How an NEH Sponsored Digital Project Changed the Way America Mourns and Memorializes Tragedy

Last week a colleague asked me about the Digital History class I am taking; he said, “Isn’t digital history really just data management?” At first his comment made sense; an important part of digital history is selection and presentation of resources.  But the “history” criterion requires some element of interpretation.  This led me to search for digital projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), partially for the class requirement, but more importantly to look for a project with meaning and influence.

The Studio 360 program co-produced by Public Radio International (PRI) and broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) created a series about American Icons.  This was in part sponsored and funded by the NEH. The program in this series that I reviewed is titled American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  This project is a great example of how organization, interpretation and presentation of information can collectively form meaning from historical events.  In this case, the creation and design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have altered the way American society chooses to memorialize war and tragic events.

In the case of the Vietnam War, there were multiple issues complicating even the idea of a memorial.  The unresolved polarization about the United States entry into the war and lack of a widespread support for those in service continued up to the time the idea about a memorial formed.  The result was much controversy and debate about whether or not there should be a memorial.

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The project organizes the story of the memorial and the problems surrounding it through a series of radio programs; each episode is listed on the project web page, American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There is a brief blurb about how the project started, and its purpose.  There is also a way to link each separate episode to other social media, as well as visual images to support various stories.

Given the current draw to instant downloadable videos, one might question the effectiveness of an audio file, particularly as there is so much video footage available.  But, I would argue that you can actually feel a different connection with speakers when you focus with one sense, like listening, rather than being distracted with moving images, especially if those images might be disturbing — as most tragedies are. Because there is so much emotion connected with the Vietnam War, this is a very effective method of getting to the point of how deeply it affected all Americans, and how the memorial was needed to help heal the country.

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Finally, the memorial itself greatly contributes to digital history in that because it changed the way American grieved publicly by leaving mementos and letters at the memorial, leading to a large archival collection of memorabilia.  This has been studied and used as a tool to gain a better understanding into this era, and into the healing process of a divided country.  One example highlighted in the project is a book titled, Shrapnel in the Heart: Letters and Remembrances from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Laura Palmer.  Palmer

This digital project explains how this one memorial led to change in American society, and influenced the now larger project memorializing 9/11 that includes virtual memorabilia, see the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

These examples, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the digital 9/11 memorial, indicate the potential for analysis and interpretation of data in the digital form to continue to explain our past, and help us to move on from it.

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2 thoughts on “How an NEH Sponsored Digital Project Changed the Way America Mourns and Memorializes Tragedy

  1. Nice work! Rosenzweig used the 9/11 archives as a case study in explaining the positives & negatives of th accessibility of the digital archives collection. It is great that people can share their personal experiences, comments, as well as documents such as photographs and or letters… As with the Vietnam War, people are passionate about certain aspects that may or may not add to the whole aspect of the project.

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  2. Thank you Andy. I hope that for most projects it is more helpful to have the open forum than any negative from extreme views that do not really contribute to the mission of the project.

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