Visualising Heritage of Nazi Persecution

Introduction: Conceptual and Ethical Considerations

Innovative technology can offer interactive and immersive in-situ experiences bridging past and present. This can be achieved by linking spatial history using geo-data, archival photos, audio-visual records, historical research, digitised tangible artifacts, and physical geography. It can also involve re-mediatizing older forms of evocative media such as prisoner and survivor artworks, testimonies, and diaries. Personal documents such as diaries, letters, reports, and testimonies offer insight into multiple perspectives on Nazi persecution that constitute a living heritage. This humanises the historical account and cultivates a multi-layered digital environment in which users can explore various reconstructed histories and historical viewpoints. This can help in shifting attention from the existing historical canon to biographies, sites, objects, and stories that are less known and often overlooked or ignored. 

However, turning Heritage on Nazi Persecution into the subject of digital enterprises is not without ethical and logistical-technological challenges. 

  • How can this be done in thoughtful and responsible ways?
  • How can we make heritage on Nazi persecution more accessible and inclusive? 
  • How can we foster engagement with such sources and create new resonance in the present?

Computer-based visualisation offers new ways of exploring historical sources in interactive environments and linking and interconnecting them with related information. This allows active forms of searching, exploring, and curating digitised heritage objects and materials.

For computer-based visualization of heritage on Nazi persecution, in particular 3D modeling of historical sites, prisoner paintings, and exhibitions, we considered the following principles that should also assist in guiding user engagement with MEMORISE applications and prototypes:

1. Preserve and safeguard cultural heritage

Digitization and computer-based visualisation can help preserve and safeguard cultural heritage on Nazi persecution by digitally documenting and archiving historical sites, artifacts, and stories, ensuring their preservation for future generations and mitigating the risk of physical deterioration or loss. In this process, we prioritise respect for the integrity of historical sources. Creating 3D models and other computer-based visualisations based on historical sites and sources demands careful decisions regarding historical accuracy. Considerations include whether or not to ‘fill in’ missing information, to geo-locate models when the specific location is uncertain, to ‘crop’ or alter objects, ‘fix’ ‘mistakes’, and acknowledge the extent of historical reconstruction, all of which must be approached thoughtfully and transparently. 

Ultimately, the model should delicately navigate between reconstruction and stimulating imagination, while maintaining transparency about any alterations made to the original artwork. By openly acknowledging places where the work has been ‘touched,’ the model encourages users to explore the original and engage critically (and comparatively) with the historical context. Users must understand the processes and limits of digital and virtual reconstruction, avoid artificial authenticity effects and emphasise the multi-layered structure of history and the temporality and constant transformation of heritage on Nazi persecution.

2. Provide future access, authentication, and validation of information

Digitization and computer-based visualisation can help safeguard and certify historical knowledge, particularly in the face of increasing misinformation and falsification of historical facts. The subject matter must be approached with the utmost sensitivity, recognizing its profound emotional impact on survivors, their families, and the broader community. This includes the careful handling of copyrights and the acquisition of informed consent from relevant stakeholders, ensuring that rights and privacy are respected throughout the development and presentation of computer-based visualisations of heritage on Nazi persecution. 

3D models, virtual environments, digital maps, and digital videography allow users to experience memorial sites remotely and access topographic memory and traces online or through digital applications. They can help make historical sites of Nazi persecution accessible to audiences from a distance.

Content and experiences of computer-based visualisations of heritage on Nazi persecution must be made available to diverse audiences, including people with disabilities, different languages, or limited technological access, ensuring inclusivity and equity in-memory representation.

3. Establish points of contact

Digitization and computer-based visualisation should emphasise the relevance of engaging with the past by resonating with present concerns while establishing connections between past and present beyond mere analogies. They should offer possibilities for users to connect different sources, documents, and objects with each other, additional information, metadata, etc.

Digitized and visualised heritage can function as an entry point into a broad, multi-layered virtual environment(s) that seamlessly connects various tangible and intangible heritage sources; these may include testimonies, diaries, artworks, historical information, archival sources, and other objects. This holistic approach has the potential to convey more intricate and nuanced narratives while underscoring the interconnectedness of the diverse individual experiences and traumatic fragments that characterise the heritage of Nazi persecution.

4. Assist in imagining past events

Digitization and computer-based visualisation can stimulate the imagination of past events, while not authentically reconstructing but offering models for a better understanding of historical experiences and decisions. Instead of fully reconstructing sites or objects, we utilise aesthetics of fragmentation or abstract forms to stimulate the imagination of users, provide orientation, and captivate curiosity. It is important to ensure that users understand and reflect on the difference between a digital or virtual reconstruction and their own present lives to enable resonance effects.

For that reason, heritage sources must not be employed as a mere ‘gimmick’. There should be a clear justification for selecting specific sites or objects as data for computer-based visualisation and modeling. It is imperative to ensure that the primary focus remains educational and commemorative, steering clear of any tendency towards entertainment or sensationalism.

5. Enable empathetic and multi-perspective storytelling based on personal biographies

Computer-based visualisation and narration allow us to connect different perspectives by relating objects, documents, testimonies, and other sources in digital and virtual environments based on 3D modeling. In doing so, users can actively engage with individual experiences and stories derived from personal documents such as diaries, testimonies, or prisoner paintings. This allows for multi-perspective storytelling and cognitive-empathic engagement with biographies from the Nazi past. Telling personal stories and connecting with individual biographies strengthens empathy and allows users to relate to a variety of perspectives on the history of Nazi persecution as well as a better understanding of the interrelation of past and present and significant differences between past and present experiences.

It is essential to recognise that digital technology has the tendency to amplify social biases. 3D models and other visualisations should provide an opportunity to rectify this by giving space to the voices and stories of underrepresented victim groups and mnemonic communities. Furthermore, the digital realm should be leveraged to offer multiple narratives simultaneously, spanning different periods and perspectives, echoing the multifaceted experiences that encompass the heritage on Nazi persecution. We recommend shifting attention from the existing historical canon to biographies, sites, objects, and stories that are less known and continuously overlooked or ignored. They can give voice to marginalised experiences of Nazi persecution.

6. Create participatory and co-creative forms of doing heritage

Digital infrastructures provide new ways of collecting and mediating personal memories and experiences by developing applications that allow generating, documenting, and sharing testimonies in a variety of media formats. They should aim for the empowerment of users while respecting individual boundaries. Their aim should be to generate new experiences of engaging and interacting with cultural heritage. This also includes asking for and taking serious user feedback and creating a responsive environment.

 The participatory nature of digital environments allows users to creatively engage with the heritage and memories of Nazi persecution through acts of searching, interacting, sharing, and creating content. Utilising digitised heritage on Nazi persecution for user engagement allows one to discover and interact with historical sources such as diaries, letters, photographs, artworks, and films, as well as survivor testimonies and biographies. In doing so, it fosters an active search for information and meaning. This can bridge generational gaps by providing opportunities for intergenerational exchange and dialogue, allowing younger generations to connect with the past and learn from the memories of older generations while promoting intergenerational understanding and dialogue.

However, thoughtful consideration is necessary to determine when it is appropriate to promote interactivity and when a passive walkthrough is more suitable, aligning the computer-based visualisation with its intended purpose and target audience.

These conceptual and ethical considerations constitute a living document that is constantly adjusted, tested, and advised in the process of developing and implementing computer-based visualisation projects fostering engagement with heritage on Nazi persecution.

Last updated: January 2024