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Review of a Digital History Project – Mission Centenaire 14 -18

The focus of this review is the Government funded World War One centenary website Mission Centenaire. As a Digital History project, Mission Centenaire is an intriguing example of contrasting ideas that complement each other in a manner that improves the data presented to the target audience. Mission Centenaire acts as a hub or nexus for various historical sources to interweave their own narratives and findings. The hub like nature leads to an increased audience number achieved via mass saturation from multiple sources.

Mission Centenaire’s objectives are laid out quite clearly on its site: organising the highlights of four years worth of commemorative programs, offering a centenary label to any public or private venture that commemorates the conflict and providing information about the First World War through the use of its digital website.

The centenary label is perhaps the most intriguing prospect of Mission Centenaire’s government remit. The centenary label acts as a quality guarantee for the project, recognition that the awarded scheme or initiative is in some way innovative, structured and original in its commemoration of the Great War. As such this remit acts as a tantalizing reward for Digital Humanities projects to secure some degree of government funding for their own unique takes on the digital commemoration.

As noted by William J Thomas, “Digital History is about the medium, not the method.”(The Promise of Digital History) Mission Centenaire’s willingness to award individuals and institutions for commemorative work reflects Thomas’ point and firmly plants Mission Centenaire into the “Public History” bracket. Indeed Mission Centenaire highlights the link between commemoration and public history and transcends the frequent argument of history versus memory. With that being said, remembrance is but one of the website’s objectives.

Organising the highlights of the centenary program is an ongoing project encompassing social media feeds, a live event ticker on the website itself and collaboration with government departments. As mentioned above Mission Centenaire functions as a nexus for these various sources to deposit their events and findings concerning the Great War. The Website itself is quite intuitive and remarkably easy to use: clear labeling and embedded links encourage traffic through the site. Combined with images, slick web design and translation software, Mission Centenaire secures a wider audience reach. It must be commended that Mission Centernaire offers so much material to the audience without locking it behind a pay wall. The issue of access and copyright hangs over Digital Humanities like a specter. Ben Alpers describes how “new laws, supposedly occasioned by the rise of digital technologies, have also restricted the realm of fair use.” (Aaron Swartz, Intellectual Property, and the Humanities)

Concerning the audience, Mission Centenaire is designed first and foremost for the French public. While translations are available in English and German, the lack of other European languages clearly denote Mission Centenaire’s intended audience. For Digital History projects, according to Cowen and Rosenzweig, ” to build an audience for your site is to serve the most fundamental democratic and intellectual goals that we share as historians.” (Digital History: A Guide to gathering, preserving and presenting the past on the web) As mentioned above, the public nature of the history shared on Mission Centenaire appeals to the greater public, furthermore the use of the centenary label allows Mission Centenaire to market itself to an even greater dynamic through the use of collaboration and tie ins with a multitude of other sources.

Two key collaborators are Valiant Hearts: the Great War (which was written about in an earlier post) and the Canadian documentary series Apocalypse: World War One. Valiant Hearts with its distinct art style and focused narrative seems to be deliberately aimed at a younger audience whereas Apocalypse is a much grittier depiction of the Great War taken from over three hundred hours of archival footage. Valiant Hearts utilises both Apocalypse and Mission Centenaire to relay historical facts to its audience in a manner that directs them back to Mission Centenaire itself – reinforcing the nexus or hub like nature of the website as stated above. The iceberg metaphor is quite apt for Mission Centenaire: the web like nodal structure of links that permeate the website are akin to the ice beneath the water. It may not be visible at first but it’s there.

With all the being said, what does Mission Centenaire contribute to the discipline of Digital Humanities? As Shawn Graham states that it’s easy to forget “that there’s more to the digital humanities than building flashy internet-based digital tools.”(How I lost the Crowd: A tale of sorrow and hope) Mission Centenaire is first and foremost a French government website and as such it presents the commemoration of the Great War through a predominantly French perspective. The website does link to events occurring across Europe however and grants aid to those seeking to discover their ANZAC ancestors and more (albeit through an “international” tag). As Frisch states “the term ‘digital history’ is overly expansive.”(The Promise of Digital History) Stating that Mission Centenaire is a digital history project does not describe the finer details of what it accomplishes and what it fails to accomplish. Mission Centenaire signposts the way for further research, it addresses the audience and gives them the necessary information to have a basic understanding of the centenary but it always links outward to specialised and far more detailed information: be it battlefield tourism or accessing external history sites. This is both Mission Centenaire’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness as a digital humanities project; in essence Mission Centenaire acts as a web portal.

Audience numbers can radically fluctuate and more often than not will begin to bleed as time progresses. Projects often have a struggle on their hands to maintain long term audience sustainability. Mission Centenaire maintains its audience through a variety of means, primarily through its social media feeds. Mission Centenaire utilises Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to communicate with its audience, usually through linking centenary label winners and upcoming events. The website itself is updated daily with new material from the multitude of departments that collaborate with the website. As the centenary is a four year long event, it’s safe to assume that Mission Centenaire’s long term sustainability is guaranteed, as long as the French government continues to support it at any rate.

In conclusion, Mission Centenaire is a digital history project. In closer examination it is a French government funded public history web portal that provides its audience with all the information that they require to live and celebrate the World War One centenary.

Bibliography:

Alpers, Ben. Aaron Swartz, Intellectual Property, and the Humanities. 28 January 2013. Web, Accessed on 18/10/14

Cohen, Daniel J., and Roy Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Web, Accessed on 18/10/14

Cohen, Daniel J. et al. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95.2 (2008). Web, Accessed on 18/10/14

Graham, Shawn. “How I Lost the Crowd: A Tale of Sorrow and Hope.” Electric Archaeology. 18 May 2012. Web, Accessed on 18/10/14

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