Monday, March 28, 2011

Absence, Archives, and Assignments...

I haven't posted here in a while — the Christchurch earthquake, an obsession with my research on Joe Hill, and becoming a student has meant this wee blog has been neglected. Sorry blog.

I'm going to be posting up essays and things from my Postgrad Certificate (eventually Masters) in Information Studies. I'm not sure if anyone will find them interesting, but hey, it's better than them sitting on my desktop.

Here's assignment number one: to critically review two online Archive exhibitions at Archives NZ.

Exhibition Review
With the growth of archive advocacy, archives across the globe are employing the use of online exhibitions. Like the museum sector before them, the power of the object (the record) and the access to our collective heritage is being promoted in the virtual realm. Unlike the museum sector however, archival exhibitions come with a number of concerns unique to its field. These include principles of original order, the loss of archival bonds, the importance of the record’s context (provenance, integrity, authenticity), and the level of interpretation provided.

This essay aims to highlight the formalist and analyst approach to interpretation as identified by Peter Lester (Lester, 2001), through the examination of two online Archives New Zealand exhibitions. Both ‘Passchendale Casualty Forms’ and ‘An Impressive Silence’ deal with New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War, but in very different ways and with very different results.

Passchendaele Casualty Forms
In 2005 the personnel files of those who served in the New Zealand Defence Services, namely in the South African War and the First World War, were transferred to Archives New Zealand (Lafferty-Hancock, 2006). As well as general records pertaining to each soldier, casualty forms are also included. ‘Passchendaele Casualty Forms’ makes a selection of these records available as an easy to use online exhibition.

Upon ‘entering’ the exhibition, the viewer is greeted with a brief explanation on the series’ original source and the selected files on show. The records are accessed through an alphabetically organised list of soldiers (of which there are close to 700). These are then displayed to the left of a generic description on how to use Archway (Archives New Zealand’s finding aid) in order find out more on that particular soldier. In Flanders Fields, a poem by John McCrae, serves as the solitary contextual information alongside the records.

The usability of the exhibition is excellent. A clean and concise layout, coupled with a linear process, enables the user to easily find the records on show. However this comes at the expense of a choice-led experience through the exhibition, and the possibility of user interaction. There are no hyper links to outside contextual information, and the user is confined to exploring the records as determined by the structure of the exhibition; that is, alphabetically. There is no space for comments or other participatory functions (commonly described as Web 2.0).

The lack of contextual information and the relatively linear format would suggest that ‘Passchendale Casualty Forms’ is an object-focused exhibition, employing a ‘formalist’ methodology (Lester, 2001, p.93). The records are essentially left to ‘speak for themselves.’ This may be appropriate given the kind of emotional response viewers could have to such records (especially family members) and the sheer amount of records on display. But as a result, the exhibition fails to locate the subject at hand within a broader historical framework, concentrating solely on the records themselves.

This object-focus is made clear in the title of the exhibition and reinforced throughout its opening description. The viewer is given some background information about how the records relate to the Ypres-Passchendale sector of Belgium during 1917-1918, and that many of the casualties on show are buried at Tyne Cot Military Cemetery. We are also told what the records contain, such as name, date of birth, rank, and the movements of the individual during their service.

What we are not given is any information about the Battle of Passchendaele, or how events at Passchendaele sit in wider relation to the First World War. In fact, the First World War is not mentioned at all. Nor is the reason for New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War, including who and what caused so many casualties amongst the New Zealand forces.

This lack of wider context assumes the viewer has prior knowledge of the Battle of Passchendaele and indicates the exhibition’s target audience: genealogists, researchers, and war historians. Yet some basic background information on why these young men were in Belgium, and what they perceived themselves to be fighting (and dying) for, could have personalised the records and placed them into a wider framework of understanding. It would also have made the exhibition (and the records) more available to a larger audience.

Because of the lack of contextual information, the exhibition offers limited interpretation of the records or how they contribute to the larger topic of the First World War. But if one takes a moment to examine the records and use the Archways finding aid provided, the viewer can gain access to a wealth of contextual information not explicitly described. It is the records, the facilitation of self-driven research and the use of Archives New Zealand via Archway that is the exhibition’s strength.

The records consist of two personnel forms: Form B.103 and Form NZR.2, which are described in Archway’s Series Description. The series from which the 700 records come from is hyper linked in the initial text of the exhibition. It is here the viewer is given a history of the records: who created them, how they are arranged, and how they came to Archives New Zealand. The integrity of the files is also described — we are told that sometime before transferral the records were integrated from two sequences into one.

The records themselves are reproduced relatively well and are filled with a variety of information (which makes up for the lack of contextual information). The enlargement of records, however, is limited to one zoom. Nonetheless, the viewer can still get a sense of the individual’s life during their service, such as where they served, if they were promoted, and how they were killed. Evident is the fact that many of these soldiers were wounded more than once. For example, Mathias Becks of the Wellington Infantry, was wounded on 24 June 1917, and then killed in action on 4 October 1917.

How the records are displayed raises a number of questions about the archival principle of original order. For example, the records are displayed and arranged by page, yet the pages are not displayed in any particular order — both the records of an individual and across the collection. The front and back of Matthias Becks’ B.103 Form are not displayed together; instead, the first page of his NZR.2 Form divides it. In some cases the front page of a form is displayed at the bottom of the page, rather than at the top. Likewise, the records of some individuals start with the blue B.103 Form while others start with the white NZR.2 Form. This randomness of display is to either preserve the original order of the physical records, or the result of haphazard uploading on the part of the exhibitors. The lack of contextual information means we do not know the reason for such arrangement.

The information provided does not explain the reason why the casualty forms of the Ypres-Passchendaele sector were selected for display, or how the 700 records from that sector were chosen for digital reproduction. The viewer is not told how many more records from the Ypres-Passchendaele sector are available, or whether records from other sectors are as available as the records on display.

This formalist method of interpreting the records suggests the premise of the exhibition and its intended audience: the highlighting of Archives New Zealand’s acquisition of personnel files and their availability to genealogists, researchers and war historians through Archways. In this sense, the exhibition is rather successful in meeting its intended thesis.

Research into how genealogists search for information revealed that “genealogists… wanted lists of names, or names indexes, or search engines that retrieved by name to facilitate their research” (Duff & Johnson, 2003, p.85). The alphabetical structure of the records and the encouraged use of names in Archway ensure these needs are met. Instead of being given the reference number to each file, the viewer is prompted to enter the individual’s name into Archway in order to find out more. This prompt appears to the right of every record on display. In the case of Matthias Becks, entering his name in Archway furnished an additional digital file not on display in the exhibition.

What this highlights is that Archives New Zealand has more records to access, that they are easy to access, and most importantly, that the user can do it themselves. It promotes the use of archival material and archives, Archway as a functional finding aid, and fulfils the mandate of Archives New Zealand to show “public archives are accessible and used” (

That genealogists can easily access these records online or through Archway is the standout feature of the exhibition. While the documents themselves do not evoke reservoirs of resonance, ‘Passchendaele Casualty Forms’ is an excellent online resource for family wanting to learn more about their loved ones, and succinctly promotes the value of the archival record and archives in general.

An Impressive Silence
In contrast to the formalist method taken in ‘Passchedaele Casualty Forms’, ‘An Impressive Silence: Public Memory and Personal Experience of the Great War’ employs a range of interactive tools to mark the 90th Anniversary of the end of the First World War. It offers a wealth of contextual information, analysis, and interpretation. Originally a physical exhibition, the online version uses a vast array of records to cover a number of perspectives, while the exhibition itself is organised in a way to promote both a user-led experience and the aesthetic strengths of the records. However, like ‘Passchendaele Casualty Forms’, the exhibition is not without its faults.

The opening description of ‘An Impressive Silence’ presents a number of questions and perspectives, acknowledging the “differing attitudes visible during and after the war” ( The interpretation provided by the exhibition goes some way in highlighting these attitudes, challenging normative views on the Great War and providing a balanced analysis. The first section, ‘Off to War’, includes traditional information around New Zealand’s entry into the Great War, but also includes overlooked anti-war perspectives of anti-militarists and conscientious objectors. Records are provided to further illustrate their oppositional viewpoint.

In doing so, the exhibition is both evocative and didactic, contributing to a more in-depth understanding of the First World War and those returning from it. Covering the challenges and concerns of those coming home from the war is the exhibition’s intended thesis, and while more information on the records would have helped enrich its analysis, ‘An Impressive Silence’ meets its mandate in an open, entertaining and engaging manner.

‘An Impressive Silence’ takes “the ‘analyst’ approach, in which meaning and ideas become the focus of the exhibition” (Lester, 2001, p.93). The context, and in turn, the records, are used to illustrate its central theme. There are five sections of focus ordered chronologically, each with its own theme, home page, contextual information, sub-menu, records, and related links. In turn, each sub-menu has its own records and information, ranging from recruitment and propaganda to the physical and mental costs of the war.

The user can navigate through these menus in any order they please, visit the many hyper links to outside information within the text, and use interactive media such as audio and video. An interactive timeline at the bottom of each page, a gallery section that alphabetically databases the records, and an excellent search function, adds to the user-led experience.

The pitfalls of too much choice or too much content can often accompany such an approach. Studies around online museum exhibitions have shown that when users are faced with too many options, they can be overwhelmed, “skim[ing] the available choices, and select what appears to them to be the first most plausible choice. Even if a more likely choice appears later on in the list of possible choices, few users will have the patience required to find it” (Marty & Twidale, 2004). ‘An Impressive Silence’ seems get the balance of choice and content just right. That the exhibition can be read in a number of ways rather than in one linear process avoids the issue of skipping a crucial part of the narrative. In other words, the exhibition doesn’t have to be viewed from start to finish in order to gain something from it.

Unfortunately, the user’s gain in personalised navigation and in-depth information is the record’s loss. The records are visually exciting, engaging, evocative, and begging for their own descriptions, yet they are completely devoid of contextual information. Apart from a title (often cut short due to graphic design constraints) and an archive reference number, the user is not told who created the record, where it came from, and what else is the series. Records are pulled from their archival bonds and displayed to represent the text, and not the other way round. As a result and in contrast to ‘Passchendaele Casualty Forms’, the records become “mere props to the story”, easily replaceable by “an illustrated publication or leaflet” (Lester, 2001, p. 93).

For example, there is a number of visually striking recruitment posters throughout the exhibition. But in order to find out anything about the creator, the viewer has to squint at the fine print on the poster itself. For viewers of an artistic bent, information around the size of the poster, its print medium and whether there are more posters by the same artist would go a long way. For users of archives, knowing what other posters are contained in the series or where one can find similar posters in the vaults is also important.

Having the option of viewing each record’s context, in a pop up box or in the gallery section, would have produced an even more rewarding online experience. While the records do generally fit with the theme of each page and the narrative provided, a degree of meaning is lost when the object is not put into its own context. Doing so may have swamped the viewer with too much information, but if structured well, it could have also created even more interactive learning opportunities — meeting the needs of specific audiences in an original and intellectually rich manner.

The Archives New Zealand exhibitions reviewed above illustrate two different approaches to interpreting archival records online. The ‘formalist’ approach in ‘Passchendaele Casualty Forms’ places emphasis on the object, making the archival record readily available but at the expense of analysis and interpretation. ‘An Impressive Silence’ employs an ‘analyst’ methodology, providing a wealth of challenging and informative context that engages the viewer, but neglects the record. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and both are appropriate for their intended audiences.

Lester argues that “the best approach is to take a middle line between these two methods”, so that the viewer can derive their own meaning and engage with the “social, cultural and economic factors surrounding the record’s context and use” (Letser, 2001, p.93). In the two exhibitions above, the middle ground, unfortunately, remained untouched.

  • Archives New Zealand: About Us (2000). Retrieved March 19, 2011, from
  • An Impressive Silence: Public Memory and Personal Experience of the Great War (2008). Retrieved March 18, 2011, from
  • Duff, W. M. & Johnson, C. A. (2003). Where is the list with all the names? Information seeking behavior of genealogists. American Archivist, 66 (Spring/Summer), 79-95.
  • Lafferty-Hancock, F. (2007). Public Records and Archives New Zealand. In A. Fields & R. Young (Eds.) Informing New Zealand: Libraries, Archives and Records (5th ed., pp.187-201). Lower Hutt, New Zealand: The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.
  • Lester, P. (2006). Is the virtual exhibition the natural successor to the physical? Journal of the Society of Archivists, 27 (1), 85-101.
  • Marty, P. & Twidale, M. (2004, September 6). Lost in gallery space: A conceptual framework for analyzing the usability flaws of museum Web sites. First Monday, 9 (9). Retrieved from
  • Passchendaele Casualty Forms (2011). Retrieved March 17, 2011, from

  • In Flanders Fields (2011, March 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23:06, March 21, 2011, from
  • School of Information Management. (2011). Module 3: Public Programming and Archival Exhibitions. Retrieved from

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