U.K Scholar to Conduct Research at Institute on Memory and the Digital Age
USC Shoah Foundation today welcomes Dr. Victoria Walden, a senior lecturer from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, who will spend the next two weeks conducting research at the Institute on digital memory and the Holocaust.
Dr. Walden’s residency is part of fieldwork she is conducting at Holocaust memory and education sites across Europe, Australia, and the United States. During her residence, Dr. Walden will conduct interviews with staff members and walkthroughs of USC Shoah Foundation assets such as the Visual History Archive and Dimensions in Testimony. These will eventually be incorporated into a digital platform she is building as part of her project.
She will be presenting a public lecture on ‘Recording, Recirculating and Remixing Testimony’ at USC Shoah Foundation Tuesday, November 8. The lecture will be streamed online: https://sfi.usc.edu/events/towards-recommendations-working-holocaust-testimony-digital-age
Dr. Walden sat down for an interview to discuss her research.
What brings you to USC Shoah Foundation?
I have come here to do fieldwork for my project ‘Digital Holocaust Memory: Hyperconnective Museums and Archives of the Future’. I’m here to record walkthroughs of USC Shoah Foundation’s digital projects, and interviews with current and former staff.
I am also really looking forward to sharing some initial findings from a complementary project called ‘Co-Creating Guidelines for Digital Interventions for Holocaust Memory and Education’, which is running a series of international, interdisciplinary workshops focused on six themes. [I’ll be presenting on] one of these—‘Recording, Recirculating and Remixing Testimony’—[from the Institute] on Tuesday 8th November.
How do you define “digital Holocaust memory”?
My work is situated within the fields of media archaeology and post-humanism. Thinking with these fields, I see ‘digital Holocaust memory’ as both, in-part, a continuation of pre-digital forms of memory practice, and as an entanglement (Karen Barad 2007) of human and non-human actants. I resist the discourse, led by the tech industry, that believes the ‘digital’ instigates a radically new era because I think this harms research and development in our field. There are digital specificities which are new, however, there are also many facets of digital Holocaust memory projects that we can see in earlier electronic and analogue forms of memory practice. If we want to develop innovation in our field, we need to understand the relationship between all of these.
The entanglement dimension is important to me because we like to think about ‘the digital’ in terms of the tech. However, ‘the digital’ refers to a vast mediascape, which includes and involves humans, as well as physical (non-digital) objects and environments. A much-understudied dimension of this mediascape is the humans involved in the production of digital projects. In my project, I am particularly interested in giving these people a voice. If, as Marianne Hirsch (2012) argued, postmemory involves creativity and imagination, then it is the curators, programmers, designers, educators, and others involved in the making of digital projects that are defining what Holocaust memory of the future looks like. I am interested in their relationship with the technology.
How can digital Holocaust memory be used in positive ways?
Arguably, any work we do to encourage memory of the Holocaust is positive, right? I think the bigger question is how do we make the most of the affordances of different digital media and methodologies?
The workshops series I have run in 2022 have illustrated many of the frustrating restrictions the global sector has to deal with: funding schemes are often short-term leading to outcomes-based investment rather than incubation and development. This means memorial sites and museums often buy-in resource for a specific, year-long project, and digitization efforts are project-based rather than priority-based (i.e., what is useful for a particular digital presentation rather than what is at most risk of material decay). Once those staff leave at the project’s end, institutions are left with files and folders of digitized material with which no permanent staff are familiar.
There is a great unevenness in resourcing and media literacies training across museums and memorials. On one hand, we like to think the networked structure of online media offers the power for peripheral sites and voices to be better seen and heard. On the other hand, the truth of the matter is that online presence relies on a significant amount of offline resource, thus dominant institutions and their relevant national memory cultures of the pre-digital age continue to dominate. The lesser-known ones, and their narratives, become even more at risk of disappearing from global consciousness about the Holocaust.
If we can create the ability for easy sharing of great practice globally, support the bolstering of digital literacies in the sector, and encourage international collaboration between museums, memorials and archives, academics, and the creative and tech industries, I think there is real potential for productive development of meaningful, sustained digital Holocaust memory work with a global reach.
What are the some of the risks or downsides associated with fusing digital technologies and Holocaust memory?
In terms of risks, we need to be thinking about our complicity. Every time any of us creates the opportunity for others to associate their digital footprint with Holocaust memory and education work, we need to think carefully about what we are really asking them to do.
It may seem irrelevant to Holocaust memory to talk about privacy, data, and consent of present participants given we are talking about representing of the past, but with personal data being used in current conflicts and genocides to monitor, control, and punish individuals (see: the Chinese Government’s policy against the Uyghurs), or for propaganda purposes (see: Clearview AI and the Ukrainian Army), we need to think about the responsibility we have - as researchers, curators, educators, and creatives – when we ask people to share their data in our work. What might be the future consequences, for example, when we share a post that encourages others to publicly declare their Jewish identity?
One of the most important interventions Holocaust institutions could make today for the sake of genocide prevention is to be actively contributing to the writing of data regulations (within tech companies and in (supra)national law-making).
Your visit to USC Shoah Foundation is part of fieldwork you are conducting at a range of Holocaust memory and education sites across Europe, the US and Australia. What interesting innovations have you encountered on your travels so far?
I have seen a range of approaches to VR/AR, from situated exhibitions which present models of buildings that used to exist at the site of a former concentration camp accompanied by either fragmentary sources (Bergen-Belsen) or mini-exhibitions (Falstad, Norway), to the ARt app (Dachau), which allows you to walk around and through artwork by survivors and their descendants at the memorial site, and the Oshpitzin app (Auschwitz Jewish Centre), which places historical photographs of this town, which once had a Jewish majority before becoming the SS headquarters, over today’s view, in which one will find no Jewish inhabitants.
I’ve seen several computer games, from Attentat 1942 and The Darkest of Times, both available on Steam to Nowopilie 29d, an AR, mobile game by the Muzeum Getta Warszawskiego, which has you exploring the streets of the ghetto area to find out about their past. I must mention Ester.rs too – an online graphic novel, which encourages archival and site-based location research in Belgrade, Serbia, where there is barely any physical space given to memory of the city’s Holocaust sites.
I have, however, found myself most interested in those works that are no longer available or on platforms barely used: the Anne’s Amsterdam app, and CD-Rom; online exhibitions in flash; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museums’ Kristallnacht exhibition Second Life; early experimentations in participatory practices on social media. It feels like these works point to a rapidly disappearing media history of Holocaust memory that we could learn a lot from today. I’ve heard people refer to recent years as a ‘digital turn’ in the sector, but there are 25-30 years of history to this work.
You are planning to build a digital platform. What will it do?
The platform is an effort to give back to the sector. As academic researchers, we are often asking institutions to give us their time, offering little in return. The premise of the platform is to present the walkthroughs and interviews in a searchable format. It will integrate an information retrieval system (IRS) with searchable transcripts (of the interviews), so that users can search for words related to technologies, e.g. ‘machine learning’, ‘VR’, ‘computer games’, or thematically, e.g. ‘empathy’, ‘user-agency’, ‘historical narrative’, and the platform will then present not just the full-length interviews, but the place in interviews relevant to their search.
The platform is designed for those working in the Holocaust sector, and creatives and tech professionals working with them. I hope it will help close the gap, supporting people to have quick access to the experiences and histories of digital Holocaust memory work. Many professionals in our sector have said they feel like they are constantly ‘reinventing the wheel’, I hope this platform will go some way towards preventing that.
The platform will be accessible by request, but it will always be free to access. I also hope for it be used by academics, allowing more scholars access to at least a taster of a wide range of digital projects quickly, so they can (a) easily assess which to visit to look at in more detail and (b) see something of projects which no longer exist, and thus digital developments can be better historicized.
About Dr. Walden
Dr. Victoria Grace Walden is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Learning Enhancement in the School of Media, Arts and Humanities and Sussex Weidenfeld Institute for Jewish Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. She has published widely on the topics of digital and mediated Holocaust memory, the digital and memorial museums, and media education and digital technologies. She is author of the monograph Cinematic Intermedialities and Contemporary Holocaust Memory (Palgrave Macmillan 2019), editor of Digital Holocaust Memory, Education and Research (Palgrave Macmillan 2021), a recent special edition of Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History on digital Holocaust memory and education before and after Covid (2021) and the forthcoming open access e-book The Memorial Museum in the Digital Age (2022). She has worked as digital coordinator for the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) and has been an academic advisor to the UN/UNESCO, Claims Conference, and the Imperial War Museums. She is also editor-in-chief of the award-winning research platform www.digitalholocaustmemory.com
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