Creating Italian Cities 1943-1945

Historical Imagery of Cassino, Italy overlaid onto Google Earth
Link to Italian Cities Project on OMEKA

About the project

The Italian Cities 1943-45 project includes over 40 images of World War II reconnaissance imagery of wartime Italy. The source photography is part of the holdings of the Aerofototeca Nazionale (AFN), the Italian National Archive of Aerial Photography within the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities.

It’s holdings include photographs from the 19th century and was established in 1958 as a branch of the National Photographic Archive and, since 1975, has been part of Central Institute for Catalogue and Documentation (ICCD), based in Rome, Italy.

Every image has been organized under four Collections by observation objective. Each exhibit is also organized by observation objective, however, contains a few annoted images to emphasize target object identification and assign location information via a map interface. Observation objectives provide the Air Force with a strategic approach designed to destroy a country’s capability to wage war by demoralizing civilians and targeting features of an enemy’s infrastructure – such as factories, railways, and ports – that are essential for the production and supply of war materials. It may also be used to assess a bombing objective known as a bomb damage assessment (BDA). You can search by city also via “the find on map” link on the navigation menu.

Over time this material has become an irreplaceable resource for both historical research in various disciplines (unexploded ordnance detection and archaeology) and regional activities of organizations in Italy, providing fundamental documentation of the landscape during wartime Italy. And it is my hope you feel inspired to consider this resource as part of your journey in learning.

Inspiration Behind the Exhibit

Italian Cities 1943 – 1945 sprouted from my internship at the Aerofototeca Nazionale in the summer of 2016. The staff provided a thorough explanation of the ins and out of a few specific collections and provided lots of additional background information on the ins and outs of maintaining collections and providing services to citizens. The previous year, I was inspired by a book called Operation Crossbow by Dr. Allan Williams, that explained how historical aerial imagery was used to search for Hitler’s V weapons. It was a fascinating read!

Objective Behind the Exhibit

Historical context is important. It is thinking about how these images fit in with your nation’s story? How do you want to preserve them? Is this part of your history that you want to pass on for future generations? Is this part of your life that you want other people in the future to be able to look for and find?

The Photographic Interpreter job was no easy task as their role was to verify that something was where it was. The photos are used to plan bombing raids as part of their tactical strategy and ground troop support. I am hoping to get readers interested in exploring more with the additional resources found across the site.

Over time this material has become an irreplaceable resource for both historical research in various disciplines (unexploded ordnance detection and archaeology) and regional activities of organizations in Italy, providing fundamental documentation of the landscape during wartime Italy. And it is my hope you feel inspired to consider this resource as part of your journey in learning.

My aim is to reintroduce historical aerial photographs to folks – a reminder of their original intent of military intelligence acquisition and mention their relevance today. While its easy to conclude that their purpose has long expired, there are other communities of users who are finding it useful for modern applications such as archaeological site prospecting, UXO removal enterprises, and property owners for identifying property boundaries.

World War II photo intelligence collection was recognized as a threat equal to bombing, evident by the major efforts to mask targets from Allied reconnaissance aircraft and bombers. Denying an aerial view of territory was considered crucial that German passive defense systems were deployed to blanket hundreds of square miles with a smoke layer on relatively short notice. The only limits on photo interpretation as a source of intelligence were the ability to collect, image scale and quality, and the skill of individual Photo Interpreters.

Platform Used

The OMEKA platform was used for showcasing individual items with their proper metadata. The additional annotation and geolocation plugin features make the self-paced experience more interactive. The Geolocation plugin allows you to assign a location to items in your Omeka Classic site. The locations are displayed on maps on individual items page and on a browsable map of all geolocated items. The Exhibit Builder plugin allows you to develop online exhibits, or special web pages, that combine items from your Omeka Classic site and may include narrative text. I used Google earth to georeference the photos which permitted me to annotate a few features that existed in the 1940s or areas related to the Observation Objective.

Navigation Design

Designing a site that motivates people is not always straightforward. When I use the web, I’m almost always doing so to find information, not for pure entertainment. Readers probably got to my site from a search engine, or by following a link, rather than by knowing the direct URL. The title one uses, which shows up in the slug, is super helpful for search engines when they crawl your site. Web analytics can confirm the stats. Typically many more visitors are referred by search engines or links than come directly. You can use these stats to find out what people’s goals were and that helps you clarify what it is that visitors want from your site. Because people are coming to your site with a specific goal in mind, it’s important that I help them quickly reach that goal.

The project contains Simple Pages that provide context and tie the images to form a narrative. There were lots of overlap by Observation Objective yet the organization by Collection allows the reader to search the entire collection of images. The Exhibits are composed of pages, for a few example cities that introduces the exhibit and subsequent pages composed of the items from my Omeka Classic database that I wanted to highlight and relate to each other.

The layout of exhibits in Exhibit Builder is highly customizable, with the pages composed of smaller units called blocks. There are four basic content block types which come with Exhibit Builder but I chose to add the Geolocation plugin and the Exhibit Image annotation Builder.

Writing for information exchange

OMEKA doesn’t have a spell check built into its text box. I wrote the copy into a WORD document to leverage all the tools and make capturing lots more efficient. People are tend to read slower from a computer screen than from paper. They’re also reading less of the text on a page. For most sites, they’re reading to achieve some kind of goal rather than to be entertained. That means, I made sure to be as brief as I could yet still get my message across.  I find that if I cut out that extra text, quite often comprehension levels can go up. 

Improvements to the site

Feedback received from a few folks were helpful to finesse content. Changes were incorporated from the feedback received below.

Feedback 1:”I think you have almost finished your project and you have done a great job working with Omeka software in coordination with your own research. I believe you have accomplished your objective of reintroducing aerial photographs to the public. I think it is important to identify your target audience such as world war II military historians or another group rather than the public. Your sources are vast and informative. Your method of having multiple exhibits is helpful to visualize different parts of your argument. You mentioned in the above questions and answers for feedback that your project is mostly finished. Therefore, I recommend finalizing your text to become more descriptive of the aerial photographs. I believe you made the right decision to use Omeka, I utilized the software on my project as well. My advice to use is to continue to frame your exhibit as telling a story through your thesis and supporting evidence. This is the advice I was given on my project and I think it works well with Omeka by arranging your sources to tell a story. You have already completed this step but I believe your tags and captions could be more descriptive of the individual photographs as you mentioned above. I was very impressed with your research and your project. I believe that once you work on making the captions and tags more descriptive you will have a polished product.”

I added more tags as appropriate. I did reference the tagging technique of a few other museum digital experience and find mine is comparable. Also, each of the items in the database are on their own page. That should be obvious enough to identify the photo.

Feedback 2:

I really enjoyed exploring your project [O]meka site. I felt the organization of your project was well thought out and visually appealing. I also enjoyed that you included additional resources on your site to encourage further research into your subject matter. The one piece of feedback I would give on the exhibit image annotations would be maybe include an explanation for why you chose to highlight those specific areas. It might be helpful to the user to understand why you picked specific buildings to highlight on the photograph. Are the buildings you highlighted buildings that were affected by the bombings or just significant buildings in that city? Overall this is an interesting project with good site organization and a cool map feature embedded.”

I added an explanation on my About page. But I had also intended the Rhetorical question at least found in the BDA exhibit would spur self-exploration.

Feedback 3:

Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying your Omeka project. Brava! “

Feedback 4:

There is some interesting information there and images.  One thing that could help is an overview or about to explain the intent. Was the purpose mostly sharing air photos before and after?  Even that would be good to clarify.  It’s kind of like walking into someone’s thoughts without context.  Enjoyed looking at the photos.”

I used the summary page of the OMEKA Center Row theme to include an explanation. Originally, I had a Simple Page titled the same as the Project which included “About” info but I guess it wasn’t very explicit. I since I have changed that page to more properly address the content – “Area Bombing Strategy” and added from here to the “Summary” page.

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