Europeana 1914-1918 Collection Days

The year 2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Europeana has intitiated a couple of projects under the header of Europeana 1914-1918. One of these is the Collection Days. Modelled on the British antique road shows, at a Collection Day people turn up with their 1914-1918 memorabilia and have them digitized and catalogued on the spot. They also get to tell their family story which is the main thing. In this project, the object supports the story rather than vice versa. In the spring of 2012, Denmark held a Col-lection Day at Sønderborg Castle. It is a de-mocratisation of our cultural heritage and it brings to light new stories and new per-spectives on the Great War.

The project and the dress rehearsal

“I heard about the book and then I tracked it down!” 90-year-old Maja Christensen smiles enigmatically. This is all she is ever going to say about how the black book with a German Iron Cross on the cover came into her possession. “Would you like to talk about your book to a pocket camera,” our PR person asks. “No, thank you,” the old lady replies. “I’m too old and wrinkled for TV.”

We are at Sønderborg Castle for the dress rehearsal of the Danish Euro-peana 1914-1918 Collection Day. It is March 28th. We need material from Denmark digitized in time to add it to the collection shown at an important seminar in Brussels for the European ministers of culture and the EU Commission on May 9th. Material from all over Europe will be added to an eCloud shown on a large digital wall. Also, we need to find out where the logistical challenges of a collection day are before the real event on April 24th.

In the spring of 2011 Europeana 1914-1918 Collection Days started with nine days in different German cities and with great success. In December 2011 the Danish Agency for Culture received a call from the Europeana head office asking us to arrange a collection day in Denmark in a few months. Of course we couldn’t say no to that and suddenly we were busy.

The teacher’s book

Maja Christensen’s book is special. It is written by her great uncle, who was a teacher in the small village of Bæk outside of Vojens in Southern Jutland. The region was German and had been so since the Danish defeat in 1864, but the family was – like most – Danish-minded. The teacher receives his edu-cation in Flensburg where he becomes more and more German-minded. When the war breaks out, the older students start getting drafted and he could not be any prouder. 71 are called. 15 of them fall. A lot more get injured and traumatized. The teacher decides their memory must be preserved so he starts a book with their biographies and adorns it with an Iron Cross. The 15 fallen ones get the first pages. The book is in German and written in a very neat hand-writing. On the last page the teachers airs his pride. All his pupils did their duty to the Emperor. None of them deserted. “This does not mean,” adds museum inspector at Sønderborg Castle, Inge Adriansen, Ph.D., “that they all went to war hap-pily. In fact, one of them cut his index finger off to avoid it. One shot himself in the foot and one even jumped from a barn, but to no avail.”

When Southern Jutland becomes Danish again after the referendum in 1920, the teacher packs up and moves south until he’s once again in his be-loved Germany.

The plan in Denmark

The choice of Sønderborg was both easy and hard. Denmark was a neutral country during the war and so South-ern Jutland was the only place that was actively involved and the only place with outdoors heritage from the war. There was even a Zeppelin base in Tønder that got bombed as the first aerial assault from an aircraft carrier in history. On the other hand we will miss out on some material related to the neutral aspect. The solution we come up with is two-fold. First we will have a real collection day at the castle and then in autumn we will open at nine libraries around the country with smaller but similar events. It is a unique construction among the countries that have had collection days, but the backing from the library sector is there. We get lots of emails and phone calls from people who cannot make it to Sønderborg, but still almost 200 people do make it on April 24th and the press is there in surprising numbers as well. We get over 15 minutes of live TV, and the next morning our crew wakes up in Sønderborg to the headlines in the local newspapers. The next weekend the press agency Ritzau runs the international press release from Europeana, and suddenly the papers and even text-TV run the story of how an unknown postcard from Hitler was handed in at a Collection Day in Ger-many.

The collection day

April 24th is hectic but successful. We have four interview tables running. The interviewer records people’s stories and may sometimes add information about the thing in hand. When the interview is over the objects get transferred to the digitization queue. We have a scanner station and two photo stations running non-stop, while people are waiting to get their things back. Later we hear that on their way out most people make their way through the museum’s information office and gift shop just to tell the staff what a great experience they have just had. The work is not over for us when people leave, because there is photographic post-processing to be done, images to be attached to stories and catalogued via online forms with the pervasive challenge of keeping images and stories together. Some people bring one object, while others bring shoeboxes filled with letters and photographs.

Someone has brought his grandfather’s unusual cane. It is made of old love letters, bound with piano wire and finished with a coat of varnish. The top is made from a bullet casing with fine engravings. A correspondence between a husband and wife shows her sending him food from home to the front. The food is green when it arrives but it peels off he writes her back. A family’s youngest son disappears at the Battle of Arras. Eight years later a British soldier writes the family that he helped bury their son and took his wallet, his ID tag and some pictures. He has been feeling guilty ever since and sends back the tag and the photographs. As we delve into the stories, some are sad, some tragic, some end well, some merely show the unbearable doldrums of war. They all capture something unique about an era I realize I know too little about.

Epilogue in Brussels

On May 9th in Brussels, the Danish minister for culture is making a speech to his colleagues, the EU Commission and other dignitaries. “It’s easy, “he says “to get caught up in the sense of crisis and problems at home. Then you come to Brussels and witness a project such as this and you think to yourself: We can do so much as Europeans!” He adds: “The cultural domain is essential, because this is where things are happening and where we can ensure growth.”

I sit in the back row contemplating the Danish Agency for Culture and the ministry’s department’s other Euro-peana projects at the moment. There is the promotion of Europeana to Danish high-school students, our efforts to expose existing metadata and digitized collections and the bulk transfers of metadata to Europeana. There is legis-lation of great importance to the cul-tural sector on its way through the system; for example a new, expanded version of the so-called PSI directive and the preparation of council conclusions following the Commission’s recommendation to the member states to step up their digitization efforts. And there, suddenly, from the big digital wall, a 3D-rendered picture of the German-minded teacher from Bæk and pages of his books appears. He stares at us silently for a few seconds before he and his book disappear again.

Consultant Danish Agency for Culture