Virtual Holocaust Memoryscapes: Scoping the Creation of Immersive, Spatial Archives of the Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme Memorial Sites

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of English

Abstract

This project represents phase 1 of a larger project that will ultimately lead to the development of distinctive new cultural products - the immersive, interactive, spatial archives based on 360 degree photography and sound recording that we term 'virtual Holocaust memoryscapes' (or VHMs) - and associated research agendas.

Working with Nazi concentration camp memorial sites, Holocaust education organisations and cutting-edge creative technology companies, in phase 1 a multidisciplinary team of academics from the UK and the USA will explore how VHMs can be used to connect significant Holocaust landscapes - in the first instance, the former Nazi concentration camps at Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme - with relevant visual, written and audio content such as films, photographs, diaries, artworks, oral testimonies and historical documents. We will also explore the possibility of using Geographic Information System (GIS) data to create mobile versions of these immersive experiences based on a user's geographic location. By enabling users to encounter diverse archives by way of virtual environments based on recordings of present day memorial sites, VHMs will facilitate interactions with the hidden histories of camps such as Bergen-Belsen, where few physical traces of the genocide remain. When encountered through a VR headset or similar, VHMs will allow members of the public to experience new forms of Holocaust memory that are location-specific, immersive and multisensory, meaning that they come to experience what we term a 'virtual memory' of the Holocaust through affect and the body, as well as the intellect.

The project is timely, responding to the fact that we are drawing towards the end of the historical period in which people still have living memories of the Holocaust, yet recognising that new forms of immersive technology are increasingly being used to transform the public understanding of the genocide. Our non-academic partners - who include the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the UK's National Holocaust Centre and Museum, as well as the memorial sites at Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme (Germany) and Westerbork (Netherlands) - have been at the forefront of the development of the first generation of digital memory projects, including VR films and 'interactive testimony' where members of the public can hold a virtual conversation with a recording of a Holocaust survivor using natural language processing. By engaging with these partners across three workshops in the UK and Germany, we will scope phase 2 of the Virtual Holocaust Memoryscapes project, putting together a multidisciplinary, multinational, multi-sector team for a practical development phase that will go hand in hand with the publication of connected research outputs.

By using technology in a nuanced and reflective fashion to deepen the public understanding of Holocaust landscapes, we will ensure that Holocaust memory remains relevant for future generations in the post-survivor era. Ultimately, we aim to create a diverse portfolio of VHMs - potentially widening to include the sites of former Nazi extermination camps in Poland and landscapes associated with other historical atrocities - working with museum and education partners around the world to ensure that these historically significant locations are made available to socially and geographically diverse communities.

Planned Impact

The wider Virtual Holocaust Memoryscapes project aims to transform the public understanding of the Holocaust by creating an immersive digital environment that can be used by Holocaust education and commemoration organisations around the world. It will enhance the visitor experience at the sites on which the first virtual Holocaust memoryscapes (VHMs) are based, while also allowing these organisations to reach new 'virtual visitors' through online versions of their VHMs and remote delivery of their education programmes using VR headsets. Phase 1 of the project will be used to explore whether the same VHMs can be used at Nazi camp memorial sites and museums in other parts of the world, or whether different iterations would be more appropriate. In phase 1 we will specifically explore ways that Geographic Information System (GIS) data might intersect with other technologies such as VR and AR to give visitors to Nazi memorial sites an enhanced, immersive experience of the present day landscape through their mobile devices.

Phase 1 of the project will bring immediate benefits to the non-academic partners in the project team by scoping the development of a new digital memory product in a unique multinational, multi-sector collaboration. Holocaust education and commemoration is a notoriously fragmented sector, yet phase 1 draws together organisations from the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, with the potential to include in phase 2 major organisations in the USA, Australia and South Africa with whom the project team have excellent and longstanding working relationships. The Holocaust memorials and education organisations involved in phase 1 will further benefit by engaging with research that is being undertaken on the first generation of virtual Holocaust memory projects. In doing so, these organisations will develop the knowledge and practices that have positioned them at the cutting-edge of the increasingly digitised museum and education sectors (for details please see letters of support from the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Site, the Neuengamme Memorial Site, the Anne Frank House, and the National Holocaust Centre and Museum).

The representatives of the UK creative industries included in phase 1 - Bright White and Stand + Stare - have previous experience of academic collaborations, including Ma's work on the HLF award that led to the creation of the Forever Project and Stand + Stare's involvement in a number of AHRC-funded academic collaborations, including Mayfly, Tangible Memories and Parlours of Wonder (see Letter of Support for details). This project will bring Bright White and Stand + Stare into an ambitious, multidisciplinary collaboration that will allow them to think about the contribution they might make to global Holocaust memory culture, drawing on diverse historical, conceptual and cultural perspectives as they help to pioneer a new generation of immersive environments. As noted in their letters of support, Bright White and Stand + Stare are attracted to this project as it provides them with a space for creativity, critical reflection, experimentation and technological innovation - a space that is not always available in purely commercial jobs. The learning that they gain from this project will, in turn, inform their future creative practices.

Bright White will act as an interface between the project and the VR and digital media sectors, producing a draft technical specification and design brief for the first two VHMs. We recognise the extensive capacity of the UK's creative industries to support the delivery of projects of this nature, and we will also engage, via Bright White, with networks such as Immerse UK to identify other potential commercial partners. All these representatives of the UK's creative industries will ultimately derive commercial benefit if they become partners in phase 2 of the project.

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