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Arts & Life

Instead Of Laying Off Workers, Kansas City's WWI Museum Redeploys Them To Expand Digital Archive

LettersReidClara_0.jpg
Courtesy of the National World War I Museum and Memorial
Cpl. Reid Fields, left, frequently wrote letters to his sweetheart, Clara Wrasse, during World War I. The National WWI Museum and Memorial is working to transcribe documents like Wrasse's reply.

Even when the National World War I Museum and Memorial is open, the majority of its vast holdings aren’t on public display but stored for safekeeping.

Now, with a metro-wide stay-at-home order keeping the Kansas City museum closed until at least April 24, museum employees who usually work with guests are helping transcribe about 10,000 digitized pages from letters, diaries and journals.

“One of our team members came up with the brilliant idea to use this time and transition part of our staff toward our goal of fully transcribing these items from the collection,” President and CEO Matthew Naylor said.

“It’s a creative solution to provide continuous work opportunities to our team members who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have tasks during the period of time when the Museum and Memorial is closed.”

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Credit Courtesy of the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
Museum employees who usually work with guests are currently helping transcribe letters, journals and diaries during the metro-wide stay-at-home order.

Because the collection was scanned previously, employees can do the transcription work from home. Registrar and Exhibitions Manager Stacie Petersen said transcription makes the archival material more accessible to digital visitors, especially people who are visually impaired and rely on screen readers for text to speech.

“Transcription takes handwriting in cursive and turns it into something basically anyone can read,” Petersen said. “In a typed format, you can pull into Google Translate, which can translate it roughly into other languages.”

That’s important because digital visitors come to the museum’s website from 169 countries. Transcription also ensures that the content of the documents won’t be lost to time.

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Credit Courtesy of the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
Transcription makes it easier for people who use text to speech screen readers to access documents from the museum's archive. It also helps preserve the content of the letters, many of which are starting to deteriorate due to age.

“It’s in the nature of the item to want to deteriorate,” Petersen said. “With letters, it depends upon when they were produced — the quality of paper varies over the course of the war — and how they were stored” before entering the museum’s collection.

Petersen’s favorite letters in the collection were written by Clara Wrasse of Chicago to her beau, Cpl. Reid Fields. 

“Their voices are fantastic,” Petersen said. “Clara is a hoot, and in that particular collection, we have both sides of the story.”

(Spoiler alert: Wrasse and Fields were married a few years after the war ended, in 1922.)

Virtual field trips 

The push to digitize the museum’s collection didn’t begin with COVID-19, but the current crisis has increased the demand for digital resources, Curator of Education Lora Vogt said.

“Our YouTube channel is blowing up right now,” Vogt said. 

Especially popular: three lectures on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

About 18,000 students visit the museum every school year, and though those field trips are impossible right now, Vogt is still pushing out resources to teachers not just in Kansas City but all over the country.

Laura Huffman teaches social studies to ninth and tenth graders at the Cannon School in Charlotte, North Carolina. She’s been building lessons around museum resources since 2012, when she was in the museum’s inaugural class of teacher fellows.

She took her students through the trenches using Google Arts & Culture, an online platform for museum tours and exhibitions. (Just an FYI, you’ll need to download the app for Android or iOS to get the best experience.)

“The museum has three different trenches in their exhibit — they’ve recreated a German trench, an English trench and a French trench,” she said. “When I taught trench warfare this year, I found it enormously useful in showing the comparison — in the German trenches, they’re defending the fatherland, and so they’re digging in, whereas the French and British trenches are more offensive. They’re very temporary. They’re just looking to get up out of there.

“It really resonated with them,” Huffman said.

In fact, Vogt said virtual visitors actually get a view of the trenches that museum guests can’t.

“We were able to fit the super fancy Google 360 camera into that trench line, behind the scenes and into the spaces,” she said.

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

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