The fundamental interpretive approach of Histories was to introduce Mall visitors to the most current historical scholarship of the space and its development, together with the social, cultural, and political events that transpired there by presenting this material using geospatial and thematic modes of access. By taking advantage of the web’s ability to layer and link different types of content, we designed the site to be easily navigable without overwhelming a user. Importantly, we let users select what interests them most: narrative, maps and places, people, past events, or by a plain keyword search.
Before any design or development work began, the breadth and scope of the content was assessed. The content team comprised the two directors, the project manager, and one to three history doctoral graduate students (project associates). When researching for the grant proposal, we created a large Zotero group library where content team members compiled, tracked, and organized sources by theme and time period. We approached this project like other historical research: we started with the library catalog, existing secondary readings, and expanded from there. Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (2009) also offered a logical starting point for identifying secondary sources and relevant local archives. We started digging through the Washington Post archives available through GMU’s ProQuest subscription. We also searched through journal databases such as JSTOR and ProjectMuse, paying close attention to the back issues of Washington History (formerly the Records of the Columbia Historical Society), the journal of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Project Associates visited local special collections to uncover un-digitized sources and to investigate costs for making these available online. The project relied heavily on open content available in the public domain or with Creative Commons licenses. We prepared a public Zotero library, linked to from the mallhistory.org, for users interested in reading more about the history of the National Mall.
Savage’s work both supported and influenced how the team designed the site. From the earliest planning stages, we knew we wanted to make visible the contested nature of public spaces and the debates that ensued among different groups over the construction and symbols of monuments. On-site interpretation of parks, memorials and monuments, and federal lands often glaze over, or omit, debates, disagreements, and unpleasant histories. How could we both show and invite online visitors to ask questions of landscapes around them, as a historian might, while not making them feel like they were taking a test? Our attempts to tackle this challenge resulted in the design and functionality of mallhistory.org.
The team installed Omeka soon after the project began on a development server. To create the geospatial, temporal, and thematic entry points for the project, the content team first needed to build collections of digital items, map those items, link sources across time periods and themes, and interpret those items by creating short exhibits. The content team was lucky that many primary sources related to the Mall are available in the public domain from public institutions. Even when sources were not available digitally, such as items from the Washingtoniana Collection at the DC Public Library, their librarians and archivists were very accommodating and digitized on demand for the project.
Content was drafted in the Omeka administrative interface, or backend, while the development team simultaneously began testing different mapping tools.