By Stephen Carney, Command Historian, Arlington National Cemetery
Special to the Doughboy Foundation Web Site
Beginning in January 2021, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) commenced a monthly program of events focused on different aspects of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as part of its year-long centennial commemoration. While the initial planning for these programs in 2019 envisioned that they would primarily be held in-person, ANC had to pivot due to ongoing Covid surges. As a result, the majority of our monthly programs were held in a webinar or video only format. While this proved challenging at first, the creative opportunities this shift afforded ultimately outweighed the difficulties.
Specifically, webinar and video formats allowed all of the programs to be viewed by participants from across the United States and around the world, regardless of their ability to travel or visit the cemetery in person. This truly enabled ANC to bring the Tomb commemoration to a global audience. All content remains available for on-demand viewing on our webinar main page: www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Tomb100/Centennial-Events/Monthly-Programs. This outcome also fulfilled one of the main educational goals of the 2017 National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA), which established the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Centennial Commemoration.
In order to successfully execute these virtual events, ANC partnered with a number of organizations to broadcast, participate in, and host a series of interactive webinars. In January 2021, ANC and the National WWI Museum and Memorial began the series by co-hosting a webinar on “Teaching the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” featuring one of ANC’s education modules. Established in 2019, ANC’s first official Education Program includes materials for teachers, students, life-long learners, and families (content is available at https://education.arlingtoncemtery.mil).
For the February program, the National WWI Museum and Memorial again served as the co-host and joined us to organize a workshop for educators, “Teaching with Things: How Artifacts Illuminate the Past”. Panelists included experts from ANC, the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Nearly 500 teachers received continuing education credits for participating in that webinar.
The National World War II Museum hosted and moderated the August 2021 webinar, “World War II Unknowns: A Roundtable Discussion Commemorating the Centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, which featured presenters from ANC, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). These experts on the history of unknown and unidentified American service members in World War II shared different perspectives on this topic in a lively and engaging public forum.
In September 2021, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hosted a two-part webinar series with ANC and NARA specialists, which examined “Records Related to Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” (Part 1 and Part 2.) For the October 2021 program, the National WWI Museum and Memorial again served as the host, this time for a joint webinar with ANC and the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC): “Eternally Unknown: The Selection of the WWI Unknown Soldier”. This webinar was held on October 22, the 100th anniversary of the date when the four World War I unknown candidates were disinterred from four American cemeteries in France. Two days later, in a ceremony on October 24, 1921, one would be selected for burial in the Tomb.
The announcement for the November 9-10 special programs series of interpretive lectures organized by Arlington National Cemetery. Graphic by Arlington National Cemetery.
In conjunction with the ANC History Office, the ANC Public Affairs Office also created videos for several of the monthly programs. These began with a special video feature for Medal of Honor (MoH) Day, on March 25, 2021, that examined the connections between the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the MoH. For the April 2021 event, a video created with the ANC Horticulture Team explored how ANC’s Level III Arboretum and landscape is tied to the Tomb’s history and symbolism. For the May 2021 program, ANC partnered with the National Park Service (NPS) to discuss the Tomb’s relevance to the Memorial Day holiday. June’s video, “Ask a Tomb Guard,” came from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) and featured Tomb Guards who answered questions about their roles as the guardians of the Tomb. Rounding out the video programs, the July 2021 video highlighted the multidisciplinary work undertaken by the ANC staff to conserve and preserve the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for future generations.
Finally, during the actual commemorative events at Arlington National Cemetery on November 9 and 10, 2021, the History Office organized a series of in-person interpretive talks held in the Memorial Amphitheater and the museum gallery space known as the Display Room, located just behind the Tomb. These interpretive talks included ANC staff and contractors, as well as presenters from NPS, ABMC, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service’s History Office and Library. Recorded versions of these talks will be released as a virtual lecture series later this year.
The webinars and monthly video events created in honor of the Tomb centennial enabled Arlington National Cemetery to engage with the public on a scale unforeseen prior to the pandemic. The challenging circumstances that changed ANC’s approach thus ended up broadening the reach of the centennial. In the process, ANC pioneered a new standard for hybrid (digital and in-person) historical commemorative programming that will provide a blueprint for future commemorative programs to follow. Of course, without the infrastructure to host large-scale virtual public events, our partnerships with outside organizations and other federal government agencies became the critical tools that enabled us to plan and execute such a robust series of programs.
Applying the lessons identified from creating these programs, as well as the larger hybrid Tomb historical commemoration, ANC remains committed to bringing the cemetery’s history, education, and interpretative programs to the American people wherever they may be located.
Native American Women Warriors Color Guard dress created and worn by Mitchelene Big Man (BigMan), Apsáalooke (Crow/Absaroke)/Minitari (Hidatsa) and donated by the artist to the National Museum of the American Indian. This artifact was featured in the February 2021 webinar. Photo from the National Museum of the American Indian.
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