The Future of the Past: Remembering how we remembered
From an academic or research standpoint, our long term aim is to gather visitor impressions at sites of conscience around the world and archive them for future study. Currently emphasizing the reactions to the events of the Holocaust and the Nazi era, Projected Memory plans to cover recent events, and become increasingly relevant as a way of processing them and understanding how their interpretation by a global society evolves over time. As Holocaust survivors and witnesses die, we will become reliant on secondary witnesses and sources, such as passed-down family histories, museum exhibits, art and literature. History is shaped as much by what we think or decide about a given event as the “objective” event itself, and the way we think about events is naturally tied to our individual and collective perspectives, our various lenses.
A Participatory and Language-Based Memorial
How do you say “Never Again” in Xhosa? How do we use words, expressions, and gestures to convey emotions like grief, loss, hope, and empathy? Language, thought, and reflection constitute the hard work of memorializing, and can be as valid and lasting a monument to those events as any statue. Words, at least, are weatherproof. Because we want our growing archive to be useful to researchers, academics, and museums, we have outlined, below, some of the theoretical questions and topics that may help to clarify where points of mutual interest may lie. Click the links below to jump to a particular topic:
Yes. In 10 months at Sachsenhausen Gedenkstaette we collected over 3,000 messages, many of which were interesting and usable – well-recorded, not-silly, and saved under the Public/Share setting. Each visitor has a different attitude and approach, with some leaving a video message and others opting only for audio. Interestingly, we have more audio messages in our German-language folder than in our English-language folder, where we have more video messages, and where messages were left in Spanish and Italian (two additional language settings which we hope to build into our interface). We have also observed people read the wall text explaining the installation and project, and take a step towards the booth, before deciding against it. We understand that it is a big deal for many people just to visit such a depressing site as a former concentration camp, and here we are asking them to take that next step (perhaps more like three steps), and leave a message describing their thoughts and feelings. We even had one Spanish man leave a message berating us about the project. In his message, he talks about the importance of prioritizing numbers over opinions, which is fully his right to assert. But what a wonderful thing that he used our booth to express himself so earnestly.
Why is PM’s visitor-reflection installation different from a written (or digital) guestbook?
The messages we have gathered from our installation at the Sachsenhausen Gedenkstaette are often thoughtful, empathetic, detailed, and poignant, in contrast to many notes commonly inscribed in conventional museum guest books. We believe that the audio/video recording process – leaving a message on camera or speaking into a microphone – as well as the ability to make messages available to the public or to researchers challenges and encourages many visitors to think in a more focused and considered way than they are used to. Visitors seem to be responding to the challenge and opportunity of audio/video reflection seriously and intelligently. Additionally, the museum can tailor the visitor-reflection booth to focus on specific exhibits or themes. A museum may want to know which exhibit had the greatest impact on visitors, where visitors come from and what languages they speak, and what expectations they had prior to their visit. It is worth noting that most visitors do not read through visitor guest books at museums. By contrast, the messages saved to the “Public” archive at the Projected Memory installation will be available on site and online. Unlike written guest books that are often physically isolated or detached from any “exhibit” context, the Projected Memory booth, because of its dedicated space and interactive process – becomes a kind of “meta” exhibit created by the public and curated by Projected Memory and participating museums and memorials.
What topics have people addressed in their messages?
A man leaves a video message saying that the history of familial separation was what most affected him during his visit to Sachsenhausen. Using his smart-phone, he shows us a picture of his daughter, whom he can’t imagine being separated from. In another message, a self-identifying American Jew, roughly 20 years old, speaks about the ambivalence he feels at the memorial. His Jewish religion connects him to the camp and the role his religion played in the Holocaust, but the passage of time distances him from particular events and makes it hard for him to process what the inmates must have endured. In a third message, two siblings describe the living conditions of the camp and express their sadness and their hope for future without world wars. And in a fourth message, a woman tells us she recently found the names of relatives in the memorial’s library and shares her many emotions (joy, sadness, closure) with her family and with us.
Each of these messages is extremely moving, and, in a way, reflects an important reciprocity between visitor and museum. The museum shows an interest in hearing from the visitor, and the visitor, enabled by the Projected Memory installation, “gives back to” the museum, and adds to the layers of the site itself. If a guest book is an acknowledgment of the visitor’s contribution to the ongoing meaning of a memorial, it is an acknowledgment worth investing in and enhancing. Watch videos
Public vs. Research archives
In order to leave a message, the visitor navigates a touchscreen interface. The recording process is
voluntary and self-directed, and operates independent of technical support from museum staff. The
atmosphere is conducive to sharing thoughts about sensitive topics. When a visitor produces a recording, he or she may choose to save the message either as a “Public” document that others can access at the booths and online, or as one limited to “Research Purposes Only,” in which case access is limited to those given permission to conduct research. Both of these options have terms and conditions that regulate use and guard against the dissemination of offensive remarks. Visitors must agree to these terms and conditions before a message is saved. All third party requests for database access must be approved by Projected Memory Board committee. A separate contract between Projected Memory and third party researchers governs and ensures visitor anonymity.
View some publicly-saved messages at: www.vimeo.com/channels/projectedmemory
Long-term research aims
A comprehensive study made possible via a network of Projected Memory installations will yield information on whether certain types or age groups of visitors are unmoved or even bored by exhibits or museum presentations. Data may identify language, gender, or recording-method patterns that can advance research into topics such as the way different languages express and subtly change the meaning of familiar phrases like “never again,” and how these linguistic formulations mold collective memory and shape public opinion. Studies may find that the added anonymity of the “Research Only” archive encourages individuals to be more candid and varied in their responses. The project will empower educators to show videos to their students as part of a lesson on the varied views of difficult topics, and, perhaps, in the not too distant future, scientists working on facial mapping software may examine Projected Memory data to explore the way we use gesture to convey emotions like grief, sadness, hope, and empathy.
A centralized and organized archive could contribute to the fields of Language/Linguistics/Narrative; Memorial Architecture and Authenticity; Religious and Intercultural Exchanges; and Tourism and the Holocaust.
To date, out of approximately 3,000 messages, there have only been two obviously anti-Semitic comments. Hateful or otherwise intentionally disrespectful messages will never be made public, and we also have strict written rules on the physical booth warning against disrespectful comments and informing visitors that the police will be notified of any illegal hate-speech. We think that the rarity of intentionally disrespectful comments is due to the thoughtful and clear presentation of the Projected Memory installation, and to the way we have described the project as an intellectual endeavor. In fact, unlike written guest books, which offer almost total anonymity, the audio/video element of Projected Memory booths likely deters people from making hateful comments.
Does our interactive visitor-reflection booth promote or endorse the Selfie culture?
We think that the “seflie” phenomenon (which is not new, but perhaps more salient in today’s society because of smart phones and the Internet) is neither “good” nor “bad,” but a part of contemporary society and bears investigation. What causes students to take “selfies” in front of the gates (replicas) at Auschwitz? Probably a mix of voyeurism, an attraction to notoriety, a desire to connect with others, and a way of marking a moment in one’s life by leaving a public record of having been somewhere.
The Projected Memory installation with its use of digital technology and specific framework (language, architecture, recording format and time limits) seeks to engage and harness the positive impulses behind “selfies” (connecting with others, awareness of personal involvement) to promote the thoughtful recording and sharing of experiences. Visits to memorials can often be isolating and lonely, and part of the project’s aims is to consider the ways in which our own personal identities affect our experiences at memorials. The intentional framework of the installation not only helps guide and order the ways visitors interact with digital technology, but also prompts individuals to think longer and more seriously about their thoughts and feelings than they would when taking a “selfie.” In a society where attention spans are short, the visitor-reflection booths give us a space where we can step away from a group, think slowly, and focus our thoughts on the memorial and the meaning it holds for us.
In addition, the PM installation does not preclude visitors from using their own mobile phones to take videos or make recordings, or infringe on the photo-essay or similar seminars that some memorials conduct with school groups. Each method of interaction, learning, and reflecting has strengths and weaknesses, and the methods are not mutually exclusive. Significantly, the man who left the message about his daughter shows us a picture of her (on his mobile phone) to emphasize his point. He could have used his own phone to record his message, and upload it to Youtube or Facebook, but he didn’t. Rather, he appreciated the dedicated framework, format, private space, and ability to share within a specific context that our installation provided.
Is there a risk of popularizing/normalizing “the Holocaust experience?” Does a visitor-reflection booth make everyone a “witness”?
The question of “multidirectional memory” (Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, Stanford University Press, 2009) is indeed intriguing, and we hope our messages will aid researchers in more fully exploring this concept. How do people connect to the history of the Nazi era so many years later? What do they expect, seek, and learn from their visits? How do we confront and deal with the fact that survivor testimony is at times inaccurate and what is the tension between survivor testimony and visitor reflections? The third phase of the initiative is to create, organize, and make accessible to outside researchers a central database comprised of visitor messages from all Projected Memory installations. In the future, a researcher who is studying how responses to memorials from third generation Germans differ from their American counterparts will be able to further his research by requesting access to the Projected Memory’s archives.
Projected Memory is very careful to use the words or phrase “visitor reflections/impressions” and not “witness” when discussing the messages and activity of the public in the visitor-reflection booths. The intention is not to displace the memory and testimonies of survivors, but rather to show how their stories, experiences, and lives still affect us and matter many decades later, and to highlight our own responsibility to be mindful and wary of the disaster wrought by hate, prejudice, and indifference. As the generation of Holocaust and the concentration camp survivors passes on, and as future generations feel more distant from those times, it becomes even more important to acknowledge the role the public plays in remembering both individual stories and the events.
Memorials can be many things to many people. For some, the sites are cemeteries and should be maintained accordingly, without tourist groups, comprehensive exhibits, and other “reconstructive” elements. For others, the memorials are educational sites or places of study, complete with libraries and archives equipped to further a thesis or book. For many, memorials are places that we visit out of a sense of duty to the survivors and the history, and where we can enact a human ritual of mourning, respect-giving, and catharsis.
The visitor who makes a connection to the Balkan war or to Rwanda does not necessarily intend to “flatten” or cheapen the experience of a camp victim or survivor, but rather hopes to put the event or story in a context that helps him or her make meaning of what he or she has learned. Significantly, the archive at the USC Shoah Foundation now includes video testimony from survivors of the Rwandan genocide, thereby acknowledging a connection between disasters without establishing a hierarchy in suffering. While many of the museum directors, curators, educators, and tour guides may have an academic background, very few of the visitors share a highly specialized knowledge base. Visitors come to memorials on school trips, tourist outings, summer bike tours, and the motivations are wide ranging. An installation that enables individuals to find commonality and make connections across culture, race, and religion need not detract from the those who once endured imprisonment and indignity.
Don’t people need time and distance to reflect properly on a visit or experience?
Some do and others don’t. The Projected Memory visitor-reflection booth is completely voluntary and constitutes only one way of reflecting and thinking about an experience. Leaving a message in “real-time” does not preclude an individual from writing an article about his or her visit or talking with a family member weeks later. However, without a visitor-reflection booth, the visitor who wants to share his or her thoughts is denied the opportunity to express himself within the structure provided by Projected Memory (interactive/audio/video/sharing/research). Similarly, we hesitate to judge (within limits, of course) what responses are “interesting” or what constitutes “proper reflection.” Like any research project, the data must first be gathered, and then interpreted. A message that may be repetitive to a university professor may in fact give his or her teenage daughter the emotional access point she seeks in order to delve into different aspects of the history.
What should/can a museum do with the messages?
Since host museums have access to all messages recorded at Projected Memory installations, participating museums can devote as much or as little time working with the data collected on site. Some visitor messages may reflect where and how the museum is successfully connecting with visitors emotionally and intellectually. Other messages may indicate which exhibition, topic or area of the memorial site resonated most strongly with which age group. Projected Memory’s digital interface can also be tailored to focus on a particular exhibit or to provide a survey-like data gathering function for a museum. Thus, the museum will gain a contemporary exhibit that can help the museum engage the public – and younger people in particular – in active thought about their experience and about the museum itself. In addition, messages collected at museums and featured on the museum’s or Projected Memory’s website, may enhance the museum’s public profile. Finally, the Projected Memory booth offers the museum an important evaluative tool with which to examine its work. Visitor messages can help inform the museum’s curatorial considerations, direct new pedagogical efforts, and provide areas of study for museum staff and researchers. Although maintenance of the booth is quite minimal, the more a museum works with the archives, the more useful the archives should become.
Where should a booth be located at a memorial?
The booth should be located in an area that is visible, accessible, and inviting to visitors. Acoustics are a consideration but can be addressed through soundproofing material. Memorials may feel differently about how integrated into the site and other buildings a visitor-reflection booth should be. Our first official installation is located in a re-constructed former barrack at the Sachsenhausen Gedenkstaette. The particular barrack receives far fewer visitors than the nearby barrack that focuses on German Antisemitism and the “lives of Jewish prisoners,” but we thought it would be interesting to gather messages from visitors (often individuals, as opposed to school groups) who make the effort to learn about the “everyday history” of the camp, and whose interest extends beyond seeing a gas chamber or crematorium.
Although we acknowledge that the location of a former barrack may seem “too close to history” for some, we wanted to prompt visitors to think about the multilayer history of the buildings and site (forest, camp, memorial, museum, etc.). Why does a visitor-reflection “spoil” the historical accuracy of a former barrack, when non-original chairs, cabinets, and beds do not? Visitors often leave messages about the “scary original barbed wire and electric fences.” What does this say about their expectations, and, perhaps more importantly, what does it say about the fact that museums often do not indicate when certain elements have been reconstructed or fabricated? Much like contemporary art exhibits in a former administration building, we hope that our Projected Memory installation, wherever it is located, will provide yet another angle or access point for visitors to connect to the museum’s past, present, and future.
Overall, the better a booth is placed, maintained, and “valued” by the host museum, the likelier it is that visitors will understand the seriousness of the project and respond in kind. Conversely, an installation that is dirty or located in a neglected area is more likely to be vandalized or misused as it gives visitors the impression that their thoughts and feelings are – like the booth itself – only peripherally or marginally important.
How does the PM installation create a “virtual dialogue” among visitors, and should a museum guide or shape that dialogue?
The first phase of the Projected Memory installation is a “deposit system,” where visitors leave audio/video messages and if visitors save the messages, do so to a public or academic archive. The second phase of the project – the dialogue phase – entails returning a selection of publicly saved messages to the booth (or a second monitor elsewhere on site) so that visitors can watch and listen to messages left by others. If they wish, visitors can respond to previous messages or ideas by leaving messages of their own at the original installation. The delay between the “deposit” phase and the “dialogue” phase allows Projected Memory and the museum to decide which messages should be added to the “display” phase. We are interested to learn how the exchange of impressions will affect new recordings, and whether certain themes in visitor dialogue will emerge.
Today, a museum can offer different perspectives and advance distinct, and even conflicting agendas at the same time. In one area the museum can provide factual information (dates, biographies, numbers, times, statistics, etc.). In another area, the museum can discuss the meta-history of the site (how the memorial was first organized, and how the pedagogy evolved since). In a third area, the museum can provide a forum for user-generated conversation, and play a major or minor role shaping and moderating that conversation. Projected Memory is clear that the views expressed at its installations do not necessarily reflect its own views, or that of the host museum/memorial. In this way the museum can facilitate public dialogue without having to make major philosophical, curatorial, or political sacrifices or commitments. This last element acknowledges that while each museum/memorial has a particular history, the memorials are also points in a national or international flow of information about certain events, and our experiences at these sites, individually and in aggregate, contribute to their ongoing importance.
Shifting the Paradigm: Challenging visitor expectations
Normally, people visit a site, see the former gas chamber and crematoria, take pictures, and then go home. A big part of what we are interested in is shifting that paradigm a little bit – intervening in, and challenging the standard way we interact with these places. Installing our Projected Memory booth in a former concentration camp barrack raised plenty of eyebrows, and it was definitely an experiment on many levels. Would visitors feel comfortable speaking on camera? Would anyone make a neo-Nazi comment or gesture? Would the technology be sufficiently self-explanatory? Those were all open questions, and they still are as we continue to improve our software.
Our aim is to evaluate the way people interact with the museum, and to see where we might be able to push the envelope and do something new in terms of visitor interaction/engagement. In a “typical” visit – if visitors opt for a guided tour – they are ushered through both the physical and historical “space” of the site and asked to take in large amounts of disturbing information. People expect to see a gas chamber, to hear about the way the SS systematically shot prisoners in the back of the neck with a specially-made device, and to varying degrees, visitors are steeled to see and hear such disgusting acts. Influenced by mass media and movies, visitors often seek to match the images they already have in their heads (like train tracks, or an entrance gate or barracks) to their “real life” equivalents on site. After taking a picture of the “actual” crematoria, visitors often feel “complete.” A box is checked, the inquiry ends there. But why is this? One possible reason is that their expectations have been met.
For the most part, the tours are excellent. Nevertheless, it can be hard to find one’s own access point to the history, or one segment of it, during a two-hour period, and on a somewhat proscribed tour. And it’s not always possible to extend one’s visit. Also, one might feel uncomfortable expressing thoughts or feelings in a group setting. What visitors do not expect is to encounter a space to be alone with their thoughts and feelings, and not those of their teachers or parents or the prevailing narratives in society or the media. We want to encourage people to think for themselves and to create meaning, from all the death and waste that dominated their visit, especially in a place where so much creativity was surely destroyed.
Is it Working?
Some people have asked us what we “wanted” from the project and whether it was “working.” Projected Memory wants people to use the booth to think through questions or emotions they might have on site while the experience is still fresh in their minds. We want people to be active producers in the way our society thinks and uses history, and we want people to interact constructively with the thoughts and opinions of others – something that is always a struggle, perhaps even more so with such a loaded topic. However, as to the “meaning” of the Holocaust or the Nazi era, we don’t have pre-existing ideas that we want to see echoed or bolstered via visitor messages. Whether the project is “working” or not, we would reformulate the question around so that it reads: “Are we – as a society, collectively – working?” in the sense of our contemplation and reckoning with these monumental and unexplainable tragic 20th century events. Are we working to think beyond the phrase “Never Again?” Are we thinking hard enough or deeply enough? It’s the pursuit of thinking that we’re after. By constructing a semi-private space, we hope to provide some of the conditions for visitors to grapple with language concerning their own thoughts and emotions and make a different kind of memorial to human rights, empathy, and active citizenship.
A Risk Rewarded
It was a big risk for Sachsenhausen to agree to be our pilot site for installing a Projected Memory booth in their museum and memorial space. It was a risk to install expensive hardware meant to be used by a large number of people. It was risky to offer an open-ended, non-survey style forum where visitors could say what they wanted. There were reservations about inadvertently recording and collecting pro-Nazi remarks or gestures. And it was a risk to be – to our knowledge – the first European Holocaust and Nazi-era memorial and museum to host such a project on site. That said, the Projected Memory project at Sachsenhausen has garnered a good amount of press, and we think it is excellent that Sachsenhausen, and Germany to some extent, is out in front in terms of “facing the past” in innovative ways and opening the narrative up to the public by demonstrating that our memory of these places need not be black and white or dominated as much by official policy as perhaps it was in previous decades.
We have the historical events themselves, and then we have the way we interpret and narrate these events. How do narratives differ, and what language do we use to articulate our relation to specific events? What demands do these extraordinary and essentially incomprehensible events make on language, and how precise (or inadequate) are the words we use? And just what does that ubiquitous phrase “Never Again” really mean?
These are the kinds of questions we are interested in at Projected Memory, and by installing feedback booths in various museums and memorials around the world, we seek not only to make history more relevant and engaging to the public, but also to empower people to become active in the production of history by leaving their own thoughts and feelings as they consider not only what happened here, but also what happens to me when I’m here.
At the same time, we invite researchers to see our work as providing a platform for their ongoing studies. This might mean requesting access to our video and audio archive, or hosting a Projected Memory event on their campus. Collaboration could mean organizing lectures or conferences to discuss research, papers, and innovative projects. For instance, it would be fascinating to hear researchers discuss and compare visitor impressions from Sachsenhausen Gedenkstaette, which is near Berlin, with visitor impressions to Ravensbrück Gedenkstaette, a former mainly-female Nazi concentration camp, located about 2.5 hours from Berlin, and much less frequented by tourists.
Theory and Historiography
Where is the line between History and Meta-History? Is it useful to distinguish between the two? How do our notions of “truth,” “trauma,” “fallibility,” “accuracy,” and “authenticity” impact our evolving understanding of “memory?”
Can a study of visitor feedback/responses promote interdisciplinary study? When one considers emerging academic fields such as Memory and Genocide Studies, where are the points of meeting between history, sociology, psychology, behavioral studies, linguistics, curatorial studies, cultural studies, and technology and media studies?
Truth in History: Can an experience resonate as strongly as a number? What if that number – for instance, the number of deaths by hanging – fluctuates depending on the scholar and the availability of information or lack thereof? Does the precise language of a survivor’s memoir strike us as a “truer” portrayal of that period than a Cold-War era monument built as propaganda? What about the feeling we have passing through the gates of a former Nazi concentration camp? And what if those looming entrance gates, inscribed with that now notorious phrase, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” are in fact replicas, made by a local iron-worker only a relatively short time ago?
Memorial Architecture and “Authenticity”
What constitutes a “memorial” place? What good does such a site do, and how and to what effect has the space been worked on or manipulated? How does a museum’s use of space, signs, information plaques, and other spatial interventions affect our experience of the history and place? What are the historical layers of a place, and are they visible or obvious to the average visitor? Which narratives are spatially prioritized, and which marginalized? And how well is the visitor aware of the ongoing history of the physical site? Would a visitor’s comments about being impressed and overwhelmed by the camp’s walls and barbed wire change if he knew that the barbed wire is not from the period of the Nazi camp? Would that mean the barbed wire is not “original?”
Religious and Intercultural Exchanges
During Gideon Unkeless’s time in Berlin working at the Sachsenhausen Gedenkstaette, he observed how often visitors assumed that Jews were the first and largest prisoner group at Sachsenhausen – in fact, the first were political prisoners, often communists at this particular Nazi camp – and it reminded him that one of the saddest legacies of the Nazis was to couple the words “Jew” and “Camp” together in languages the world over. German school groups make up a large part of the annual visitor numbers at Sachsenhausen, and it was fascinating to observe the discussions about Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany led by non-Jews to groups of non-Jewish German students. It seemed that many German students had learned about Jews almost exclusively in the context of the Holocaust, and here Gideon saw a mirroring of the kind of trans-generational trauma that so many American Jews inherit at a young age when they are shown pictures of emaciated bodies heaped on wheelbarrows and told that these lifeless lumps are in fact their ancestors. Only for the Danish and German school children, the result may be an un-bidden and undeserved sense of guilt, embarrassment and, perhaps for some, the stirrings of resentment. On both sides then this is not merely Holocaust or Human Rights education but also a process of inter-generational neurosis transfer.
Do the American-Jewish visitors have profoundly different expectations and experiences at their memorials from those of other groups? Do they feel connected to the history because of their religious upbringing, or are there other overlapping areas of interest and connection? And on the other side of the Atlantic, what images of “Jews” do young Europeans have, especially in the context of the Second World War, and how are these images made more complex by a visit to a former Nazi concentration camp? What might happen if we were able to take the ten most insightful video responses from American-Jewish visitors to Sachsenhausen, and set them in conversation (face to face or remotely) with European visitors who had left equally stimulating responses?
On a practical level, how are we doing? Many visitors to memorials and museums, both in Europe and in the United States, are students. What preparation have they had, and how do they spend their time “on site?” What do they have to say? During Gideon’s time as a tour guide, students often asked right away where the gas chamber was. And he had to manage the students’ visible disappointment when he informed them that, after explosions and poor preservation techniques, the gas chamber at Sachsenhausen lay in ruins, with only the brick foundation still visible. But why were the students so enthusiastic about seeing such a grisly site in the first place?
In a similar vein, a visitor secretly inscribed a Swastika in a table located in the former Jewish barrack at a former concentration camp. Is it simply a common expression of generational rebellion, devoid of its past meaning? Or is it a warning sign, that the big gaps between the aims of our Holocaust pedagogy and its accomplishments must be addressed?
Tourism and the Holocaust
Besides students on school trips, a large number of visitors to memorials and museums like Auschwitz fall under a broad “tourist” category. Sachsenhausen Gedenkstaette counts over 400,000 visitors a year, a significant portion of whom are out-of-town tourists visiting Berlin. Why did they include Sachsenhausen on their vacation itinerary? What do they want to learn, and what are their strongest impressions? What will they take away from their visit? Holocaust tourism is big business, and the Projected Memory project is yet another way to approach a study of this industry and its possible implications.