The Monumental Archive Project launched officially last week as the culmination of the Digital Archaeology Institute at Michigan State University. One year ago, almost to the day, I penned the first MAP blog (and in fact, one of my first blogs ever). One Heritage Jam entry, one hackathon, and many a blog later, I have coded, hacked, failed, succeeded, tweeted, and cobbled together a number of digital things. In many ways, it has been so full of endings, beginnings and progressing on so many levels that I hardly know where to start when I am asked to summarise the year. From finishing my PhD to starting three new academic jobs (most recently at the University of Victoria, BC), the experiences of hacking, failing, succeeding and cobbling of the digital world seem to have leached into all part of my life.
One way or another, the Monumental Archive Project came together. Initially proposed as an approach to the long-standing problem of inaccessible, uncoordinated and non-standardised recording of cemetery data, and the increasingly ‘at-risk’ status of many historic cemeteries, MAP was developed to act as an open access platform for researching the dead, their monuments, and the churchyards/cemeteries associated with them.
Although original plans had included formal archiving of the data for long-term sustainability and preservation, institutional shifts (#AcademicNomad) made acquiring funding for this project problematic and therefore limited the project to open source and free applications. The redesigned project is nonetheless a testament to what can be built quickly and without any money – which in and of itself feels like success. Built using Github’s free hosting options, alongside Bootstrap templates, Mapbox interactive maps, and a WordPress-based blog, the website came together as a user-friendly, adaptable and scaleable point through which data can be accessed.
The launch of MAP was done with a pilot project of more than 2000 monuments, from more than 20 locations in Barbados, which had been collected during the course of my PhD project. This felt particularly relevant as my fieldwork regularly demonstrated the international audience for these records, as I bumped into individuals from the US, French Guiana, the UK, and other corners of the world looking for the monuments of their ancestors. Social media (follow us on Twitter!) and the blog have also been utilised to spread the word to diverse audiences, and will continue to be developed in coming months.
Although initial goals were scaled back to what was achievable this year, unfortunately relinquishing goals of formal digital archiving, in future it is hoped that current funding applications will result in the ability to grow a more sustainable version of this project. Digital archiving alongside opportunities for external contributions to the data set will help to contribute to goals to encourage open access data, collaboration, and comparative research.
In reviewing the other ‘launch’ blog posts by fellow DAI attendees, and reflecting on the past year, there is a strong sense of beginnings. These capstone projects are in many ways baby steps en route to bigger visions (many of which we naively thought we could achieve this past year). Many of us also have spinoff projects, upcoming conference presentations and publications, new ideas, and even new courses on digital archaeology. The impact of the Digital Archaeology Institute will emerge over the years, and hopefully MAP will likewise have a long-term role in inspiring and stimulating new digital approaches to cemetery studies.
Acknowledgements: A special thank you to the organisers of the Digital Archaeology Institute at Michigan State University and all of the mentors who offered endless support and guidance, both regarding MAP but also extending to include academic mentorship more generally, for which I can only express my deepest gratitude!