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Wolfsonian-FIU turns to Tumblr for its ‘Great War Stories’ project

Edwin Sindorf, great-grandfather of Wolfsonian staffer Meg Floryan, was a radio man in World War I.
Edwin Sindorf, great-grandfather of Wolfsonian staffer Meg Floryan, was a radio man in World War I.

Do you have an ancestor who fought in the First World War, a family story about a great-grandfather or -grandparent affected by the horrific global conflict that engulfed the world in chaos a hundred years ago?

If the answer is “yes,” the Wolfsonian-Florida International University Museum wants your story.

In March the museum launched an innovative online project called #GreatWarStories, which is a Tumblr site that serves as a place to compile family histories, photographs, memorabilia and advice on genealogical research relating to World War I. Members of the public, from professional historians to amateur researchers, are encouraged to contribute.

The museum is accepting a large variety of materials. In addition to written accounts of family stories, the staff is asking for photographs, original documents, letters, journals and even video interviews to help create “a living, breathing digital collection” as Meg Floryan, the Wolfsonian’s communications manager, describes it.

#GreatWarStories was organized and created in conjunction with the Wolfsonian’s recently closed exhibition Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture. That ambitious show featured nearly 300 works created by World War I-era artists, designers and propagandists.

While working on Myth and Machine for more than two years, museum staff members started talking about their personal family stories. This led to postings of military records and photographs on a wall in the museum’s administrative offices. The staffers considered a lobby installation of mementos to be brought in by the public but decided it would be impractical.

But from the low-tech display ideas came the inspiration for the Tumblr site.

“#GreatWarStories is also a platform for anyone who is curious to connect directly with our team of historical sleuths,” says Floryan, noting that museum staffers Rachel Battista and Larry Wiggins have volunteered to help members of the public who want to take the genealogical journey.

Currently there are about 20 postings, many from Wolfsonian staff, and although relatively new the site has been accessed by hundreds of people in 24 countries.

“We’re excited to anticipate the diversity of stories that will be contributed to this project,” says Jeff Guin, who moved to the Miami area in October to become the museum’s first digital outreach strategist. “The beauty of sharing history on a social platform like Tumblr is that people around the world will continually discover, add to and share this content for years, and it will always be relevant.”

There will be space for blogging and online discussions, and #GreatWarStories should contribute to serious academic research with new testimonies and unknown materials coming to light.

The Tumblr project is a small part of the Wolfsonian’s larger ambitions for a new online engagement with patrons. The museum will be providing more digital resources and encouraging greater social media interaction.

“We’re planning digital experiences in the museum that will engage visitors more deeply in the stories of the objects while offering tools to continue the journey of discovery after they leave,” says Guin. 

For example, for the first time the museum has filmed an entire exhibit. Myth and Machine, which was dismantled weeks ago, will remain available for viewing online as a virtual tour accessible from the Wolfsonian’s website. There are also plans to film future shows and exhibits.

The initial installation of the Myth and Machine show was also captured on film, and a short version of it in sped-up, time-lapse photography can currently be seen among the Wolfsonian videos on YouTube.

“In three minutes the viewer gets a sense of the wide range of people who create these exhibitions,” says Guin.

In 2009, the Wolfsonian launched a collection digitization program, which will allow photographs of the museum’s more than 150,000 eclectic and esoteric objects to be viewed online. The focus of the museum’s collection is formally on North American and European decorative arts, propaganda, architecture, and industrial and graphic design from 1885 to 1945. Currently, the digital collection site has just under 100,000 images, growing by about 2,000 per month.

A $5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2012 provided significant support for the development and implementation of the digital outreach strategy. Grants from Florida International University’s technology fee fund and the Miami-Dade County Division of Cultural Affairs were used to create the digital image catalog (digital.wolfsonian.org), which went online in 2011.

Because of the enormous array of Wolfsonian items and the need for several photographs for many of them, it’s estimated that approximately 2 million images will be needed to properly represent the entire collection.

“We hope to complete at least basic digitization of most of the collection by 2020,” says Sharon Aponte Misdea, interim co-director as well as deputy director for collections and curatorial affairs.

In early 2014, the museum’s digital asset manager, Derek Merleaux, developed the Wolfsonian Labs web page (http://labs.wolfsonian.org/), an experimental online workspace that features early attempts at virtual tours, experiments with visual data analysis tools based on museum collections and crowd-sourced annotation. These digital projects are open to the public for input and criticism.

“We’ll continue to hone these experiments over time both in-house and in consultation with outside developers, and through ‘collaborative hackathons,’” says Guin.

Outside input will include feedback from academic programs such as FIU’s art and computer science schools.

Merleaux, Guin and Floryan are just part of a new team of recent hires who have the knowledge base and experience to understand the new world of digital opportunities that now exist for institutions like the Wolfsonian.

Regarding #GreatWarStories, Floryan says that after a few months of cultivating the site hands-on, staffers hope to transition to a moderator-type role and simply re-blog contributors’ Tumblr posts that use their hashtag.

“We want the public to take ownership and take the reins,” she says.

User feedback will also likely determine decisions about future online projects at the museum.

“Everything is dependent on the interest, excitement and participation of the general public, so we’re looking forward to playing it by ear,” adds Guin.  

If you go

What: The Wolfsonian-Florida International University Museum. 

Where: 1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, FL

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Tuesday and Saturday, closed Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday-Friday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: $7 adults, $5 for seniors, students, children 6 to 12 (free for members, children under 6; free from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday; free for students, faculty and staff of Florida’s state university system).

Information: 305-531-1001 or www.wolfsonian.org; email greatwarstories@thewolf.fiu.edu or visit greatwarstories.tumblr.com.

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