the Monumental Archive Project: an open database of historic cemeteries
Originally published 31st August 2015
Archaeologists, historians, genealogists, community groups, and cemetery enthusiasts all over the world have recognized the historical value of gravestones for studying identity, social relationships, tradition, practice and choice, grief and emotion, self-representation, symbolism, trade and craft production – the possibilities are endless.
As a PhD student working in historic cemeteries in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Caribbean, I have repeatedly faced the same problem: there are a lot of people doing great work recording funerary monuments but very little access to the data afterwards. This limits historical research by restricting sample size and comparative studies, but it also results in the constant repetition of work that has already been done. A rich historical record already exists, if only it was accessible.
The Monumental Archive Project (MAP) will act as an open database of historic cemeteries to address accessibility and sustainability issues whilst stimulating creativity. It will act to:
1) preserve and provide access to existing records (and encourage data reuse);
2) stimulate new research and engagement with historic cemeteries (an at-risk heritage resource);
3) and establish collaborative networks and discussions between diverse interest groups.
The MAP project’s interface will be an open-access website with a database of monumental records, a curated collection of research projects (connecting data to methods and interpretations), and an interactive means of contributing data and commenting on research. The primary interface will organise the user experience into two interactive schemes. On the landing page, a map will highlight areas where records exist, with pop-up summaries and links to the corresponding database (and project collections of methods/interpretations where possible). There will also be traditional drop-down menus and a search function to access databases, or collections, to view on the website or download for easy use of data. The range of options for use reflects the diversity of the audiences for whom this website will be of value and the orientation of their research.
The second prong of the website will use a crowd-sourcing platform to facilitate and structure contributions. Individuals (be it scholars, local history societies, community members) can either submit completed databases formatted to MAP standards, which will be outlined on the website, or they can submit data (primarily photos of monuments, notes, maps) for transcribing by the MAP community through crowd-sourcing projects. This data once completed will be available on the primary web interface.
Behind the scenes, the archiving and preservation of this data will be critical, given the long-term historical value of the records. Because historical cemeteries are exposed to the elements and also to human activity, they are difficult to preserve long-term – it is critical that as much information can be recorded and preserved for future research, even if the monuments themselves continue to weather.
The pilot content for this project will be records of monuments in Barbados (~2000 monuments, 16 cemeteries), from my own research, including inscriptions, location, and material descriptions (style, iconography, font, material). It is hoped that this will encourage the contribution of data/content for the website to grow the database in following years. The structure of the website will therefore be designed with the flexibility to accommodate what will hopefully be a growing resource.
The Monumental Archive Project will be a collaborative, interactive database platform focused on accessible, sustainable and creative engagement with the past. In the coming year, development will focus on establishing a long-term database, user-friendly design, and a strong community of interest.