Understanding and Improving Public Engagement with Holocaust Photography

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: History


This project examines visitor engagement with an interactive, multimodal exhibition that explores the role of photography in mediating the public understanding of the Holocaust. It builds on the success of the AHRC funded project 'Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism' (2018-21), which explored how photography, which was widely used in Nazi propaganda, has distorted the ways we perceive victims of the Holocaust today. The project also unearthed how people persecuted by the Nazi regime deployed photography to record counter-narratives, thus creating a rich visual resource, which is, however, largely unknown to modern audiences. These insights have informed a national touring exhibition 'The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust', which will allow us to test new methods for exhibiting these sources.

This Follow-on Funding project is designed to enhance the significant social and cultural impacts of the project by capitalising on the unforeseen yet invaluable opportunity provided by the exhibition's tour: to observe and evaluate audience responses, thus generating evidence of the effectiveness of our various interventions in reaching contemporary audiences. The aim is to inform future curatorial, pedagogical and policy practices around the use of photography in Holocaust memorialisation and learning. The project takes place against a backdrop of rising racially-motivated hate crimes, Anti-Semitism, and a decline in public knowledge about the Holocaust. This political context means that gathering information regarding public understanding of these issues is both timely and urgent.

Our hypothesis is that public understanding is currently compromised by a one-sided reliance on perpetrator-made images when imagining the Holocaust today. While these images engage audiences emotionally, they also perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This follow-on funding allows us to ascertain whether different curatorial interventions can help audiences to view photographs of the Holocaust more critically.

In our exhibition, visitors enter an immersive Mixed Reality experience which allows them to explore a classical perpetrator image of the Holocaust, sharpening their awareness of the perspective, framing and selection at work in the image. They then encounter alternative images produced by victims of Nazi persecution, which are very rarely seen in exhibitions or online. Interactive display screens invite visitors to record their own reflections and to apply lessons learnt from the exhibition to photographs of violence, atrocities and mass migration in the world today. A purpose-made artistic video installation provides the opportunity for us to explore the effectiveness of artistic interventions in supporting historical and technological displays.

This project comprises detailed visitor observation, questionnaires and interviews in all five venues hosting the exhibition: the Imperial War Museum North (Manchester); the Bradford Peace Museum; the National Memorial Arboretum (Staffordshire); the Djanogly Art Gallery (Nottingham), and one London venue tbc. Our project is ground-breaking in combining established qualitative methods of museum audience research with innovations from digital humanities approaches. This includes technological observation through gaze, eye and movement tracking in our Mixed Reality headsets, and digitally recording choices visitors make about photographs on interactive touch screens.

The resulting evidence will demonstrate the effects of our interventions on different demographics, empowering museums to make optimal use of our research for future displays. Our testing the effectiveness of digital interventions will also inform museums about the potential of new technologies to engage visitors with other difficult subjects in the future, and to minimise harmful side-effects when displaying problematic images.

Planned Impact

The findings of this research will allow us to improve our host venues' exhibitions, to increase public awareness through more effective and more ethically sound curatorial and pedagogical approaches to Holocaust photography. Through this, we will drive the agenda of Holocaust memorialisation and learning both in the UK and further afield. The project equips exhibition goers and learners to engage critically with photography as a document -- not only about the Holocaust, but also when engaging with more contemporary images of conflict, human suffering and victimhood.

Beneficiaries will include Holocaust museums, galleries and memorial sites, members of the public visiting these sites, Holocaust educators, including school teachers and academics engaged in efforts to improve Holocaust education in schools, and policy makers. Evidence gathered regarding the effectiveness of different media and display strategies in reaching contemporary audiences, and specific demographic groups within them, will feed into the further development of the National Holocaust Centre and Museum's permanent displays (CF project partner letter of support), and generate evidence that can be shared with a wide range of potential new museum partners and educators. It will inform choices that our partner venues will make in future regarding curatorial best practice on exhibiting other difficult and ethically sensitive histories. The research will also impact collaboration with non-university partners through developing innovative immersive technologies to enhance visitor engagement with visual and material culture displayed in museums, galleries and memorial sites.

We will scale up the impact by sharing key findings with the sector more widely, in order to influence future directions in museum curation around the visual display of violence and suffering. Given the global geographical spread of Holocaust museums and memorial sites, there are significant opportunities for extending this impact internationally. We have recently held meetings with museum staff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem; both are interested in our findings from this project. We will work with existing and new partners to empower them to make optimal use of our audience observations, to inform their future approach to engaging target demographics, and improving the way in which they empower audiences to respond critically to visual media.

This is of particular significance in educational settings, and the data gathered will be invaluable for guiding best practice pedagogies for pupil engagement with photography. The project will thus also inform new guidance for teachers and museum educators with whom we are already working with on the original research project, to help pupils and students engage with images more critically and inform the development of exemplar teaching materials. This will also help teachers to prepare pupils and students for participation in museum visits where engagement with and developing an understanding of visual images are expected, and to help develop further learning opportunities that involve engagement with photographic evidence.


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