standpoint on them.
Next, I was able to borrow two important books before the shut down of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro library that contextualize the history of Confederate groups and the manifestation of the Lost Cause into society. While they enhanced my understanding of the movement behind the Lost Cause in general, they did not suffice to answer my first question. I also still needed about three other sources whose delivery were delayed by a full month due to Covid-19. I knew that due to the delay of the books I had to focus solely on online resources. I needed to dig deeper to analyze campus relationships with Confederate groups. That is why I now shifted my focus to the website newspapers.com, where many newspaper articles published over a span of centuries are available in digital form and continue to find the right resources that bring me closer to the answer to my questions by utilizing the online resources that UNC provides on their website.
Another important finding I made on the UNC website was North Carolina’s General Assembly’s decision to categorize Civil War monuments as “monuments of remembrance” resulting in the statues’ exemption from removal. This hence created the intentional exclusion of marginalized groups on campus and muffling of the Civil War monument opposition. I plan on researching more about the General Assembly’s rulings and impacts on campus life.
Even though I had planned to use the sources the Library of Congress and UNC library provide for visitors, I have thus far gathered a detailed overview of critical questions vital to my Bachelor Thesis. Covid-19 prevented me from finding sufficient secondary source material concerning the history of the intermingling between Confederate groups and campuses, but UNC nevertheless provides a great range of digital sources concerning their own controversial history with “Silent Sam”. Overall, Universities in North Carolina do a good job in opening up the debate surrounding the Lost Cause and fill in some of the blanks. The pandemic has shown how easy a delay in research can be, and I was thus able to extend the deadline for my thesis to make use of my ordered books and the libraries once they open up again.
 Michael Levinson, “Toppled but Not Gone: UNC Grapples Anew with the Fate of Silent Sam,” New York Times, February 14, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/us/unc-silent-sam-statue-settlement.html (Accessed May 5, 2020).
 UNC Alumni Review, “The Soldiers Monument Unveiled”, June 1913, p. 184, http://www.carolinaalumnireview.com/carolinaalumnireview/191306/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=184#pg8 (Accessed May 13, 2020).
 Julian S. Carr, “Unveiling of Confederate Monument at University. June 2, 1913” in the Julian Shakespeare Carr Papers #141, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://hgreen.people.ua.edu/transcription-carr-speech.html (Accessed May 13, 2020).
 Adam Lovelady, “Statues and Statutes: Limits on Removing Monuments from Public Property,” August 22nd 2017, https://canons.sog.unc.edu/statues-statutes-limits-removing-monuments-public-property/ (Accessed May 13, 2020).
Figure 1: Angum Check and Tim Osborn, “We Tried to Peacefully Protest. The the University Shut Us Down,” The Nation, September 12, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/we-tried-to-peacefully-protest-then-the-university-shut-us-down/ (Accessed May 15, 2020).
Figure 2: UNC Alumni Review, “The Soldiers Monument Unveiled”, June 1913, p. 184, http://www.carolinaalumnireview.com/carolinaalumnireview/191306/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=184#pg8 (Accessed May 15, 2020).
As the anniversary of V-E Day arrives, another museum in Berlin finds itself changing the way it observes. The German-Russian Museum is the center of May 8th commemorations in Berlin. In 2020, this historic museum is taking action to ensure that its commemoration is accessible even from the home.
The German-Russian Museum is housed in a circa-1936 building in Berlin-Karlshorst. The building began its life as the mess hall of a Wehrmacht military engineer school, but became known internationally on May 8, 1945 as the place of Nazi Germany’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. In a ceremony held in the school’s central hall, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht signed the German Instruments of Surrender. The document officializing the capitulation was accepted and signed by Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov and British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, with Generals Carl Spaatz of the United States and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny of France signing as witnesses. The building subsequently served as the headquarters of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany, and in the 1960s became the “Museum of Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany in the Great Patriotic War.” The museum was organized and operated by the Soviet military and presented the history of the German-Soviet war. In the late 1990s, the museum was redone in a collaboration between German, Russian, and Ukranian historians to chronicle German-Soviet relations between the Russian Revolution and the end of the Cold War while retaining a focus on World War II. It underwent a second revision in 2013, with upgrades to the permanent displays. The museum’s centerpiece is a recreation of the “Capitulation Hall” where the surrender ceremony took place, made to appear as it did in 1945. In addition to the main gallery, there are also exhibits about the building’s history, including the preserved offices of the Soviet military administration. Some exhibits from the museum’s Soviet era have also been preserved, displaying how the history was presented during the Cold War era. Outside on the museum grounds there is an extensive collection of Soviet armor and artillery, as well as monuments erected by the Soviets.
The German-Russian Museum usually hosts a large commemoration event every May 8th. Dignitaries from Russia visit the museum, and there is a concert and a serving of Russian food and drinks. A wreath-laying ceremony takes place at the monuments outside. The museum planned for an expanded ceremony this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, including the opening of a new exhibition, a visit from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and visits from representatives of all the former Allied powers, to take place over several days. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions, all of these events had to be canceled. However, due to the German government lifting some of the restrictions on May 4th, the German-Russian Museum will be able to hold a reduced ceremony. The Capitulation Hall will be open to visitors between 10:00 am and 8:00 pm on May 8th through 10th. The exhibit galleries will remain closed. Outside there will be an outdoor exhibition about the surrender, similar to the larger one that was supposed to take place on Pariser Platz. Berlin Mayor Michael Müller will visit the museum on May 8th, and there will be a smaller wreath-laying ceremony later that day.
The museum is also taking measures to make sure visitors can view its content from home. Most notable is their handling of the new exhibition that was to debut for the anniversary. Titled “From Casablanca to Karlshorst,” the exhibition traces the progress of the Second World War from the 1943 Casablanca Conference, where the Allied powers determined that an “unconditional surrender” from Germany would be the only acceptable means of concluding the war, to Germany’s unconditional surrender at Berlin-Karlshorst in 1945. The exhibit follows two themes: the efforts of the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and the escalation of violence in Europe by the Nazis that led up to the end of the war. Notable artifacts on display were to be a Russian-Orthodox liturgical book, recovered from a village in Belarus destroyed by German occupiers, and a tree trunk from the site of the Below Forest temporary camp with the names of Soviet POWs carved into it. The museum has created a virtual tour of the exhibition, accessible at https://tour.art.vision/deutsch-russisches-museum-de-en-fr.html. Using software similar to Google Maps Street view, visitors can go through the entire exhibition. All of the exhibit text, presented in German, Russian, and English, is clear and readable. The Capitulation Hall and Marshal Zhukov’s office are also accessible in the virtual tour.
The museum also has a page on their website dedicated the 75th anniversary at https://www.museum-karlshorst.de/index.php?id=146&L=1. This page features selected photographs from the museum’s archives related to the surrender, more information and highlighted artifacts from the new exhibition, and pictures and testimonies sent by present-day children from Germany, the former Soviet Union, and the former Western Allies as answers to the question “What does World War II mean for you?” Visitors to the page can submit their own answer to that question via the email address email@example.com. They can also partake in an online poll asking the same question, with the options of “Victory,” “Defeat,” “Liberation,” “New Beginning,” and “Meaningless” for answers. The content is all available in German, Russian, and English, with the photograph pages also available in French and Polish.
Though a large-scale on-site commemoration of the 75th anniversary of V-E Day is not possible this year, the German-Russian Museum has made sure that the occasion will still be observed, and has made their contributions accessible to a worldwide audience through its online platform.
Editorial note: Thomas Biggs is an intern at the German Historical Institute Washington DC. He is a graduate of the George Washington University (2019) with a BA in International Affairs and minors in History and German Studies. He studied in Berlin for his junior year spring semester with the IES Abroad Language and Area Studies Program in collaboration with the Humboldt University of Berlin. During this semester he visited the Allied Museum Berlin as part of his coursework. His areas of study included security policy, US and German history, and the development of German democracy between 1815 and the present.
Every museum’s intention is to attract visitors: A museum wants people to experience the stories and objects it has on display, with the hope that they learn something new or understand something greater. Unique exhibitions and significant artifacts are what convince people to visit a specific museum location. The experience of being in the physical location, being able to see images or objects, hear, sounds, and sometimes even smell smells associated with a particular idea or period, is what drives people to visit a museum location. Information today is more accessible than ever, be it in books, on television, or on the internet. Yet people still visit museums, and million-dollar museum projects keep opening, because there is something so unique about the museum experience that cannot be conveyed through any other medium. It is a full immersion in a topic, in a time, and in a place. The COVID-19 crisis has presented a great problem for museums, as stay-at-home orders have made it impossible for them to perform this necessary function of attracting and educating visitors at their specialized locations. To stay in touch with their visitors and present their collections without opening museum buildings, museums have turned to the internet. New technology has allowed for innovative ways to bring a museum to one’s home.
The Allied Museum in Berlin is one such institution facing the issues brought on by COVID-19. The museum presents the history of the three Western Allied powers’ (Great Britain, France, and the United States) military presence in West Berlin and West Germany during the Cold War. It interprets the daily lives and missions of the Allied troops, as well as the impact their presence had on Germany. The museum’s collections hold scores of related artifacts and documents. Its physical location at Clayallee 135, in the former American Sector, is intricately tied to the history it presents. The museum makes use of two former American base buildings, the Outpost Theater and the Nicholson Memorial Library, to house its galleries. In between the two buildings is a plaza displaying the museum’s large artifacts. The most popular of these is the British Handley Page Hastings cargo aircraft, a participant in the Berlin Airlift. On Sundays between April and October, visitors can pay one Euro to climb inside the aircraft, take a look into the cockpit, and view a short film about the airlift. The aircraft is effective at drawing families to the museum on Sundays and is one source of much-appreciated donations for the otherwise state-funded museum.
Since the Allied Museum closed on March 14, visitors cannot experience it in any of these ways. All of the museum’s planned events for the foreseeable future have been cancelled. The museum’s website, alliiertenmuseum.de, has a posted notice about the indefinite closure. Otherwise the website remains largely as it did before march, featuring summaries of the exhibit galleries and an entry about highlighted objects. The “Collections” section offers descriptions of the museum’s collection areas and articles about three “highlighted” artifacts selected on a rotating basis. Historical information and statistics about the Berlin Airlift and denazification are also featured. The museum’s events list has been updated to announce the cancellations.
Fortunately, the Allied Museum is still working to stay in contact with interested patrons, and is making use of new ways to engage the public while they are sheltering in place. The museum has launched a new YouTube channel (titled “Alliiertenmuseum”) featuring German-language video tours. The channel currently has four videos, all posted within the last month. Three of them highlight “favorite objects” on display in the museum galleries, with a visitor guide telling in-depth stories about each. The fourth video features a “behind-the-scenes” look at the museum’s archival facilities, showing how artifacts and documents are catalogued. The museum plans to upload more videos in the coming weeks. The museum’s Facebook page is similarly engaging audiences by posting historical images and photographs of more of the museum’s artifacts, all accompanied by German and English descriptions. The museum will post all further information about museum activities during the pandemic to this page.
May 8, 2020 will mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (V-E Day), and the Allied Museum had plans to observe the occasion. There was to be an open-air exhibition by the Brandenburg Gate about the end of the war, featuring contributions from the Allied Museum and other Berlin museums that document this period in history. Sadly, this exhibition had to be canceled as well. Allied Museum Director Jürgen Lillteicher states that the majority of the exhibition will now be shown online instead. Dr. Lillteicher hopes that interviews recorded for the exhibition will be made available online as well. Information about this project can be found at kulturprojekte.berlin/projekt/75-jahre-kriegsende/ and on the Facebook page “75 Jahre Kriegsende.”
The museum had additionally planned a film series to be shown at the museum, featuring works of cinema about events between D-Day and V-E Day. Instead, posts about the planned featured films are being added to the Facebook page, so individuals can watch them at home. The museum also intended to host events covering the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by the Allied forces. Posts about this topic are being made for the Facebook page as well, with the most recent one featuring the liberation of Sachsenhausen by the Soviets on April 22, 1945.
The Allied Museum has found ways to engage potential visitors even though no one can visit the museum site itself. Its solutions, utilizing familiar social media platforms, are simple yet effective. People wanting to learn about the postwar period or what the museum itself has to offer can do so by utilizing these platforms, even after the pandemic has passed.
When visiting a museum, one expects to encounter
and interact with historical objects, artefacts and their materiality.
Especially after the turn of the millennium, museums increasingly introduced (and
embraced) new digital components. Today, audio guides, for example, have become
indispensable for many institutions. According to the National Museum of
American History, it has more than 1.7 million objects “and a 22,000 linear
feet of archival documents”[i] in
its collection. The Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) in
Berlin has also more than 60,000 historical documents and more than 900 movie
clips from the past.[ii]
These are too many historical objects and media to exhibit on the walls of
museums. Therefore, museums have been discussing and experimenting with ways of
using digital technology to make objects from their archives and storage
facilities more visible. Would you expect that there will be a next level of
presenting museal artefacts digitally to visitors?
The Mindener Museum in North-Rhine Westphalia is one example for a fruitful combination of a museum as a haptic room with digital methods. Since 2018 the head of the museum, Philipp Koch, has been cooperating with Prof. Silke Schwandt from Bielefeld University whose research interests include digital history and humanities. This cooperation offers students the possibility of thinking creatively and of developing their own digital projects about museal artefacts of the museum. In the past, the students developed a new tour for the digital city model related to the bombings of Minden by the allied forces in World War II and produced 3D scans and prints of a crest from the 17th century. Currently, there is one group, which creates an escape tour, inspired by the traditional experience design from the gaming scene. Julia Becker, an expert of experience design, supports the escape room project and shares her knowledge with the students. In this museum the areas of narrative history, which is making the past come alive with digital elements, and the traditional historical craft of researching the historical artefacts and contents overlap.[iii]
The limited option for showing historical objects is a common problem for every museum. Therefore, Philipp Koch acknowledges the value of digitization, especially since it enables the display of treasures from the archives to visitors. Digitization can open up access to objects for researchers and historically interested people alike. It supports the preservation and display of historical files on the one hand, while pushing the pedagogical work on the other. Hence, digitization facilitates access for individuals to historical objects and chronological processes and supports the understanding of complex structures. Yet, digitization also has its limits, some of which are demonstrated by the example of the digital city model: The digital tour of the bombings in WWII needs more layers of telling than the mere presentation of the impacts of the bombings on the screen. Needed is an accurate and well-researched textual introduction to the historical events, now provided on the screen and of course ideally through a guide. Without these additional layers of explanation, historical education through digitization will not be as effective.
Indeed, it requires more than just digital
objects on a screen. Experts describe the way of dealing with digitization in
the cultural, museal field as “Digital
The possibilities opened through digitization call for the discussion of visualization,
presentation, and publication of digital artefacts. For Silke Schwandt, digital
history is an evolving field of historical research that offers a wide array of
application in museums. Therefore, digital representations such as interactive
maps or 3D models of historical artefacts like in the Mindener Museum, allow
visitors to interact directly with the displayed materials in ways that were
formerly unavailable. Certainly, the opportunities of digitization are wide.
You can think of using tablets to provide tours through the museum, virtual
reality apps on the smart phone to bring portraits to life, or 360° experiences
to set visitors into a historical scenery for example. In addition,
digitization reduces the risks of damaging the originals, since visitors explore
historical manuscripts on the screen. Imagine that you can scroll through the
Declaration of Independence or letters from Bismarck virtually. Nevertheless, Silke
Schwandt pleads for an intersectional dealing with digital elements. Most
applications of digital tools in historical research, and the museal sector as
well, do not make human interaction, interpretation, and communication
“Historical information or insight tends to be more complicated than can be shown in a simple diagram. Historians stress the fact that there usually is more than one answer to a research question, more than one interpretation of the past. To meet these demands, digital representations in museums, or in any other context for that matter, should therefore be interactive in a way that allows the visitor to see more than one linear interpretation and maybe even arrive at their own interpretations after interacting with the material.”
What does experience design mean in a
museal context? As Julia Becker says, in most people’s minds, the general idea
of visiting a museum is being a passive spectator who gets to see exhibits and
gains information. Therefore, application of experience design to this practice
literally could turn visits into experiences that speak to several senses and
put the human at the centre. The visitor would become a participant and their
once passive position changes to a more active mode of participation in the
experience. If a museum is able to tell stories and has the financial means to
try out something new designing an experience for a museum can establish a
memorable user journey, even if it breaks with traditional expectations for
According to experts that are mentioned
above, here are some pieces of advice (or guidelines) for doing digital history
at the museum:
First, you should reflect about what digitization could yield for your museum. Digital elements in the exhibition can be a useful supplement, visitors still come to experience history primarily by looking at historical artefacts. Therefore, one should evaluate how much the museum on the one hand, and the visitors on the other, can benefit from digitization. Your curators should keep in mind that technology needs frequent maintenance and technical problems can arise every time. One should ensure that there is sufficient personnel capacity to manage failures in case. The Mindener Museum, for example, has its technician Mr. Wurm who is responsible for the digital city model. If there are problems with the image resolution or with the beamers on the ceiling – he is the one who fixes them.
Second, digital objects need thorough and accurate historical research as a basic preparation for their display in a museum context. The digitized objects or experienced stories may be as astonishing as ever, but no one will benefit from it without solid information about the historical content: ‘What kind of an object is it?’, ‘In what time period was it produced?’, ‘How has it survived over time?’ and even more questions should be asked and answered about an object. Of course, this can be very difficult and sluggish if you do not find the information at first sight. But to set the object into context makes it interesting for visitors. They want to know the content of the presented objects to connect this background information with knowledge they already have. Therefore, the basis should always be historical research by professionally trained historians. Without ensuring the accuracy of the historical context, the museum would fail its educational mission.
Third, the museum needs financial means for digitization. That can be digitized objects on a screen or ideally, experience design. Either need capacity in manpower and money for preparation and curation over time. The goal should be that digitization will be an additional enriching element in the exhibition and not a handicap. Remember that every digital project needs time and money to develop it from the first idea to the fully finished product. In addition and in the best case, every museum should have an in-house technician like Mr. Wurm. Besides the care of the technique, this person can share his or her knowledge with your curators to arrange technical solutions for your grand digital vision. The group of students who developed an additional virtual tour for the city model was in close exchange with the technician of the Mindener Museum to see if the historical maps fit on the screen, if the resolution of the image is good enough for presentation, and if the beamer lights are set correctly.
Fourth, while experience designs have to fulfill historical standards, they also have to adequately represent the complexity of story structures and narratives. Making history alive via digital tours through the museum or via virtual reality, for example, usually requires curated historical research. If experience design is interesting for your museum, curators should keep in mind that all playful and historical elements are connected to another and that the historical content must be worked out carefully. For example, the group who is currently working on the digital tour through the Mindener museum is still struggling with the conflict between the playability of historical stories. Is it allowed to change the historical facts of the escape tour just to provide a positive end and a feeling of success for the visitors? This question is not as simple as is looks at first sight and requires a huge amount of reflection on the side of the students. Beyond that, one has to take into consideration the different types of experiencing. Which mode fits to your historical artifacts and story?
At last, one has to live with gaps in historical storytelling. Every historian stood for the challenge that some questions stay unanswered. This is okay and the risk of historians, who should stick to what they know. (In that case you should only spread proven knowledge.) Do not take the trap of inventing historical fiction just for entertaining. The 3D-printed crest from the 17th century has shown how difficult it can be to deal with physical objects in a digital world. While the student read a lot of literature, it turned out that only a few pieces of proven information could be provided by the museal documentation and the research. Of course, he would have loved to share deeper knowledge of this crest. But in the end, he had no other choice than to stick to the information he could prove if he wanted to contribute to the educational task of the museum. The fact that there remain open questions about objects such as the 17th crest that even experts cannot answer remain is shared with the visitors.
If you plan digital or playful elements in
your museum with these thoughts in mind, it could be a great opportunity to
take the next step into to the 2020s. Exhibitions and educational work can
support the ways by which museum visitors experience history in different ways.
It can set them into the view of an historical character; it can open up historical
files and hidden objects in the archives; it can give visitors the opportunity
to experience history in an unexpected way. In short, while it should be
carefully prepared and conceptually balanced, it gives visitors the chance to experience
history in more than just one traditional way.
[i] National Museum of American History
Behring Center, Collections,
(access 04/09/2020 5.10 pm).
Many graduate history students will be familiar with the moment (or phase) in their studies when they have to make a decision about the topic of their final thesis. Some students may already know the topic early on. Others may take a few productive detours on their way to developing their final thesis topic. I am a history student from Germany who is working on the final thesis and in the latter category. With this blog contribution, I would like to share insights into the perspective of me as a historian at the end of my graduate academic education, whose final thesis research also marked my first foray into the field of digital history.
At the beginning of my Master’s degree
program at Bielefeld University, Germany, I was sure that I wanted to do research
on a different topic than my Bachelor thesis. World War I, albeit an
exceptionally cruel war, has always been fascinating to me. I was especially
interested in researching the fate of soldiers with neurotic/ psychiatric symptoms
during or after their military service (today it would be called PTSD)
Therefore, my general topic was clear. What was less clear was my exact research
question and, related to this, the accessibility of sources. At first, I wanted
to get to know how soldiers interpreted their own conditions. But soon it
seemed clear that it would be difficult to get access to this very specific
sources. By chance, I explored the series of medical journals called “Berliner
that was published between 1864 and 1921. It seemed clear to me that I would
have to examine it more closely. After reading secondary literature I realized
that no one has ever researched the concrete medical phrases used to describe the
“shell shock“ phenomena. So far, researchers only concentrated on the contemporary
medical discourses but did not pay attention to the way how the doctors exactly
phrased the symptoms of the soldiers in their publications. Therefore, the
question “How did medical doctors describe the neurotic/ psychiatric symptoms
of soldiers that have serviced in the war?” came into my mind. A warm welcome
to my question!
But, how to get access to the journal?
Unfortunately, the library catalogue was unable to provide me with answers.
Then, I got the hint from my thesis supervisor that I should ask Google – it
has been too obvious and easy. No sooner said than done, I found the digitized journal
Immediately, I began to save the files of the volumes from 1914 until 1919.
Since then, I have saved more than 8.000 digitized pages of medical articles by
German doctors. What’s next?
On the one hand, it is nice to have digitized
historical articles. On the other hand, working with these accurately requires more
than just the normal screening of texts with a human eye. After some time, I
realized that I’ll have to venture into the field of digital history to develop
better strategies. People might think that digital history is just a field for
lazy historians, but it can be so much more. Dealing with digital sources does
not mean that the historian is obsolete.[iii]
In my specific case it means the possibility to widen my period of research and
quantify my sources of research, meaning that I can develop new and different
ways of dealing with words than I was used to. Tables of words (“Wortlisten“[iv]),
enumerations and charts as presentation options can do more for you than just examine
specific words closely: Digital tools help with investigating relations between
words in documents, for example: In which context or combination of medical
terms appears the word “war neurosis?“
Here are some
of my findings based on my initial explorations of the field of digital
First, I had to clarify the kind of
questions I have and define what exactly I would like to know. Is it really
necessary to bring digital methods to the thesis? What outcome would I like to
achieve? Which disadvantages could arise when I work with digital tools? The
level of (self-) reflections seems to be indispensable. Only when these
questions can be answered, either on your own or in discussion with your
supervisors, it makes sense to combine traditional hermeneutical methods with
In addition, thankfully the text corpus of
the “Berliner klinische Wochenschrift“ is already digitized, published by the
same source, and homogenous in its layout. Following Silke Schwandt’s advice, sources
of digital history need to be readable for machines. Applied to my example,
that could be that each page has the same two-column structure and the font
type is set uniformely in Antiqua style. Based on these criteria, my historical
sources fulfill the first requirements.
Third, I still need to find the right software
to support my work. If you are using handwritten documents, you will need to
transcribe and digitalize them. In that case, a helpful tool could be
I have written above, I do not need this type of program for my current work.
At least, so much is clear. But the question which software may aid my research
and help with analyzing the medical terms that doctors used to describe medical
symptoms remains important. I can certainly rely on my supervisor’s experience.
Because the variety of computational or DH tools is wide, I assume and hope
that professionals who have used digital tools for a longer time than I have will
be able to help me with advice. As you can see, my exploration is ongoing. At
this stage, I have paused my thesis work to explore potential digital tools.
Only when I know what tool I will be working with I can resume my foray into the
field of digital history and start writing my thesis.
Nevertheless, I’ll continue my work as I
follow these steps:
Input of digital sources in
Analysis and evaluation of the
output/ results of the computational process
Set the results in context
Writing the thesis
How I’ll cope with this challenges you’ll see
in future. I‘ll keep you updated!
[i] Deutsche digitale Bibliothek, Berliner klinische Wochenschrift: Organ für
praktische Ärzte, (access 3/23/2020 4.40 pm).
[ii] Internet Archive, Advanced search, (access 3/23/2020 3.09 pm).
[iii] Silke Schwandt, „Digitale Methoden für die Historische Semantik. Auf den Spuren von Begriffen in digitalen Korpora,“ Geschichte und Gesellschaft. Zeitschrift für Historische Sozialwissenschaft 44, no. 1 (2018): 107-134. The assumptions in this article refer to the work of Silke Schwandt.
[iv] Schwandt, „Digitale Methoden für die Historische
As a German high school or college student, you will be familiar with the scenario: A homework assignment requires you to locate reliable information about William II, the Emperor of the German Empire, and the deadline is tomorrow. It’s late in the evening, every library is closed, and the only tool left is the World Wide Web. If this sounds familiar to you, don’t panic. Take a moment and let me take you on a digital journey to Berlin, Germany!
Historisches Museum (DHM), physically located in Berlin, Stiftung Haus der
Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (HdG) and the German federal archives,
the Bundesarchiv, provide a virtual
museum called LeMo, Lebendiges Museum Online. [i] It represents a
historically reliable introduction in modern German History and is the biggest
virtual museum in the digital landscape in German speaking countries.
LeMo addresses everyone who is interested in German History beginning in 1800 until the present day. It is a virtual museum for everyone – K-12 students, college and university students, adults, including senior citizens. You as a virtual visitor can access the museum easily from home and are invited to explore the website. The appealing presentation design combined with fascinating objects invite you to browse the site and get trapped in the web of history.
This virtual museum provides introductory
texts, images of ancient objects, historical photographs and videos, audio
files, biographical stories, pedagogical material and more materials on eleven
epochs and topics of modern German history. Each historical period has three
levels of telling history:
First, there is an introduction that
provides an overview of the content. So,
if you need information about William II. you can click on the topic
“Kaiserreich”. There you will find an overview with the most important
information to the German Empire in written texts and historical media like
paintings and filmclips. This presentation of historical media evokes
imaginations and impressions of that specific past and makes it easier to access
it. In addition, the texts and side information on the presented objects
provide keywords that lead you to further information.
Second, every general topic has a table of content to explore more information on each period of time. If you have additional interest in the foreign affairs of William II. and especially in his colonial policy, the website can assist you. Once you’ve clicked on it indicating that you are interested in gaining deeper knowledge of foreign policies, LeMo provides new subject areas and historical events related to that topic. Then, you can click on “Kolonialpolitik”, colonial policy, to access more information on the colonial beliefs of William II.
Furthermore, the museum provides an overview
of historical events of each year, so if you need information on a specific
historical event, you can choose this tool of doing research as well. This way,
digital visitors get the impression to take a much closer look on a virtual exhibition
of a German museum. In addition, if you still cannot find the item you are
looking for at first glance, you may take advantage of the search function tailored
to support specialized research topics.
The portal was first established in 1997. Its initial goal was to experiment with new technologies and the World Wide Web, still emerging at the time. Therefore, with its early efforts to represent a historical museum online in Germany, LeMo was a pioneer in that time. Since then, the virtual museum has enjoyed ever-increasing popularity and attracts visits from all over the world. Would you have expected that the highest number of visits with more than 100.000 per year comes from the USA? Digital paths of telling history have been and continue to be useful for many people from all over the world. LeMo is free, the only requirement is the ability to read German language.
Whether you are working on a homework
assignment that’s due tomorrow, or are just interested in learning about German
history, please visit LeMo. Even to me, who is quite familiar with German
History, it is every time exciting to visit this virtual museum. I always find
new information and get fascinated by the historical media presented on the