Gravestones. Tombstones. Grave markers. Memorials. Monuments. Commemoration.

Tablet. Ledger. Headstone. Footstone. Plaque. Slab. Mausoleum. Crypt. Obelisk. Stele. Cenotaph.

Last week I received an email from a colleague asking about terminology, and preferences in using gravestone vs. headstone vs. monument vs. memorial. This discussion in itself is complex, but it is also just touching on issues of categorizing monuments at the largest scale – within any particular style of monument, there are innumerable variations that reveal important information about practice, fashion, tradition, identity, and emotion in the past. In the world of commemoration, vocabulary seems endless and the task of selecting terms that are communicative to wide audiences but also reflect localized practice is truly monolithic in nature. Not to mention, the historical context of research, the politics in referencing art history-, archaeology-, and history-based work, and the relationship between academic, heritage management, and public endeavours.

Examples of classification of style and decoration of monuments

Examples of classification of style and decoration of monuments: shape, contours/moulding, and decoration.

The sheer variety of commemorative material culture, both temporally and geographically, contributes to the challenges. Selecting a term that is contextually specific is valuable for regional or localized micro-narratives, however it makes comparison and bigger picture studies nearly impossible.

This is the type of research that I have been undertaking in the Atlantic world, and the complications in combining datasets from colonies and metropoles inspired the original conceptualisation of the Monumental Archive Project. Given the range of open access databases of monuments available (FindAGrave, CanadianHeadstones, etc.), linked and contextual data is what sets MAP apart, in addition to efforts underway to ensure long-term preservation of digital data.

However, it is still the component that I find most bewildering. It is comparatively easy to tinker with website design and programming issues, because it seems more neutral and far less political than approaching the touchy subject of controlled vocabularies and linked data (here I will piggyback off of A.L. McMichael’s excellent discussion of naming conventions in another MSU DAI blog this month).

The good news is that after letting these issues percolate and dance around me for months now, along with the wise words of my mentors, my goals have finally become clearer as the little picture and the big picture, and the path between them.

My goals for our August launch deadline with the MSU DAI:

  • Craft a functioning web platform to serve as a hub for the MAP
  • Make my database of 2000 monuments from Barbados openly available on MAP, using my standards of vocabulary based on transatlantic research and conventions, to serve as a manageable test case and, hopefully, proof of concept
  • Establish a section within the web platform for collaborative discussions of controlled vocabulary, and best practice in commemorative studies more generally, using existing software for group editing/annotations/discussion (any advice here would be extremely welcome).

My bigger picture goals following the launch of MAP in August:

  • Use meetings to discuss conventions in terminology and practice as an opportunity for face-to-face collaboration, supplementing and adding momentum to the web-based platform (possibly the SAAs or SHAs in 2017 – stay tuned and contact me if this is of interest)
  • Create a set of controlled vocabulary and linked data for use on MAP, and hopefully more widely
  • Through continued research, collaboration, and engagement, accumulate further datasets to make openly accessible through MAP, using the established conventions in terminology
  • Archive these with a data preservation service like ADS at the University of York to ensure long term preservation.

In the next month, I will work on solidifying my plans for the collaborative platform within MAP, including exploring which technologies to use, how to set it up, and begin refining the framework of this component.