Exploring the Landscape with Digital Public History

Given that I live in DC, I thought it would be appropriate to try out Histories of the National Mall on, well, the National Mall. I’ve done a lot of reading on the project for class, and I’ve explored the website on my laptop in my apartment, but I’ve never tried it out while walking the National Mall.

Although I initially thought it strange that Histories of the National Mall didn’t have an app, I was glad when I reached the Mall–it’s so much easier to pull up a website than to download an app. The mobile version of mallhistory.org was very user-friendly, even the mobile version of the map of the Mall.

I mostly clicked on the pins on the map as I covered the some of the sites of the Mall: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the DC War Memorial, and the World War II Memorial. Most of the information was useful–when each memorial was built, the circumstances behind their creations, etc.–but there wasn’t anything really interesting or unique: no “Did You Know?” facts I was hoping for. Of course, some of the pins on the map were more along those lines–my favorite was the Mall Weddings pin by the DC War Memorial.

Perhaps because I’ve seen most of the sites on this map at least once before, I had more fun afterwards just clicking on pins at my leisure, not near any of the sites themselves. I personally find it kind of stressful to remember to open the website before I leave a site: I much prefer scouting an area on the map to see if it’s worth heading over. For instance, I finally found out the story behind that Japanese Lantern I always drive by and why exactly there’s a George Mason Memorial (especially important since I now attend GMU). In general, the lesser-known sites had more interesting information: you didn’t really learn anything new about the famous sites, at least from the map.

However, the Explorations page contained all the trivia I was dying for. While I found the Scavenger Hunts (especially the World War II Memorial one) a bit lacking–they featured only around three items, and they weren’t things that were particularly hard to find–I found the general questions fascinating, like “Has anyone ever lived on the Mall?” Some were questions I’ve wondered about before (“How are large objects displayed in the museums?“), and some were things that never even occurred to me (“What were the neighborhoods around the Mall like int he 1800s?“). I also liked that these questions were tagged into categories, so you could read more about the categories that interested you.

I wish there were more connections between the Maps page and the Explorations page, for instance, putting a link to the Korean War Memorial Scavenger Hunt page within the general page about the Korean War Memorial. Most of the pages under the Explorations tab can’t easily be translated into pins on the Map, but it would’ve been nice to include links to the overt ones, like when a question is specifically about the Lincoln Memorial.

I found the People and Past Events pages intimidating, even for someone who likes reading about the minute details. There were so many entries, and I found the idea of looking through even some of them overwhelming. These pages didn’t draw you in like the Map and the Explorations pages.

I like the idea of Histories of the National Mall as a complement to walking the Mall, but sometimes that’s just too hard. The site is far more enjoyable as a desktop version, so I would recommend anyone else take a look at the site before or after visiting the Mall. Maybe I would feel different if I were a tourist visiting for the day, but it’s hard to imagine. I also noticed, unfortunately, that some of the information was outdated, like about the DC War Memorial now serving as the National World War I Memorial (that got reversed, and now there are plans for a WWI Memorial in Pershing Park). I wish there were signs on the Mall encouraging people to use this site, since I think it mostly suffers from a lack of awareness, certainly not a lack of care.

 

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