Where did you find the strength to survive Auschwitz? What’s your most vivid memory of the war? What happened to the rest of your family?
Imagine being able to ask a Holocaust survivor these and many other questions. Now imagine your great grandchildren being able to do the same, decades after the last survivor has passed away from old age. A new virtual storytelling installation that allows people to interact with Holocaust survivors attempts to combat the effects of time in the chronicles of personal narratives and memories.
New Dimensions in Testimony, a collaboration between the USC Shoah Foundation and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, in partnership with Conscience Display, allows future generations the opportunity to interview and interact with Holocaust survivors through virtual platforms. Through thousands of pre-recorded answers, the installation, currently being displayed at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, yields insights into the experiences of Holocaust survivors by means of shared dialogue between learners and two survivors who sit on red chairs behind flat screen monitors. Currently, museum visitors can interact with Anne Frank’s stepsister Eva Schloss and Pinchas Gutter, a survivor of six German Nazi concentration camps. Visitors can ask questions in real-time that trigger relevant, spoken responses (“New Dimensions in Testimony℠ — Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust”). These interactive dialogues create a new kind of record that takes the possibilities of preserving cultural heritage to a new level.
Although the definition of a record is widely debated, throughout this article I use Shannon Faulkhead’s pluralistic definition from Caswell’s “The Archive” is Not An Archives as any account, regardless of form, that preserves memory or knowledge of facts and events. A record can be a document, an individual’s memory… an actual person, a community or the land itself (p. 5).
The New Dimensions in Testimony installation is altering the art of storytelling for the purpose of archiving and preserving cultural heritage through its use of first person narrative, lifelike visuals, and interactive real-time responses. Although records of Holocaust survivors’ experiences have been widely collected, maintained, and archived in the past, this installation removes any distance and ambiguity between the storyteller and his audience. The installation itself is an archive and the memories shared its records—it is up to the visitor to discover the myriad of answers and memories they hold by asking questions. Through intimate visual, auditory and spatial storytelling, the installation allows survivors to revisit and communicate their own remembrances. Doing so enlightens the collective memory and creates perspectives of personal tragedies, resilience during the war, and even their present lives.
The installation’s value, that which represents some important aspect of the past for present and future users (Caswell, p. 8) lays in the ability of the memories to transcend time; it lays in the engagement fostered through virtual dialogue and facilitated by the technology. It is not the technology itself that makes the installation valuable, but the experiences being transported within it that allow the public to acquire these memories from the subjects themselves, possibly maintaining survivors’ memories alive, well past their material lives.
Although these survivors’ memories can now be kept alive through intimate and virtual dialogues, one must not forget the moral responsibility of creating these installations. According to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, chief curator of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, she hopes that future technological advances don’t overshadow the survivors themselves, stating that “What’s beautiful about this installation is that the survivors are front and center, they are charismatic and what they have to say is utterly compelling. (Matthews, 2017). Thus, computer scientists, archivists, and curators involved in creating these installations must continue to keep the value of their work front of mind, focusing foremost on representing the survivors and the memories, for of educative and experiential purposes.
For example, when Schloss and Gutter were filmed and recorded, several cameras were used to one day be able to represent these figures three-dimensionally. It is imperative that as technologies evolve, their stories and those of others in the future, whether two or three-dimensionally, continue to be told to advance historical understanding and remembrance. The focus of future installations must not be technology-centric in order to avoid deteriorating the subject’s memories and stories. It is crucial that the technologies not overshadow the context of the installation, but instead support the subjects’ memories to continue to provide historical understanding of a culture’s heritage.
As this sort of interactive storytelling technology becomes a more prominent way of preserving and disseminating digital cultural heritage, institutions, curators, and their teams might encounter obstacles pertaining to ownership and distribution of information. Although these institutions own the technology, can the memories and stories told by survivors be classified as proprietary? Specifically, will institutions claim them as their property, licensing and centrally controlling individuals’ memories and journeys? Additionally, as the technology evolves, will institutions disseminate the information to make it more widely available to schools, libraries and universities or will it be kept under lock and key only to be seen at curated installations? Although this technology advances the art of storytelling, lack of access for certain communities could limit its impact on preservation of cultural heritage.
Overall, New Dimensions in Testimony transforms the art of verbal storytelling from an ephemeral experience to a verbal, visual and spatial archive of stories and memories direct from the source. Such archives and records have the ability to change the concept of time and space by allowing the permanence of the interactions to exist into the future, way past the material lives of the subjects. According to Schwartz and Cook (2002), these spaces are the loci of power of the present to control what the future will know of the past (p. 13). Lack of access, though, can hinder its potential in preserving digital cultural heritage. It is the institutions that create such technologies that decide how much access they’ll give the public and in turn determine the real effects of using technology for fostering personal narrative and preserving a culture’s history.
New Dimensions in Testimony℠ — Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://mjhnyc.org/exhibitions/new-dimensions-in-testimony/
Caswell, M. (Caswell, “The Archive” is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies. Reconstruction Vol. 16, No 1
Matthews, K. (2017, September 18). Exhibit allows virtual ‘interviews’ with Holocaust survivors. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/c17bb040aca6466f9c497050d404e79a/Exhibit-allows-virtual-‘interviews’-with-Holocaust-survivors
Schwartz, J.M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science