Extensive new collection of WWI GIFs captures the tragedy and poignancy of war

National WWI Museum and Memorial

When you think of GIFs, you probably think of Captain Picard facepalming, Homer Simpson backing into the bushes, and cats doing just about anything cats do.

An extensive new collection of GIFs from the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City could expand the perception of the ubiquitous short clips. The GIFs capture daily life during the First World War, from the tragic to the lighthearted, providing a mesmerizing, easily scannable snapshot the museum hopes will help bring history to a younger, GIF-savvy generation.

“This GIF collection is a fantastic way to add an unexpected layer to education and engage new audiences,” said Lora Vogt, curator of education at the museum and memorial.

Some of the nearly 500 video snippets compiled on GIF database GIPHY show rolling tanks, exploding grenades and troops crawling on all fours through forests or hunched in trenches, rifles drawn. In others, soldiers seek moments of levity and normalcy during a conflagration that saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction. 

National WWI Museum and Memorial

They box, dance and play the saxophone, baseball and hockey. They playfully snatch hats from each other’s heads and mug for the camera with their canine buddies. They write letters home. The images feel far away, yet they also capture the timeless human yearning for the ordinary during extraordinary times.

The black and white videos come from archival film footage, primarily from the US Signal Corps, a branch of the United States Army responsible for communications and information systems. 

This isn’t the first time GIFs have captured pivotal historical moments. 

National WWI Museum and Memorial

The US National Archives has assembled GIF collections chronicling events including the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy, D-Day and NASA’s Apollo program. And the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture has uploaded numerous GIFs of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech and civil rights marches. 

But this new collection is believed to be the largest GIF cache yet of the Great War. It took the National WWI Museum and Memorial almost 350 hours of work over six months to sift through 20th century footage and select the moments that would be turned into 21st century GIFs. 

They are poignant treasures. 

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