Physical/Digital Site Comparative Review

For my comparative review, I visited the “My Fellow Soldiers” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. (As an aside, go visit the Postal Museum! The building is beautiful and it’s got some very clever, interactive exhibits.) Military history has always been a passion of mine, so I figured this would be a good exhibit to examine in depth.

The physical design of the exhibit was a simple square. You were directed to go in on the left, where you were confronted with the exhibit title and a paragraph explaining the importance of mail to soldiers in wartime. I thought this part was the perfect introduction: a primer on why these letters mean so much more than a civilian will ever know.

To the left of the introduction text and optional video were two more panels filled with explanation. Below each panel are items in the exhibit. Since the Postal Museum, from what I saw, caters to a younger audience, I thought the language in these panels was clear and concise. It didn’t talk down to the reader, but it didn’t assume the reader had all the information, say, a veteran would have.

Along the next wall was the meat of the exhibit: mail sent by various soldiers from various wars. The most interesting items were at eye-level (always very important!), and the items weren’t just letters. This section demonstrated that despite the tendency for the public to romanticize wartime letters, it never has just been–and it especially isn’t today–just letters. Books were on display, as well as drawings and photographs. This section illustrates both what soldiers send and receive in the mail, and the variety is surprising and heartwarming.

After the long wall of items, there was this panel, highlighting the importance of remembering World War I in light of the WWI centennial. (The 100th anniversary of WWI’s Armistice Day will be on November 11th, 2018.) While seemingly out of place, this helps explain why this exhibit exists in the first place, and corresponds with the dates it will be up: April 6, 2017 – November 29, 2018. Due to the fact that all WWI veterans have all passed away, it is easy to forget about this war and, more importantly, about how this war changed the United States’ future wars.

One of my favorite quotes in this exhibit was the one featured in the photo above: “Few things impact a unit’s moral more than mail… A small piece of correspondence from home means the world to these brave young men and women who fight for freedom.” – Brig. Gen. Sean J. Byrne. This quote helps you get at the “so what?” of this exhibit: highlighting the importance mail–such an everyday part of normal life–can bring such joy to soldiers who are far away from friends and family. And while you are basking in the lovely glow of these words, the exhibit designers (smartly) put information about the three things that help soldiers get their mail: free mail, free time, and free access. These are the drier details of history, but still very important to know.

My other favorite part of this exhibit were these three letters featured in this accordion-fold panel, featuring soldiers from 1991, 1969, and 1846. Not only is the text of the letters written out, but there are also buttons you can press so you can hear the audio as well. This section brings in another dimension: sound. It strikes a chord to hear a voice reading a letter (as you will see in the part when I review the digital presence of this exhibit!). I think it’s very appropriate that the exhibit designers featured a woman, as a lot of these letters are mostly wives at home writing to their husbands at war. Starting with Capt. Ann H. Patrie’s letter shows the viewer that things have changes, that war has changed. And as we go back in time to 1969 and 1846, you can compare Patrie’s letter to the others.

Each soldier has a title over their letter and description: Patrie’s is “At the Front,” PFC Frank A. Kowalczyk’s (1969) is “Reel to Reel,” and Lt. William McKean’s (1846) is “Seeing the World.” Each title (as well as the description, of course) helps frame the reader’s impression before reading the letter, and each conveys a very different message and mood. One deals with horror, another deals with adventure. As this exhibit has shown before, every soldier’s experience is different, and therefore every letter is unique.

After all that good old fashioned pathos, the exhibit tackles the practical side (dare I say “science”?) of mail delivery. Even the ritual involved with doing mail call, as the sign above explains, gives soldiers a reprieve. So now the exhibit deals with all of the other parts of wartime letters: mail call, how packages are delivered, how to inspire people to write. Maybe all this information is less glamorous, but you’re more primed to read these panels after spending lots of time from the point of view of soldiers.

This final wall before exiting was less inspiring: it kind of shoves all the very practical but not as interesting facts about mail delivery in war at you. It is a lot of text–especially if there are children ambling through this exhibit–but I think it would be irresponsible for the Postal Museum to not include this information at all. It has to be included, so it is. There’s nothing very grand about it.

All in all, I thought the exhibit was executed thoughtfully, and I thought a lot of care went into how a person would experience walking through this room.

Now to the digital!

I think it’s less likely that children will be the (accidental) main viewers of this digital exhibit, so the language, while certainly not highfalutin, didn’t seem as intent on being as simple or concise. Nor should it–it’s clear that most people looking at this online exhibit went looking for it, and therefore don’t need their attention highly monitored like a walk-in. Beyond the exhibit page itself, there are Resources and About pages, which help explain a lot. For instance, I perhaps should have realized that this exhibit had a partner: the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University, which is a digital history project if I ever saw one. (Very similar to the Roy Rosenzweig’s Paper of the War Department and Operation War Diary.) So that was something I learned online that I hadn’t realized while I was there in person, which is very interesting for me as an aspiring digital historian, to find a project which greatly interests me. The About page mainly revealed that the Postal Museum clearly doesn’t want the “My Fellow Soldiers” exhibit to exist just online; they give all the information needed for visiting.

Concerning the exhibit, the online medium really allows the creators to explain every step of what they’re doing, rather than subtly nudging the viewer along as the prompts do in an in-person exhibit. There’s yet another About page, this one dedicated solely to the letters in the exhibit: why they were selected, what they are exactly, etc. More letters are featured in the online exhibit, and not just excerpts: whole transcripts can be posted. Thankfully, the online exhibit lets you chose whether to search through the letters via author or theme, which demonstrates the two visitors they expect on the site: those looking for letters written by a specific soldier and those looking more generally. If I wanted to find a letter written by a relative, for instance, I wouldn’t want to trawl through several topics before discovering it. Similarly, if I just wanted to read letters written about the reluctance to fight and staying neutral, it would be a pain to have to scroll through many individual letters before getting to what I wanted. I really appreciate that the full scope of the letters is online. It doesn’t make it better or worse than seeing snippets of letters in-person: the excerpts worked for the setting I was in, while excerpts wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if I were getting ready to dive into a research project and was starting with these letters.

I appreciated that every letter page featured a description, typed transcript (reading handwriting from war zones is really hard), an image of the actual physical letter itself (who wrote with a typewriter? whose handwriting was the worst?), and–when possible–a photo of the writer of the letter. This is all the information you really need–metadata is nice, but it would really overwhelm any visitor of the website. It’s also very clear that someone took extreme care when transcribing the letters: they all follow very clear stylistic rules, noting when words were typed or handwritten or just plain illegible. However, it seems like a lot of these letters can be read in their entirety, which I’m sure is a result of them choosing between thousands of letters and showcasing the best ones. The sample will always be skewed–it makes you think that everyone was a tremendous writer or speller, for instance–but it presents the best sample for the civilian historian who doesn’t want to deal with slanted cursive or water damage.

With the huge focus on letters, it’s easy to forget that there are other items in the exhibit. The site displays an item at random on the exhibit homepage, encouraging you to click on the link and learn more. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to find something you had clicked on at random, but I can understand if cataloguing the art would’ve just been too much, especially for a temporary exhibit. The random items range from photos of soldiers writing letters, propaganda encouraging letter writing, to favorite letters chosen by the curator. This feature reminds me most of being at the exhibit in-person–just ambling about, not quite knowing if you’re hooked or not.

Now, the most unique aspect of the exhibit’s digital presence was the “Missing You: Letters from Wartime, 1861-2010” video. While it is on the longer side (8+ minutes), it is well worth the watch. (I’ll admit, I got a little teary during some parts.) The video features excerpts from letters of all the American wars, beginning with the Civil War and ending with the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the more recent war footage (circa 2000’s) looks a little dated and the music is a bit heavy-handed, I thought this was a great symbol of what this exhibit as a whole represents: the transcending power of mail during wartime. The narrators are men and women, as the letter excerpts come from soldiers fighting the wars to their families’ letters written from home. While you get to see how things have changed–no more rampant amputation, video chat, integrated military units–the themes of the letters are universal: a longing for home, whether stated outright or implied underneath the descriptions of too much excitement.

I thought the in-person and digital presences for this exhibit were complementary. I’d really be torn if someone asked me to choose which one I like more, as I think, more importantly, that that question misses the point of this exercise. There are some things that can only be done in-person, and there are some things that can only be accomplished digitally.



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