In the last five years, during the centennial of the First World War, a myriad of digital humanities projects centering on the war have developed, flourished, have completed and in some cases, disappeared due to sustainability-related causes. Projects have ranged in focus, from digital repositories of archived materials of British poets to large encyclopedias. Upon doing a search, looking for source materials for my own research, I recently discovered an interactive project centering on Belgian refugees, Belgian Refugees 1914-1918. The project is an online digital project supported by the Flemish authorities, coordinated by the Amsab-ISG (Institute of Social History), and in partnership with a number of partners including UK-based universities and museums. The project, which is available in multiple languages, seeks to use available personal accounts (documents, photographs) that share the experiences of Belgian refugees in both Belgium and those that ended up in United Kingdom during the First World War. The project began as a website and, in November 2017, grew into an interactive virtual tour that brings you on a journey of a Belgian refugee during World War I.
The tour, which is broken down into eight pathways, expands as you zoom in on the map. Zooming in further and further gives artifacts to bring visitors along on the lives of Belgian refugees. With each artifact, there are attached quotes, videos, music and more that give not only the larger historical context and narrative of the First World War, but also individualized experiences of the refugees.
This interactive, online virtual tour is a valuable resource not only for a scholarly audience, but a general audience as well. The tour, which is easy to navigate and to understand, provides rich source materials, both from public and private collections, and explains the sources in a way that the tour could be used in a younger classroom setting. An additional setting to the online tour that also makes it something valuable to the classroom is the scavenger hunt, where you can “walk in the footsteps of Hercule Poirot” by collecting ten objects that give a clear understanding of the journey of the lives of the Belgian refugees. This interactive measure is a great way to engage an audience, not only to find the pieces to this puzzle, but to get visitors to interact more closely with the materials.
Outside of the virtual tour, Belgian Refugees, 1914-1918 does offer other supplemental materials great for teachers from K-12 to university-level students. One tool available through the project is the “We Too” tool that guides students in becoming a newspaper journalists, writing and designing a newspaper using the sources available through Belgian Refugees, 1914-1918, looking at it from not only the perspective of refugees during World War I, but also to look at refugees today.
In terms of limitations with this project, while aspects of the project are available in multiple languages, such as the virtual tour (which I would argue is the main component of the project), other aspects require a translation system to gain access, such as with the “We Too” tool. However, this proves to be only a minor limitation.
Overall, I find Belgian Refugees, 1914-1918 to be a fantastic contribution to the number of World War I projects that have emerged in the last five years. The project has taken a topic that is not largely explored and created a great, interactive and multilayered project with extensive resources. The project has maintained its presence online and will hopefully continue to do so, as it will prove beneficial in the future to teaching an important aspect of the First World War.