The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa provides excerpts from the Leslie Adkin diaries to this project, one of several Twitter feeds from museums and collecting institutions throughout New Zealand that are automatically brought together in a group Twitter history stream called ‘Life 100 Years Ago’, to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.
Contextualising a historic event
This year marks the start of the First World War centenary, which is a significant commemoration for New Zealand. Just over 100,000 New Zealanders served overseas, from a population then of barely one million. Of those, more than 18,000 died and over 40,000 were wounded. Most were young men, and nearly one in five who served did not return.
Life 100 Years Ago provides New Zealanders, including young New Zealanders, with context for the upcoming centenary and an understanding of the impact of the First World War on the lives of New Zealanders.
In his diaries, which he kept from 1905 until his death in 1964, Leslie Adkin describes family and farm life, community and church events, the local landscape and occasionally his emotions. He was also an amateur photographer and scholar who made important contributions to New Zealand science. Adkin chose not to enlist in the First World War – but his younger brother was one of those who served and did not return.
Collaborative social media practice
Collaborating with the First World War Centenary (WW100) Programme Office in the Ministry for Culture & Heritage, Te Papa helped shape the way the Life 100 Years Ago project would run by establishing the first Twitter stream to be connected to the ‘group’ @life100yearsago stream.
The project gives Te Papa the chance to experiment with new ways of presenting and interpreting collections; and as the national museum means they can inspire other smaller museums to get involved.
The Life 100 Years Ago project is designed so that it is easy for museums and other collecting institutions to participate – with scalable options depending on their level of resourcing. As a minimum, participants establish a Twitter profile for an individual source (e.g. a diary) and select Tweet-sized excerpts to share daily (or as they are written) using a free scheduler such as Hoot-suite. Te Papa established the @adkin_diary stream for this purpose.
The individual Twitter streams are then connected to the central ‘group’ Life 100 Years Ago history stream, and made available also through the website for the First World War centenary in New Zealand, WW100.govt.nz for non-Twitter users, and Facebook. We do not know of any other long-term national collaborative real-time Twitter projects like this, although there are several examples of projects led by individual institutions or historians.
Deep content creation
Te Papa also digitises and transcribes the individual entries from the Leslie Adkin diary, and publishes these within their existing Collections Online system (EMu) as individual topics so that the full entry can be linked to from the Tweet and explored by readers as a ‘deep dive’. This has led to experiments with crowd-sourcing initiatives to assist ongoing transcription, and partnerships with the city’s university to research crowd-sourcing.
The curator selecting the excerpts has also been applying associated photographs (Adkin was a keen photographer), subjects, people, and places tags (from authority files and controlled vocabularies) to the entries; creating richer contextual linkages around the source material.
New knowledge creation
The project has also led to new knowledge creation within the museum. In a recent talk about the project, Kirstie Ross (the curator at Te Papa who selects the quotes for the Twitter stream), said:
“I treat Leslie’s life like a miniature soap opera, that some people will tune into religiously while others will come and go. Therefore it has to draw in, amuse and move both types of readers. Some stories are rolled out over several episodes while some are short-lived; others are played for laughs or to pique curiosity.
I have found it helpful that, as a history curator, I write exhibition text according to very strict word limits. It was therefore a relatively short leap from explaining the Great Depression in 150 words to summing up a day in the life of Leslie in 140 characters. I also know from my own behaviour that people read selectively and idiosyncratically on the web. This meant I was prepared to rethink what a narrative experience of the diaries might be.
Finally, I want to make a confession. I am not a digital native. But, for others of you like me, who sometimes see Tweeting as an alien way to communicate, be not afraid. From my experience, it has been worth adding Twitter to the suite of tools I use to present and interpret the past.”
A long term, cross-disciplinary use of social media
Leslie Adkin’s uncle, Bert Denton, is also participating in the Life 100 Years Ago project – his diary is held in a different institution in another town in New Zealand (and the two ‘@’ mentions of each other). Followers on Twitter can now read across multiple first-hand accounts and perspectives on the same events in New Zealand’s history, on the same day – and across multiple related collections. Other sources include a humble labourer, a real estate agent, and a daily feed of newspaper headlines with dates, so that people know what day and year it is.
The project started in April 1913/2013 to gradually build an audience and sense of the times before the start of the First World War (and official centenary commemorations) in 1914/2014. The intention is to keep it going for the duration of the centenary period to 2019.
It is also open to others to participate in, with the potential for young people or members of the public to ‘adopt’ a diary from an institution (or use a family source) and contribute a Twitter stream for a New Zealander during wartime.
It is early days for this project, and the centenary of the First World War has not yet begun. Publicity has been light, and relationships are being developed with media outlets to give the project more profile. A small, but engaged, audience of 421 people follows the Tweets through the Life 100 Years Ago stream. The project has received a lot of positive feedback from the education community, and others.
Those who do follow Life 100 Years Ago, however, discover a ‘parallel Twitter’ world populated by New Zealanders who may have different values and beliefs to them, but similarly fall in love, worry about work, note the weather, observe the news … and are about to live day by day through one of the most significant conflicts of New Zealand’s history.
Together, we will remember them.