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Digital History, Public Access, and the Space Between: Americans and the Holocaust

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

My first impressions upon viewing the online exhibits discussed below: Tweetable, engaging, self-aware, and diverse.

This blog is the product of a class project that seeks to evaluate the websites of public history spaces and projects throughout the Washington, D.C. area.

The focus of this entry is the website for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, but it will focus largely on their new “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit, which has a significant presence on their website.

This review will be evaluating the following criteria: content, relevance to the mission of the institution, user-friendliness, and potential for improvement.

I recommend that you follow along with my evaluations by also following along on their website, which is linked here.

I must say this website does not take the place of actually visiting the exhibit. It is a wonderful resource to familiarize yourself before visiting, or to refresh your memory after, but if you have a chance to see this exhibit I highly recommend it.

One very interesting element I would like to mention before diving into the webpage review is that this exhibit as a whole was built with great intention. In fact, there will be a smaller traveling version of the exhibit in the near future, and it has been designed by some of the best curators, historians, and specialists in the world.

It is free to access the resources at the Mandel Center!

Now, before I tell you any more about what the website has to offer, I must tell you that the USHMM simply cannot be compared to any institution in terms of their collections. They host artifacts, documents, and more in unbelievable scope and content. They even host documents relevant to other genocides in their collections. Anyone looking to do research should consider visiting the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. It is a wealth of information with staff who are happy to engage with scholars and further conversations about the horrors of genocide.

Before I dive into a specific exhibit, I want to address the museum’s website as a whole. In general, the front page is wonderfully informational providing links to an encyclopedia and resources for educators, which reflects the mission of the museum. This is an institution that emphasizes education and the prevention of genocide, so of course we will find these key elements to be front and center.

The second feature you find when scrolling down the home page is pertinent information you will need before visiting, such as: times, special events, content of exhibits, and directions to get there.

Further down the homepage you will find a section with events that are sponsored by the museum in a variety of locations. Click here to find events near you!

At the bottom of the page, you can find special exhibits, articles, and contact information including social media.

One of the many items you could see on exhibit! Photo by Mikkaela Bailey at USHMM

On the main menu, which can be accessed by clicking on the icon in the top left corner of the home page, you will find many helpful links to current exhibits, further information about genocide, as well as research resources for anyone looking to study genocide (even beyond the Holocaust itself). If you or anyone you know has a connection to Holocaust survivors, or if you have an interest in survivor stories, there is also a way to connect on the menu.

Specifically, I want to look at the way they curate their digital presence because they have an interactive digital component to their “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit that is a valuable tool for many reasons. In the menu, you will find a link to “Exhibits” and under that you will find “Online Exhibits.”

Visitors are welcomed into the exhibit by text that is similar in style and content to their online exhibit.
Photo by Mikkaela Bailey at the USHMM

Take your time exploring the website as you dive into the American’s perception of the Holocaust as it was happening. This is entirely bottom-up history as the USHMM seeks to engage with the average American’s experience during WWII in regard to their observations, understanding, and interpretation of the Holocaust as these events unfolded. The most interesting thing about this “digital exhibit” is that the audience consuming it largely reflects the people who are the very subject matter of this exhibit!

When I think about the Holocaust, I think of the graphic and in your face nature of it because that is what I experienced when I was learning about it. There was an intensity that still shakes me when I think about those learning experiences. This digital exhibit is different. It is impactful and intense at times, but it doesn’t give me the sense of guilt or the heart-wrenching feeling you get from the ending of Schindler’s List when he laments over whether he could have saved one more.

While some may prefer that approach, and there is a value to it, this exhibit establishes itself in a rational (as opposed to a heavily emotional) approach to the American perspective. It is not guilting or blaming, but leaves a sense that the question of Americans’ responsibility and involvement is open-ended. This is important because the racial and social dynamics covered in the project are hot topics today.

This is a highly political topic because it pertains to America and our present issues with race, immigration, and economics. The key word here is relevance. While I think this exhibit is very up-front about the issues, I didn’t find it to be offensive in any way.

The content you can find on this page includes a treasure-trove of resources that can be mined for your personal curiosity, a resource for a school project, or as a tool to educate people on complacency. A key feature I found very attractive was the use of news media and video. While you had the option to skip over the videos without missing any key information, they provided a wonderful context for the information. You could see events as people experienced them and as they unfolded. Additionally, this is exactly the type of source material you could easily experience digitally but perhaps not in print.

Bullet points and short paragraphs give clarity and demonstrate the importance of the “need-to-know” facts that lay out the basic outline of events they present. These facts are a mixture of what I would consider common knowledge from a high school level history class and information that is often left out of broad survey courses or textbooks. This wide range makes the information accessible to all and interesting to those who may already have the basic facts. The new research conducted for this exhibit is excellent and eye opening. Before exploring this page, I did not realize so many people across the USA knew that Hitler and the Nazis were persecuting Jews so intensely.

My favorite feature of this interactive learning experience is the immersive quality. You are presented with media in different forms from images to videos to text. The information scrolls to display different formats as you continue to explore the online exhibit. Narrative is present despite the streamlined style of bullet points. But, the abruptness of the bulleted information also communicates a seriousness and brevity. The statements are short and poignant. No space is wasted on this website. Minimalism on some pages is meant to draw the eye to specific elements presented.

Notice the toggle on the lefthand side where you can easily skip to new sections while tracking your progress.

The scrolling “story map” establishes a linear mode of telling history, though many web projects emphasize a “choose your own adventure” approach where you explore depending on your own preferences. This is a guided experience because the story being told requires certain building blocks to establish the context, the narrative, and the implications of what happened. It is a sensitive subject, so this is an excellent choice for the mode of story-telling.

But this really goes beyond simple story telling. It is interactive in a few ways. Not only do you scroll through and use several senses to take in information, but you will also find icons called buttons that link to Facebook and Twitter. These buttons allow you to easily link to the particular segment at hand and share it immediately to your social media outlet.

Notice the buttons for social media sharing following the block of text.

In doing this, you can spread the word and start conversations about your perceptions of their digital exhibit. This is such an important feature to include in an online exhibit - especially a self-contained one – because you can now create pathways of discussion and further education about the average American’s knowledge and experiences regard the Holocaust, which was happening on the other side of the world.

Some of this research is brand new information. Particularly, the mining of local newspapers and their content is groundbreaking new work about what the average American's understanding was while the events were unfolding. The accessibility of this large scale research is astounding to me. I love that this is a great tool for older children who are mature enough to understand what the Holocaust was, but are not ready for the graphic content of some history books.

As a school resource, this would make an excellent homework reading for a history, civic, politics, or Social Studies class because it covers so many angles and areas of research. It could also be applicable to journalism studies and ethics regarding media since it so prominently features newspapers.

It should be recommended as a resource for student research projects.

Among the many things the USHMM is doing with this webpage, one of the most valuable things is putting primary sources at the forefront for the user. From the format of the page to the user experience to the availability of material, I simply cannot imagine one single way this could be improved upon. Perhaps there are ways the USHMM will choose to improve this site, and if you have a suggestion there is a place to give feedback that opens further conversations, which is one more thing that makes this site excellent.

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