Jonathan Knott, Issue 118/04, p59, 01.04.2018
We review the latest websites
Service Scrapbooks, Royal College of Nursing

A wealth of personal information showcases the contribution of nurses during the first world war, says Jonathan Knott

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has used a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to digitise scrapbooks kept by nine nurses and one voluntary aid detachment during the first world war.

As well as letting readers browse these documents (which include diaries, a notebook and a photograph album), the RCN has used the information in them along with other sources to compile detailed life stories of their owners. The accounts are presented using an engaging scroll-down format, incorporating a range of media such as pages from the books, images, maps and pullout quotes.

The stories highlight material from the scrapbooks, where patients have shared doodles, illustrations, thoughts, poems and messages that together convey a flavour of life in military hospitals – whether in the UK, behind the trenches in Europe or on a ship in the Mediterranean. The information includes graphic accounts of war, popular wisdom, tokens of friendship and flirtation.

The website says that writing about the first world war may have helped patients process their experiences. Some make light of it, while others are frank about the horrors such as a trench “running with blood”, “the sight was awful and the cries of those in agony was terrible”. Other comments are light-hearted or amorous. A note in one nurse’s scrapbook says: “For gentle-men only” and, when opened, “Aint nurses nosey”. Another soldier tells a nurse: “If I were in the market I would certainly bid for you.”

Although there were fun times to be had, the work was clearly demanding. One nurse was hospitalised and then evacuated home in 1918, with her records noting “nervous breakdown with heart complications”.

The primary documents are rewarding to browse, but the most accessible part of the site is the editorial content, which uses imaginative presentation and thorough research to illuminate an under-represented part of history through personal stories.

Never Stop Asking Why, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has launched this online initiative to encourage conversations about Holocaust history in the context of today’s society, “with extremism, hatred and antisemitism on the rise”.

It is based around a website that includes a range of videos featuring people who share the questions that the history of the Holocaust raises for them. These link to the museum’s YouTube channel, which hosts added video content. The campaign also encourages people to ask questions on social media using the #askwhy hashtag.

The site has links to the museum’s Holocaust Encyclopedia, which offers detailed historical information, as well as videos featuring personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors.

The project uses a wide range of digital channels to underline the relevance of the Holocaust to contemporary discussion, and to encourage reflection on where prejudice can ultimately lead. JK

Cotmania, Leeds Art Gallery

This site is the result of a project by Leeds Art Gallery, which used a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund to digitise and catalogue the works and archives of the British artist John Sell Cotman (1782-1842).

The catalogue includes records for 930 artworks, including 744 drawings and 44 watercolours. Most are by Cotman, although some are attributed to other artists such as his son Miles.

More than 800 of the artwork records feature expert commentary and almost 650 include high-quality images that can be enlarged to examine the subtleties of Cotman’s delicate brush and pencil work, whether deployed in a watercolour of a Welsh mountain landscape, a monochrome study of a church door or a sketch of a dog measuring just 4cm x 6cm.

Also featured is the digitised archive of Sydney Kitson (1871-1937), a scholar and collector of Cotman (he bequeathed most of the artworks catalogued). This includes 12 journals, known as Cotmania, and letters to and from Cotman.

The site also has information on projects that took place during the cataloguing process, which included responses to Cotman from an artist in residence and local community arts organisations.

Overall, it is a rich resource for serious researchers, but would benefit from more content, such as blogs or videos, aimed at general visitors. JK