Naval Academy Class Ring Project Reflection

As I began envisioning the Naval Academy Class Ring Project my first and foremost goal was to extend the story and give greater context about the individuals represented. In the process, I wanted to create a space that went beyond the narrative and showcased other museum items. I am quite excited about the project’s progress, but recognize a lot of time at home and work went into it and I will not be able to devote that level of effort continuously. The original timeline put forth in the grant proposal still seems like a viable goal and is now officially in my FY16 work plan so at least that gives me further reasoning to work on the project on the job. When the project is nearly complete I can pursue approval for it to be linked from the Naval Academy Museum’s website. Once linked, we plan on using an application to pull the website offline for use as a kiosk to be physically displayed at the exhibit.

Digitization/Research

The goal outlined in the grant proposal of 1500 items or 10 per individual alumni is a lofty goal that I think is still possible but I need to take into consideration issues in the museum’s database. Unfortunately it has not been well maintained, leading to many improperly tracked donations that lack updated locations. I was also surprised at just how many of the rings are Found In Collection (FIC), and thus lack provenance, background information or descriptions. Many of the rings are FICs that at one point had a number so I will have to reconcile them with our old card catalog of accessions in the future. Any accession number reconciliation is always a good thing as the museum works toward American Alliance of Museums Accreditation.

I approached the digitization process with the goal of getting an initial chunk of items available for online viewing that help the narrative and show never before seen pieces of our collection. I started with museum accession and research files for the pre-yearbook classes, then proceeded to the later Lucky Bags (Yearbooks). Currently only a few items aside from the rings are objects, most are scanned images and text, but we plan on adding at least 1-2 objects per individual depending on availability.

Despite having the core biographical research complete, there is a lot more work to do to fill in the narrative. For instance, I wrongly assumed that the Naval Academy institutional archives would have a complete list of Class Ring and Crest Committee decisions, but very few can be found. The Naval Academy Museum’s senior curator Jim Cheevers wrote an article in the August 2007 Shipmate (Alumni Magazine) called, “History & Traditions: The Origin of USNA Class Crests,” that served as a fantastic primer to the “What is a Class Crest?” section of my project. But even his article did not go into the symbolism of items comprising these crests. The crest explained in the project is from 2008, which is consequently the year I graduated from the Naval Academy. Friends of mine found the pamphlet handed out before the ring dance that breaks down the symbolism and reasoning behind the crest. So at least I know what to look for from the more recent classes. For the older classes, I plan to start contacting alums through the Alumni Foundation. For any classes before the mid-1930s, however I will have to rely on available descriptions in the Lucky Bags and archives.

Design/Tools

I recognized right away that Omeka with the Exhibit Builder plugin were the perfect platform and design tools to serve my mission. It took a lot of trial and error before I really felt comfortable and confident I could create my project as planned. Knowing that the project would eventually link from the museum’s website I copied the same header and museum logo from the Naval Academy Museum homepage. For the immediate design, I decided to make my main page gallery style to match the physical exhibit display. For easily accessible context and background information, I put the larger themes and questions on the header menu. Questions like, “What is a Class Ring?” or “What is a Class Crest?” are critical to understanding the exhibit, but by placing them in the header menu the gallery aesthetic is maintained and another navigational route is available.

The only issue I came across in Omeka is that the images on my main page cannot be individual access points to graduate pages. Instead, when you click a ring image it goes directly to the item metadata page. The only way we could get around the platform constraints was to establish the appropriate link within the image’s caption.
I only had vague concepts of tools to use in my project at the grant proposal stage, but the range of tools presented during class helped solidify those elements. From conception, I thought I’d use a timeline, some sort of mapping tool for hometowns and careers, interactive images, and 360 degree images. After playing with so many of these tools I realized sometimes less is better, especially when accounting for a large part of our demographic audience being older.

Tradition is highly visible at the Naval Academy. Throughout the academy’s grounds, class crests adorn most of the man-made surfaces, gifts from long since passed graduates. Many, however, do not understand the symbolism behind those class crests, myself included. Therefore this project afforded me the opportunity to create interactive images of crests in a very appealing way, if I could just figure out the best tool. When the class covered the Neatline plugin, I thought that was the answer and after working with the program for some time, I created a Neatline exhibit that met the basic intention. However, Neatline was not ideal. I didn’t like how big the viewing box was or that the zoom function could easily lose the image. Above all, I had a lot of trouble viewing the Neatline exhibit; it showed up only on 1 in 10 computers. It must have just been too large to load on lower bandwidth internet. I thought I was out of luck until some of the art historians’ presentations included ThingLink. After class it took me about 20 minutes to replace Neatline with a ThingLink interactive image. So far I haven’t had any issues seeing the image on computers or phones and it was a very straightforward process. Recognizing I will potentially create over 100 interactive images involving crests, but it is a lot less daunting a process using ThingLink. If my research leads to more crest explanations, I might consider investing in a full version or see if in the paid version’s free trial the prominent logo goes away.

Another tool I’ve considered eventually adding is StoryMap to track a graduate’s career, possibly using it as the primary exhibit page for certain people. I realize a StoryMap would not work for every graduate because many died before having much of a career. An additional consideration is that there might not be enough information available for lesser known individuals compared to more prominent graduates. The need for geographic information is another hurdle, for instance, a short bio might mention a person served in the Asiatic squadron, but does not give an actual geographic location. I vacillated between including StoryMap or not in the prototype, but after asking colleagues they agree that until I find a good way to integrate it seamlessly it makes for a choppy presentation.

I know the main ring photographs are not the best quality; they’re blurry and don’t include side or inner ring views. I recognize my photography skills are lacking, but luckily we have worked with a midshipman in the past photographing ship models in our collection and plan on utilizing his skills for the remaining ring photography. For each ring “item” we will have 4 images: inner inscription, 2 sides, and top/front. One of my goals was to give visitors an up-close look at rings that the current display doesn’t allow. A 360 degree image of each ring seemed like the answer. It took a lot of trial and error before reaching an acceptable visual. First, I assumed I needed photo-stitching software, but after multiple attempts without success I realized what I really needed was 3D object modeling software. I downloaded a free version of Modelweaver 3.00, but haven’t been successful as of yet. I plan on revisiting it over the break now that I realize I took way too many photos (100) when I only needed 36. In the interim, I put the photos together in a QuickTime movie and added the HTML5 plugin for compatibility. My hope is the 360 degree feature eventually looks like Smithsonian’s X 3D site.

Going into visualizations week in class I created an excel doc that included: graduation year, name, hometown, rank, designation (served on ship, aviator, subs, Marine, USAF), wars fought, ring maker, military decorations, and if they died in battle. It continued to morph as I completed the 140 years and hope to find more tools and ways to visualize all the extra data. For instance, as I continue my research I’m amazed at the interconnection amongst Naval Academy graduates; at just how small the Navy really was and still is. I would love to find a way to visualize those connections with a multi-nodal mapping tool.
Midshipmen come from across the world to attend the Naval Academy and the graduates in the ring exhibit offer a good representational cross-section of origins. Another way I used my Excel data was to create maps using Cartodb showing the graduate’s hometowns. Both the heatmap and bubble maps are embedded in Omeka. The heat map is my favorite, when animated it chronologically populates the map, showing the accumulated density of ring owners by their hometowns. The bubble map gives more in depth coverage by town, utilizing info boxes that pop up when a cursor moves over the bubble. The info box displays the class year, name, and hometown of the graduate from that location. The only downfall is the inability to integrate the maps within Omeka to the degree that if you click on a bubble it will actually go to the graduate’s site. Since Cartodb is a separate tool I understand why the two platforms are not compatible to that level, but it would be great to have an Omeka plugin that could create similar maps and be fully integrated.

Since this is the prototype of an ongoing project only nine of the class ring captions lead to fully narrated pages (1869-1878, 1895). All other captions link to pages that are works in progress. Also, you may notice absent years in the ring chronology, this is due to not having a donated ring from that class. To round out the exhibit, the manufacturer gives the museum replicas that are not connected to a particular individual.

Again, my boss (thankfully) and everyone at work are very excited about the site so far. They have been searching for ways to expand their online presence toward digital collections. Once the Class Ring project is complete, they want to continue with other subjects as separate exhibits. For example, our museum has one of the largest ship and boat model collections in the world. Currently, the museum website and Flickr show select models, but lack context or interpretation. It would be amazing to eventually do a similar project, utilizing maps and Omeka’s other capabilities. I look forward to continuing the project to the present, connecting historical relevance to today’s midshipmen.

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