How does something intrinsically analog, like archive war footage from more than 100 years ago, become viral in the digital age? According to historians at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, it just takes time, creativity, and technology.
When the museum was closed to visitors due to the pandemic, staff digitized their extensive catalog footage and turned those films into short GIFs, to be shared via GIFFY, texting, and social media platforms.
Service is universal
“You can easily see these GIFs as a modern vehicle to show how, in some ways, service 100 years ago, it is still very similar to service today,” said Lora Vogt, curator of education at the museum.
Today, you can text pictures of children saluting, soldiers playing baseball, boxing matches, people laughing, women dancing, and more. According to Vogt, the project made the experiences of the past feel very alive and relevant to the modern era.
Levity among the challenges
“These men and women were living through a catastrophic time. Today, you’ve got another global pandemic and so many challenges that feel weighty. But just like today, there’s still a lightness and a levity and humor,” Vogt said.
Jake Yadrich, who serves as audio/visual supervisor and videographer at the museum, sorted through over 400 films produced by the Army Signal Corps from 1917 through 1918 to produce more than 500 GIFs. It took his team more than 350 hours of work over six months.
“A majority of these images show how men and women were often able to smile, laugh, and enjoy life during one of the most horrific periods of human existence,” he said.
Searching through the GIF catalog, soldiers are photobombing one another, playing practical jokes, and hamming it up for the camera. “I particularly love the GIF of a soldier with an enormous loaf of bread, smiling,” Vogt said. “Where did he get that loaf and how did they bake it?”
Diversity of experiences
Another favorite war footage GIF is of two little boys, dressed in Army uniforms, performing a play. “This is something that children would perform today,” Vogt said.
According to Vogt, the war footage also shows more diversity than is often represented in textbook write-ups of the war. Included in the collection are women, Black service members, and a true diversity of experiences often missing in images of a particular unit or event.
“This is a great tool to learn more about history because you see people interacting, you see now how they’ve moved through life but also people that aren’t static,” she said.
According to Vogt, during the pandemic, the museum saw explosive growth of their content via GIPHY, YouTube, and social media channels. “Considering our subject matter, I probably shouldn’t say ‘explosive’ but it was,” Vogt joked.
“At the end of the day, we live with these stories. For us, it feels very alive and present in this time frame. Part of our task is to help others engage with this content and this is a great way to do so,” Vote said.
Humanity in war footage
Yadrich hopes that people will see humanity in this war footage. “Most people know a handful of facts about the war, have read a few books, or have seen a few pictures, but by creating an archive showcasing personality, we are forming a direct connection with those who served in the war,” he said.
Vogt encourages everyone to text each other with these GIFs. “If you’re going to fall into a social media rabbit hole, might as well make it an educative one. This is the perfect way to elevate your social media experience,” she concluded.