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2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday July 11, 2019

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Wendy Byrne

Wendy Byrne

Former Editorial Officer a.i. , Europeana Foundation

portrait of Alba Irollo

Alba Irollo

Research Coordinator , Europeana Foundation

Interactive mapping of memories

This year, funding from the Europeana Research Grants Programme has provided support for three early-career scholars to develop their projects related to the theme of The First World War. At the end of their projects, the 2018 Europeana Grant recipients took time out to answer some questions.

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Return to Sender: Mapping Memory Journeys in the Europeana 1914-1918 Postcard Archive
Elizabeth Benjamin

In this interview series, we get a glimpse into the researchers’ academic lives, their goals, and the influence of digital cultural heritage on their work. The second grant winner in this series is Dr Elizabeth Benjamin, Lecturer in French at Coventry University in the UK. Her project supported by Europeana resulted in an interactive map entitled  ‘Return to Sender: Mapping Memory Journeys in the Europeana 1914-1918 Postcard Archive’.

What is your current academic position and what is your research focus?

I am currently working as a Lecturer in French at Coventry University, UK, where I am a member of the Centre for Research in Arts, Memory and Community (CAMC). My research intersects comparative aesthetics, memory studies and digital humanities, with particular focus on the 20th century. I have built on my expertise in the relationship between the arts and philosophy to explore the role of memorialisation in the formation of national identity, analysed through socio-cultural expression. My next major research project will assess the evolution of the role and depiction of trauma in French culture and society from the 19th century to the present day. My Europeana project, Return to Sender, is an interactive map of the postcards within the Europeana 1914-1918 Collection.

How has Europeana helped you to achieve your research goal?

Europeana Collections provides a huge wealth of accessible visual resources, allowing insight into critical periods of history from all around the world, without requiring physical mobility. The grant has allowed me to produce a resource that processes WWI postcards in a form that maps their movements in time, while retaining a presence on the map itself. The proposal was developed with a co-investigator, Garfield Benjamin, who specialises in Digital Media at Solent University. He translated the research aims into the technical specifications for the map, and applied the final aesthetic to the website as a whole. The funding provided the opportunity to hire a web developer, Niall O’Leary, to convert into code the visualisation goals of the project, as well as working with a student researcher, Stefan Bernhardt-Radu, who created the dictionary of locations to get the archives on the map. The grant programme has helped me achieve my research goals through giving me the opportunity to pursue a more practical digital humanities project, as well as extending the archival aspects of my current work.

The above GIF shows a sample of filtered results on the interactive map ‘Return to Sender: Mapping Memory Journeys in the Europeana 1914-1918 Postcard Archive’. CC BY-SA

How did you discover the Europeana Grants Programme and why did you decide to apply for it?

I was previously aware of Europeana Collections as an essential digital platform for the exploration of artefacts across cultural heritage institutions, having used it for both teaching and research in the past. I also follow Europeana Research’s Twitter account, which is how I came across the call for projects for the Europeana Research Grants Programme. The theme this year being WWI immediately piqued my interest, as my PhD thesis — then published in the form of a book — focused on Dada and Existentialism, a transnational art movement contemporaneous to the war, and a post-WWII philosophical movement, respectively. I was also involved at the time in conferences surrounding the centenary of WWI. As part of my role at Coventry I teach modules in French history, and this involves visual imagery from the early 20th century, so I imagined the project would feed directly back into my teaching as a pedagogical tool, as well as its goal as a tool for research. I decided to apply to the programme for these reasons, but also because I have a particular interest in postcards and what they have to reveal about socio-cultural and political developments of the period.

How does access to digital cultural heritage influence your research?

The First World War’s global nature significantly complicates its study because of the dispersal of its remaining artefacts. Often it is simply impractical to access physical archives; it can also be the case that original pieces belong to family collections or have simply been lost. Moreover, in a museum setting, resources are curated, imposing a specific ‘memoryscape’ or politics of memory of a particular period. Digital cultural heritage allows a contemporary researcher to overcome issues of physical accessibility, as well as occasionally offering a substitute or ‘copy’ of artefacts that would otherwise be unuseable. Through their browsable resources, platforms such as Europeana Collections, confront the issue of data bias inherent to curation by putting more power in the hands of the user.

Digital cultural heritage will be particularly important as we move temporally further away from periods such as WWI, after centenary commemorations have finished. Additionally, shifting patterns of international relations, environmentalism and digital fluency will give increasing space to digital communities. I am interested in the ways in which these developments impact memorialisation, a key aspect of my ongoing research.

For more information see Elizabeth Benjamin's final report below and read the first interview in this series with grant winner Saverio Vita.

This post was edited on 15/08/22 to amend broken links in the text.