5. WW1 Poetry Archive News

Image of original poetry manuscript in Second Life
Image of soldier in Second Life

In the lead up to Armistice, the First World War Poetry Digital Archive launched its final, much anticipated collection: The Siegfried Sassoon Collection. See www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2009/091109.html

Sassoon is one of the most studied War poets at school and undergraduate level, the manuscripts, digitised from eight different archives in the UK and US, have never before been made available to the public. The launch has featured in the New York Times, amongst other places.

This collection marks the end of a three year project that has digitisted over 7000 items related to the major poets of the First World War from archives all over the world. In addition, the Great War Archive collected over 6,500 digital items and stories originating from the War held by the general public that otherwise may have become lost forever.

Its creators, its users, and scholarly reviewers believe the archive to be the most important online resource for researching, teaching, and studying the First World War and the literature that it inspired. It has also become a site of memory. www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit, @ww1lit on Twitter

5.1. Bringing the First World War to Life

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive and the Learning Technologies Group at OUCS have collaborated on an exciting new project in the 3D virtual world Second Life. The team believes this is the first time anything of its type has been done on Second Life.

Second Life poppies

Second Life is a three-dimensional virtual world where users can interact with each other through avatars (3D versions of themselves) called ‘residents’. These can travel the world, socialize, visit museums or attend events, concerts and lectures to name just a few activities.

This project has seen the Second Life environment modelled to simulate areas of the Western Front 1914 – 18. This work was carried out by Chris Stephens assisted by Alun Edwards (known by their avatar names Csteph Submariner and Skanda Broek in Second Life). Into this environment a range of digitised archival materials from the major poets of the First World War (such as poetry manuscripts, letters and diaries), including Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Vera Brittain, along with contextual primary source materials have been imported. These materials have been supplemented with new interpretative content and a spectrum of interactive tools and tutorials, streaming video and audio effects.

Visitors to the model are given a unique immersive experience where they can explore a training camp, a dressing station, a trench network and No Man’s Land. The terrain is waterlogged and difficult to navigate, rife with rats and littered with poppies. Moving nearer to the front line the clamour of shell blasts and artillery fire becomes louder and louder.

Image of Second Life gas/word cloud

As visitors explore the simulation, they can listen to the voices of veterans recounting their experiences of the War, watch original film footage from the time, and learn about life on the Western Front. Within this context they can encounter some of the most powerful poetry in English literature by handling the original manuscripts, turning the pages of the poet’s war diaries and letters, and listening to readings.

Image of soldier and ghost in Second Life

At the end the visitor is teleported out of the trenches to a teaching area. Here they are asked to consider the memory of the war, and to confront their own prejudices and stereotypes - was the war really all about trenches, mud, and rats, or are their other aspects to it that we now need to consider? Should it only be remembered as mass slaughter, a gross act of futility, or more a collective act of unparalleled heroism that ended ultimately in a victory for Britain and its allies?

Dr Stuart Lee, Director of OUCS and Lecturer of English at Oxford University, said: “Attempting to form the context of a particular piece of literature is a key critical approach in the discipline, which normally involves studying secondary material, or in rare case, site visits. By piloting the use of Second Life, the First World War Poetry Archive is approaching this in an innovative way. More importantly it is showing how new technologies (virtual worlds) can be utilised to provide more interesting access to key research and teaching resources.”

The artefacts have been drawn from the highly successful First World War Poetry Digital Archive (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit), launched in 2008 to mark the 90th Anniversary of Armistice. By placing them in an online virtual model the project aims to make the collection more useful and engaging to a range of different user groups across UK education sectors, research communities and heritage industry.

Kate Lindsay, Project Manager, said: “Virtual worlds create opportunities to do things that are impossible in real museums. By simulating parts of the Western Front, we can embed an entire exhibition's worth of content within the space. This can be further enhanced by placing digital versions of real archival materials and narratives along the paths that visitors take. The result is an immersive and personal experience. It’s not ‘real’ but it does offer possibilities for understanding a part of history that is now beyond human memory.”

‘Designing Worlds’, a weekly virtual worlds design ‘TV’ show, ran an episode based exclusively in the project’s exhibition. Richard Ellen, of ‘Designing Worlds’ said “It’s a very powerful presentation. It really brings home the potential of virtual environments for education. We have only begun to scratch the surface of what this kind of presentation can offer. Involving, immersive experiences like this – in which the visitor can interact with information within the recreation, add their own contributions and experience ‘accidental learning’ – are just a part of the wealth of educational capabilities that virtual worlds can offer. This is perhaps one of the most advanced projects of its kind, and Oxford University is at the forefront of exploring these new worlds.”

Trenches scene fom Second Life

For more information visit www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/secondlife. The sim can be found on the Frideswide Island in Second Life at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Frideswide/219/199/646/. To experience the sim without Second Life, view Torn Fields machinima at www.youtube.com/user/ww1lit

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