Finding Preservation and Accessible History at the 2012 Webby Awards

Re-posted from

Everyone’s heard of the Grammys, the Oscars, and the Emmys. But last night was an awards show of a different kind. The 2012 Webby Awards, held at Manhattan’s historic Hammerstein Ballroom, celebrated people, companies, and organizations that have done something especially intriguing, impactful, and engaging online.

A screenshot of Dear Photograph, which was nominated for a Webby in the “Cultural Blog” category.

Some of the winners were a bit odd (Draw a Stickman), while others I had seen before and admired (have you played with NASA’s new site lately?).

Those of us who love history (and, cough, who work in the non-profit sector) recognize that we can’t travel everywhere, so new digital tools that create impactful online travel and visitor experiences are valuable investments. I started thinking about the winning sites that I was drawn to and realized many of them had connections (unsurprisingly) to art, architecture and place in the digital realm.

Consider, for example, the website for the San Francisco Symphony’s history. Through its interactive timeline, the page encourages users to engage with the history of the physical place. My favorite thing about the Symphony website is how it mixes material culture, video and audio to tell various stories about the group and its space.

By bringing together art from museums across the globe and allowing visitors to make their own collections, the Google Art Project reminded me that art has the ability to link us to a specific feeling, memory, time or place without having to go to the original context for the piece. The Walker Art Museum’s new site is like an online newspaper, making links between its collections and current events, “creating a catalyst for creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences.”

We all know that preservation means community, as it brings together disperate groups of people to
rally around a space. The Messages for Japan project by Google helped to bring the global community together after a tragedy, showing solidarity for a particular place thousands of miles away. These messages created virtual memorials and connections. In contrast, some websites were able to mimic the ambiance and attitude of the place they represent. Not sure what I mean? Check out Downtown Seattle’s website.

Other websites saught to make connections between the past and the future. The National Park Service’s page on the Civil War’s 150th Anniversary does just that looking at the “then” and “now” while also incorporating live tweeting of the events on the day they happened.

The United States Holocaust Museum’s website Remember Me searches for lost history, trying to identify hundreds of images of children to capture their story, their tale before they are lost. Others look to advocate, as does the well-known Slavery Footprint website, which urges consumers to be more conscious about modern slavery — asking us to do something now — reminding us that slavery isn’t just a story from the history books.

And finally, some sites are there to inspire and to remember. When I first saw Dear Photograph, I was intrigued. Here, old photographs are held up at their location against how the places appear now. Each image is matched up with a short letter, describing meaning, feeling and emotion behind the scene we are seeing. It’s a powerful message about the importance of place in our everyday lives.

Although it’s easy to relegate “preservation” to bricks and mortar restoration and rehabilitation, efforts outside of the physical space can be just as important for engaging people with places that matter to them. Kudos to the winners and nominees of this year’s Webbys that are making history, art, and places more accessible online!


Note: In addition to the websites above there were a few more that I thought were useful to look at such as like the BMW Guggenheim Lab which takes touring lab that is traveling across the world to discuss urban design and planning to the virtual realm opening discussions on buildings and planning  to a beyond the physical boundaries of Mumbai, Berlin and New York. The site states “Part urban think tank, part community center and public gathering space, the Lab is conceived to inspire public discourse in cities around the world and through the BMW Guggenheim Lab website and online social communities.”

I also found the organization websites for the AIA and the ASLA to be fun to poke around, since both are affiliated with the historical and preservation field.

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