Then Came Armageddon – A Digital Exhibition

March 8, 2023

The struggle, grit, pain, and reality of life during the Great War – World War I – are brought into a new light as a unique online exhibition is unveiled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In a powerful look into the past, the exhibition 1914: Then Came Armageddon has been reimagined into a fully digital format. This online exhibition is an adaptation – and expansion – of the 2014 Special Collections exhibit of the same name. The 2014 in-person exhibit was curated by then-graduate students Skye Doney and Eric O’Connor. Both were part of a team that spent nearly two years bringing the 2023 exhibition to fruition.

“I was thrilled by the opportunity to story-tell with a vast collection of sources. Arranging book covers, images, and items of material culture in various ways told different stories,” says O’Connor. “I loved dynamically expressing and creating historical interpretations, using more than a word processor on my laptop. In my classroom, I have students arrange sources to tell different historical stories, just like we did in creating this exhibit. It’s an important part of ‘doing’ history.”

1914: Then Came Armageddon is the first fully digital exhibition on an original software platform developed by UW-Madison Libraries. It features materials donated to UW-Madison Libraries by Professor and Art Historian Andrew Laurie Stangel.

“Rare is the opportunity to examine the history of The Great War closely at a single institution. One place to do so is in Madison, Wisconsin — on campus at the University that has been for generations a center of historical scholarship, ancient, medieval, and modern,” says Stangel. “This history may also be seen online, digitally reproduced on the Memorial Library’s Department of Special Collections website. The rich collections of historical materials conserved at Madison form a veritable treasure-trove of objects with much to show us about the Great War that produced them!”

Items from other collections within the Libraries, Archives and the Historical Society of Wisconsin are included, all brought together to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. 

“This is the first exhibit on the new UW Libraries Digital Exhibit platform,” says Doney. “The software has infinite possibilities to help students think with historical sources in new ways. The Mosse Program is honored to help launch this new medium on campus.”

Student-driven, this exhibition was born out of the need to fulfill a gap and drive traffic to exhibitions for those unable to make it to a physical location at a specific time.

“After being sent home in Spring 2020, I had trouble conducting relevant research for my history classes as archives could not keep up with remote requests,” says Rachel Lynch, George L. Mosse, Undergraduate Intern in Digital and European History. “Now, I am thrilled to have worked in digitizing this project to bridge the educational gap in historical research, and I hope to provide accessible research for other students.” 

“The most impactful part of working on this project was designing the exhibit pages,” says Maddy McGlone, one of the students who worked on the project over the summer of 2022. “I had little experience presenting historical materials online, and I enjoyed working with the exhibits platform. It was cool to consider how best to present these materials for public engagement.”

Visually experiencing artifacts from the war era allowed visitors to comprehend better how individuals tried to make sense of the violent new reality that emerged after those first shots one hundred years ago. 

“I felt the project was important because it shows a variety of collections at the library. People think of history books when they think of libraries. But the collection at UW has so much more, including ancient books and primary sources, images, and artifacts,” notes O’Connor. “We are lucky to have such extensive collections right in Wisconsin.”

The exhibit utilizes diverse and compelling documents and images to help understand how and why the world marched to war during the summer of 1914. 

“We wanted to arrange the collections to help tell the story of WWI according to the latest historical interpretations,” says O’Connor. “Our understandings of the cause, course, and impact of the war are often reinterpreted, and we wanted our exhibit to reflect the latest scholarship on this important topic.”

The rich collection of WWI primary source materials in the exhibit includes newspaper accounts, war medals, photographs, cartoons, paintings, diplomatic correspondence, death certificates, propaganda, postcards, and children’s toys. The exhibit confronts life and death on both the battlefield and the home front.  

“The calamity of World War I is nearly incomprehensible, but there is so much more to the history than just numerical causalities,” says Lynch. “The breadth of this exhibit aims to illuminate not just the destruction but the causes of the Great War and the mood throughout Europe in 1914. I hope this exhibit encourages viewers to interact with history more meaningfully and sparks an interest in military history beyond just a survey of battles. While history may not be the hottest of topics, so to speak, I hope digital exhibits can spark a newfound passion in audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Though biased, I truly believe history is the backbone of understanding modernity, and I hope others will participate in its preservation and education.”

The exhibit is designed to provide, as best as possible, a window into the experiences of people who lived and died during the war. It sheds light on the people who fell victim to several illusions and misconceptions, those who made strategic errors that would lead to extensive, untold suffering for millions. 

“We wanted visitors to understand the pain and tragedy,” says O’Connor.

The digital exhibition is expected to be fully available beginning March 20, 2023.

The curators of the digital exhibit include George L. Mosse, Digital Interns in Digital and European History: Claire Hitter, Rachel Lynch, Maddy McGlone, and Nicholas O’Connell. Rachel Lynch finalized and expanded the exhibit. Special thanks to Charles Cahill, Matthew Greene, Julianne Haahr, Jesse Henderson, Dave Luke, Jessie Nemec, David Pavelich, Eric O’Connor, Robin Rider, Carly Sentieri, and John Tortorice.