First, and most important, the Histories of the National Mall team completed all of the deliverables and work promised in our grant proposal. We researched and developed the historical content for the site; created a content strategy and iterated a design; and we engaged in many rounds of user testing of the content and the user experience. We launched Mallhistory.org with 400 items, and currently host nearly 500 items: 90 People, 96 Past Events; 8 historical map layers that highlight 142 Places (and many Past Events); and 46 Explorations (including 4 Scavenger Hunts). We released the custom theme and map plugins as free and open source code in Omeka ‘s GitHub.com repository. We developed and implemented an outreach plan, including a social media strategy, and devised a strategy for sustaining interest in the site when the grant period ends. This guide is the final deliverable.
The team has been very pleased with the positive reactions received from our primary and secondary audiences. We did not set numerical targets for numbers of web users or for social media interactions before the launch. We set the very modest goal of growing online visitation and adoption over the course of the grant period, and we achieved that goal. We wanted to encourage individuals unfamiliar with the history of the National Mall to dive in and learn something new, and we have done that.
Our funder, the National Endowment for the Humanities, selected Histories as one of its exemplar public digital humanities projects in 2014. The project directors were asked to participate in an event held at the US Capitol highlighting the NEH’s best work.
Our peers in the field of public history have recognized the project as a product of solid historical research and interpretation, that is also accessible to tourists and non-historians. In December 2014, Histories was featured in Slate as one of the most compelling digital history exhibits of the year. Slate‘s Rebecca Onion wrote “The site turns the Mall itself into a museum, showing how this public space took on symbolic significance at various points in the past.” Slate.com sent the most traffic to Histories in December 2014, even though the article was published on the 29th.
Notably, the site was reviewed soon after its launch by historian Kirk Savage (author of Monument Wars) for the Journal of American History. In his December 2014 issue, he described the site as “a pleasure to navigate.” He noted that “even a professional historian of the district is likely to find something new here.”
In February 2015, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) selected Histories of the National Mall as the winner of the 2015 Outstanding Public History Project Award. Sheila Brennan was asked to write a guest post for the NCPH blog, History @ Work, that highlighted all of the award-winning projects. And the project’s recognition by NCPH prompted the American Historical Association to invite Sharon Leon to write about Histories for their blog, AHA Today.
Histories is being incorporated into syllabi and class discussions for undergraduate and graduate courses outside of Mason, including Digital Public History offered at the University of Maryland College Park, and Special Topics in Heritage Preservation: Theory and Practice of Digital History at Georgia State University.
Our decision to build for the mobile web and not a native app was to make the materials in mallhistory.org easy to find when searching topics in DCs history. We are succeeding in this area, and anticipate the reach and pick-up rate will continue to grow. We are reaching beyond the Mall and bringing the research, sources, and interpretation out to the web for researchers, and journalists to discover. Local and national journalists are, in fact, using the site in their research. Materials from mallhistory.org has been liked from Politico and Curbed DC, as well as from individual bloggers interested in special topics (ie, ice skating in Washington). CBS’s Sunday Morning program linked to materials in the site for their August 2, 2015 show on Pierre L’Enfant. And Mental Floss linked to one of the Explorations asking why people say that Washington, DC was built on a swamp.
The project directors receive multiple inquiries from cultural heritage professionals who like mallhistory.org, and want to know how they might be able to build something similar. These inquiries have reinforced our decision to create this guide. As a result, we have a list of individuals who are interested in using this Guide as soon as it is published. We are pleased that our peers have reacted so positively to this project that has been many years in the making.