26 Arts and Heritage organisations curate a digital WW1 archive called Centenary Connections
Rebecca Bartlett, from Nymbol, explains how they worked with organisations across Greater Manchester to develop a World War One archive in the form of a website and an app.
In this year of World War One commemoration, galleries and museums throughout the country are snytaging special exhibitions and projects, telling the stories of people who lived through war. Greater Manchester had an ambitious digital vision. They wanted to offer up their archives of stories to a new generation using digital technology, available for all.
Led by Imperial War Museum North, some 26 galleries, libraries, archives and museums including Manchester Art Gallery, Whitworth Art Gallery, National Football Museum, Salford Museum and Art Gallery, Greater Manchester Archives and The Lowry came together with an ambitious objective. Together, they conceived the idea of telling Manchester’s story of the First World War, and combining their collections and archives into one cohesive digital resource.
Our company, Nymbol, was granted the remarkable opportunity of turning their dream into a reality. The result is Centenary Connections, a website and app which enables users to digitally journey across Greater Manchester, using objects and landmarks connected to the events of 100 years ago to tell the region’s war story.
Breaking down the Boundaries
The unique challenge of the app is what makes it so groundbreaking: connecting and curating the content of so many organisations onto one platform.
We, the digital and technology team, were breaking the boundaries between organisations and also between Curatorial, Marketing and Education departments, offering different ways of thinking about content for an effective online experience.
The app ‘curates’ its content into themed sections. So if you’re interested in, say, Life at Home or Feeding the Frontline, you can find several objects from different organisations related to that theme. Working in this way has allowed new connections to be made. For example, both the Local Studies and Archives Oldham and Greater Manchester County Record Office had great pictures of the ‘Tank Bank’ which was literally a bank held within a tank, to persuade people to help the war effort financially. These images can now be seen together online for the first time.
We are also able to work with some incredible first-hand accounts, such as Annie Droege’s diary recording daily life of a small garrison town in Germany. Originally from Stockport, Annie moved to Germany in 1910 with her husband, Arthur, and offered a unique insight into a country at war.
Centenary Connections had to be appealing to different audiences with different levels of engagement and interest whilst simultaneously offering intelligent and historically accurate insight into World War 1 in Manchester.
The casually interested can simply browse through different ‘journeys’, but there is also the ability to share with friends via social media or take a real-life tour through Manchester with the app as a guide. At the same time as offering new insights into history, we are moulding new methods of engagement and learning.
We were conscious of the need to have great zoom-able images of all the archive content for it to be viewed in detail. So as well as offering low-resolution thumbnails for ease of search, there is an enhanced viewing facility which is essential for old photos and intricately detailed documents and objects. Many (but not all) of the artefacts featured are linked to existing landmarks around the city. Where this is the case, the app and website provides information on where to find them.
Challenges of Centenary Connections
There are of course challenges to a project of this kind.
Each organisation needs to be an administrator of the app, with the ability to update and upload new content as it emerges. We built the CMS so that it is intuitive and straightforward – and hopefully unbreakable – but with so many users, issues inevitably arise.
A major one has been tone of voice. Some organisations are formal, some informal, some writing in first person and others in third. So halfway through the development we worked with the Learning team at IWM North to create a style guide to ensure consistency in writing and presentation styles.
And of course there are always challenges with technology. We wanted a map view of the city, with location points for venues, archival objects and landmarks relating to the archives, but it proved particularly difficult to get right. It took many discarded versions until we found a solution that worked well for the user.
Outcomes and the Future
Centenary Connections launched in July 2014 and so it’s still early days to gauge its impact on audiences.
We’re watching keenly to see how people engage and use the app, but the organisations have definitely taken it to heart – Imperial War Museum North and other partners are already planning new content for release, including some film archive.
From Nymbol’s point of view, working on Centenary Connections has enabled us to enhance the underlying technology we can offer to the cultural and heritage sector. Our purpose-built CMS acts as a building block for organisations to open up access of archive and digital content to digital audiences. We’ve typically used this CMS to power one platform at a time, such as a mobile app, a website or an interactive screen.
This project allowed us to expose the same content to both the Centenary Connections app as well as the website, which is an exciting development for us! We are now looking ahead and working on projects to integrate archive and collections directly from organisations’ existing database.
Rebecca Bartlett is the digital content specialist at Nymbol. She has over 14 years experience working within the cultural heritage and education sectors, including a BAFTA award-winning multimedia company.