Oral History of Museum Computing: Michael Haley Goldman
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Michael Haley Goldman, and was recorded on the 19th of February, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/3MRByZ1Ezeg.
So, thinking about this like a whole perspective, it’s like, what are the stories that aren’t being told? It totally made me think of what is possibly an apocryphal story inside the museum about how our museum [Holocaust Memorial Museum] got on the Web. And there’s this whole story that Arnie Kramer, who was the first CIO, I guess, of the museum, although he came to the museum as a professional photographer, and did a lot of important photography work with the museum and then did other technology projects long before we had a CIO position, had been hearing about this thing called the Web, when the museum opened in the ‘90s, and went to the Founding Director of the museum, Shaike Weinberg, and said, “Hey, we should be doing this,” and Shaike told him, “No.” He basically said, “This sounds totally uninteresting. Don’t waste your time on it.” And the story is that Arnie ignored him, and we, you know, we were fairly early as a museum online.
But, both Shaike and Arnie are long deceased. They’ve been gone for years. And I have no idea what the reality of this, this story that’s been in the institution is, and when you first told me about this project, what I really wanted to do was my own oral history, like it was gonna be an oral history for the oral history of going and tracking down people in the institution who were around at that period of time, or worked really closely with Arnie or with Shaike, and see what they remembered about this, because I’m willing to bet that, that there’s all kinds of stories about this, or all kinds of details about this that would be very, very different, as you went person to person, the way oral history should be. And the reality was, in fact, I pitched this to one of my colleagues, and, and he loved the idea, and he said, “Realistically, are we going to actually be able to track anybody down in the next few months?” And the answer was no. So that’s the nub of a story that I will give you as a starting place that I would still love to track down some people within our institution and see if I can figure out what the what that story really was about, or how much of its true, or what other kind of factors are a part of it.
[Marty]: Well, I would love to hear that story, if you ever get it tracked down, right? Stories about the first website are always fascinating to see… and who pushed one thing or the other, but go ahead, tell us, tell us about your experiences.
Okay, so there’s a couple of things that really came to mind and, and the one that I just that wasn’t the original one that I sent you popped up in my email literally I guess at the beginning of this week was an old story that I had kind of forgotten about. So, to explain it, I guess I have to back up a little bit. When I first started at the museum, I was in a group that was called the Registry of Holocaust Survivors, and it was very specifically a weird, little amalgam of digital and, and, and historical and archival work, and had a really great team of people, some of them have been really involved in creating our main exhibition, this was right after the museum opened, and what we discovered was that when people are looking for tracking people who are connected to the Holocaust, whether they survived or perished, they, they don’t necessarily have the facts, they don’t really know much about them, and although we had inherited a very strange database, which is its own story, which I don’t even really feel like I should get into… a database of survivors that we, we worked with and grew as part of our jobs, what we really needed was information about people who did not survive, or whose state was unknown. That was what people were really looking for.
And in the ‘90s some really interesting things were going on at the same time. One was that you had more databases of information about individuals, and these were being created for a variety of different reasons in different ways. They were being created as memorial books. They were being created as research. They were being created as kind of finding aids to large collections. And they were being created in any different number of ways digitally, and that was something that was still relatively new at the time to have all these different digital sources that were, were out there.
The other thing that was really important, particularly to this story, was that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that access to archival documents in the former Soviet states was possible in a way that it hadn’t been in the past, so there was a huge amount of records that were available. So this story actually is around a project that my colleagues, I mean, Vadim Altskan, who was part of our team that did a lot of work and archival acquisitions got involved, with, with the, the Art National… it’s not called the National Archives, it’s the Archives of Uzbekistan… I don’t remember their full title anymore, and I’m doing it in translation, anyway, and they, they had a collection of what we would refer to as “the evacuees,” so as… you see, this gets keeps getting deeper and deeper into like trying to give you the context of it all.
As the, the Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union, you have a huge number of people who were evacuated East, and they end up in places like Tashkent. And there was a collection of these individual documents from Uzbekistan that we were going to photograph, and in the process of photographing them, they actually created a database of all the information. They were these, these little cards that you, you had as an evacuees-status person, basically asking for, for care and, and, and work and things like that. And in creating that database they, what we really wanted was the archival records, right?
This is something that we were doing in large amount of work of all across Europe and other places around the world as well, but largely in Europe. And in the former Soviet Union, we’re doing a ton of microfilming work on these kinds of collections, and there was a database with it, and Vadim acquired the database, kind of as an afterthought. It was kind of seen as this appendage to what we were really looking for. And he shipped it to us. The year appears to be 2005, although I would have assumed it was much earlier than that because we’ve been doing that kind of work for a long time, and what we discovered was that what they sent us was these… set of CDs, with what turned out to be a kind of a standalone little application that you could load onto a machine, and it would allow you to search through this, this finding aid of the documents. And, of course, we couldn’t really do anything with it.
Enter yet another colleague, this is where the hidden work comes in. So Vadim has to acquire this. Vadim gets it to us, gets it shipped. My colleague Michael Levy who had joined us a little bit later in the story, but is this application developer, and had done a lot of work with museums and other types of things over the years, he had the CDs and started kind of digging through it, and, after a fairly prolonged process, what he discovered was that it was in something called JDataStore, which he couldn’t find as a Wikipedia page, he couldn’t really find anything on… but he did find a reference to it that it was something that Borland had owned for a period of time and had sold off. [It] no longer really existed, couldn’t be purchased, but, as you continue to dig and dig, what he found was you could still download a trial copy for two weeks.
So, Michael got the trial copy. He was able to get in and rip the data out from this standalone application, but then of course it was using some kind of proprietary character system, so then he had to figure out a way to convert it into Unicode so that you could actually have it as a Cyrillic data set, right, and, and that was, you know, another piece of the work, and this all in my memory took a fairly long period of time. I don’t know. It’s been a lot of years, so I don’t remember… So then, we finally had something.
Apparently, at this point in time, Michael reminds me that I went in and found out some, some figured out some kind of way to write a script that would transliterate this. Now, in retrospect, I don’t really remember how I did that. I could have used, I was using Microsoft Access a lot of the time, but we also did a lot of random things just in text files for, for that kind of kind of work at that stage of the game, where it, you know, we weren’t above and using Microsoft Word, if necessary, if it had some kind of advantage of us trying to figure out how to do something with some random big file. And I remember… I do, I do remember sitting down with Vadim, who was the only one of us who actually knew the Cyrillic alphabet and actually could… knew properly how to transliterate it, and having him work through a kind of a sequence of transliteration, right? If you’re seeing these characters in this set, then you’re going to translate to this into that — but beyond that, I don’t really remember the process, but it kind of worked. We were able to kind of pull out a Latin alphabet version of this database. And it more or less just existed as a standalone database for a while, which we could use for reference purposes.
A little bit more time passed, and we brought in Randy Davis [Director of Planning and Administration for the David M Rubenstein National Institute for Holocaust Documentation], who came out of the museum studies program at George Washington [University], and, and Randy was working on moving things online. That became one of one of his big parts of his job. I don’t think it was originally part of his job description, but was that: How much of the data that we’ve been collecting like this over the years could we make available online? A lot of times, we didn’t really feel like we have the rights or other kinds of restrictions or concerns about privacy, but this was something that we felt like we could, we could get out there. And so, he was the one to figure out a way to kind of transfer this data into kind of a growing data system, which was, I think, very creatively called “Name Search” at the time, which was just a really simple tool that allowed you to search names across all of these different types of digital historical data sets that we had, usually relating to archival or other kinds of research into individuals during the Holocaust. And Randy moved it into the system, and moved it eventually into its successor system, which is a lot more thorough and full-fledged. And, and it became something that was publicly available, and as the email from, from Michael Levy [Director of Digital Asset Management and Digital Collections as the USHMM] reminded me, is that people really used it. It was something that people used to show their family lineages. It was used in weddings in some way, and Israel at some point in time… that we were getting all of this kind of feedback that, that people were looking for this kind of information. And this was all kind of coming back to us as an email chain earlier in the week, where all of us were kind of weighing in with what we remembered about it.
And Vadim, of course, has like the trump card in all of this because Vadim is like, “Well, so, another not quite as nice version of this is, this was used as, as evidence.” When Vadim was a special witness for an FBI case around fraud, where, where people were claiming to be in German Occupied former Soviet Union, at a time when they weren’t, and, and, and were getting reparations from Germany because of that. Vadim, because of his expertise and knowledge of the collections and the history, was brought in as a witness around this, and they were able to actually use the database to show that some of the names that have been used to show people were in one place, were in fact in another place. And so, it became evident in that trial as well.
So, there’s something about the kind of, a, the sheer number of us that had to touch this really complicated, strange thing to make it something that could be publicly available was a really great part of kind of thinking about how the work grows and is complicated, and involved, at least in that period of time, a lot of trickery as far as I can remember us just kind of making up ways of dealing with it.
But also that it has kind of ramifications way, way beyond what we were imagining at the time. This wasn’t what we were doing it for we were really just trying to make one more piece of the history available at that point.
[Marty]: And I just looked up Borland’s JDataStore… it looked like it was really hot stuff in the year 2000. The last reference I saw about it was 2002.
Yeah, so this was 2005, so it was already pretty far gone by the time we got this tool. It’s good to know somebody was using it for something, and it wasn’t just totally random when they had decided to use it.
[Jones]: So, what did you do with the data? What other database did you put it in?
So, so, yeah, the data, you know, as I said at the beginning, like this, this idea that there are these data sets and there are associated with all these different types of work that were going on in the ‘90s kind of became a new direction for a lot of the work we were doing at that point in time. And it, I think it made a lot of us a lot of really think about historical data as being its own type of thing. So, you know, currently, I haven’t been involved with that project in years now, but we have millions of millions of records about individuals from databases like this created by us, created by, by partnerships, created by other organizations like this one, that is part of an online tool that really tries to bring together ways of using this. And then that, that information, then, can be used in terms of different types of research in terms of both historical research and individual research, and that’s one of the tools that we make available. And I guess have been making available since around the turn of the century, which is a fun thing to say.
And, and I think it actually has influenced a lot… of, you know, a lot of the things I’ve been doing in the last you know five years or so, is tied into the digital humanities community, and I think a lot of our thinking about of the resources for digital humanities in the kind of impact digital humanities approaches can have on the scholarship, both scholarship and education around the Holocaust came from doing work with those kinds of datasets at that point in time. Us figuring out what they were, figuring out what the rules were, how to manage them, how people could use them, what kind of questions could be asked, I think, it has grown into our kind of appreciation for these kind of larger digital techniques that we are trying, to still trying to encourage more and more use of it in the field of Holocaust studies.
[Marty]: It certainly, I think we see things like, for example, I think about the, I think it’s called, is it called the History Unfolded Project, right? You know, the, the setup that you have to have behind the scenes to manage all of that data you get from all those contributors around the world.
Yeah! No, History Unfolded is like another great example. And that’s another great project, you know, in terms of, like… so to describe the project, I guess you know, in terms of History Unfolded is what we would call a “citizens history project.” Some, I guess, a lot of people will just call it call it a crowdsourcing project or cultural transformation project and, it’s a project where we were asking the question for an exhibition we were doing about what did Americans really know, what could they have known? In the ‘30s and ‘40s as the Holocaust was becoming what we call The Holocaust, as the history itself was unfolding in that time period. And there have been some really interesting scholarly work on that, but of course, the historian and whatever research assistants they can, they can you know pull together are only going to be able to consult a certain number of newspapers.
And our question was, well, “What if we asked people all over the country to help with that process and to go and look in their local newspapers and find around certain moments in history what was happening?” And so, it became a full-fledged project about five years ago, I think we just hit our five… five year anniversary, and has had tens and tens of thousands of submissions. And is, has, we did a small evaluation around it, and has proven to be a really effective way of teaching that part of history itself, right? So, you know, that’s, a, multiple goals. What we haven’t had is a full historian work with that data yet, which is something we’re still hoping will happen, as we are able to make data from it up more broadly available, but it was it was used in the research for one of our major exhibitions, “Americans of The Holocaust,” which opened somewhere in the middle of all this, probably three or four years ago now, and, and it was it was some of the research from, from that project specifically made its way into the exhibition.
That project is also, kind of… talk about like the invisible touches behind the scenes, it’s the, you know, grandchild of a project that I did with a really great educator on our staff, David Klevan, was really mainly David’s idea, although I, I provided a lot of the resources for it, which was around a project on the ship, the St. Louis, right. The St. Louis was a ship of mainly German Jewish refugees that tried to get into Cuba, and were turned away, and were eventually sent back to Europe, and there were divided up by European countries. They didn’t have to go back to Germany, but many of them ended up in Belgium and France, and in places that were, were fairly soon after invaded by the German military, so the St. Louis was actually a bridge to this other project, right, between collecting data sets, we realized… in fact it was one of my old bosses, Sarah Ogilvie [USHMM Deputy Museum Director and Chief Program Officer], that realized that we didn’t know the fate of the passengers of the St. Louis, right? So, you have one thousand… what’s? Just under 1200 passengers – I used to know the numbers really specifically… 1,169, I think? Something like that – passengers that were returned to Europe, and because we were getting all this influx of data in digital, digital systems, we might actually be able to tell you the fate for each one of those.
And that started a research project into the fate, which was very, very database heavy, in terms of how it worked, although it also involved a lot of good old, you know, rolling up your, your sleeves and going to the National Archives and combing through ship records and things like that. But, it was really born out of that earlier type of work that I was describing. And one of the educational features was this great idea David came up with, which was to put on the Website documents and have students be able to go through, and try to figure out what happened to a passenger by looking at archival documents. Which grew into a project which was our first Citizen History project, which was about Children of the Lodz Ghetto, and that was where we asked people to use documents where we didn’t know the fate of individuals. That was looking at a particular set of information about children in the Lodz Ghetto, where we knew that they were in the school system at a particular point in time. Lodz Ghetto was unusual that it had schools for a small period of time, and we knew the names and approximate ages, and then we could match them up, but we weren’t going to match them all up. There were about 14,000 students. We were going to ask the public to do it. And that one never, that was a project that never left beta, but we learned a lot on. And to go back to your original point, Paul, is that what we realized from that project was that you desperately needed somebody who was going to be the Community Manager.
And that became one of the roles that became required when we actually moved on History Unfolded, the idea that there needs to be a human being that can actually be working with the public, with students, with teachers, who is the one that is actually helping them figure out how to do the work, is looking at the work that comes in, who is working behind the scenes and often with a team of contractors in terms of volunteers to look at the data and make sure it stays clean. All of that kind of work, that kind of floats behind this very pretty package that we throw on the Website where it looks all kind of magical and nice.
And, and so, yeah, Eric Schmalz was, was our first ever Community Manager for a Citizens History project, and has done all kinds of amazing things, and, and really been kind of the human aspect of that whole project that that made it really work.
[Jones]: That’s a sad but interesting story, really you know I think it’s amazing how you pulled it all together. I don’t know, I was telling Paul earlier, I can never go to your museum. It’s just too much.
Yeah, it… you know, we all have different survival techniques. One of my favorites I borrow from actually someone who was a very involved in creating the Citizen History projects, Elissa Frankle, who used to work with us. It was the “No Nazis after 5 p.m. Rule,” that, you know, you have to leave it at the door. And for some people, that means, like, if you’re reading a novel, and it has a Holocaust subplot, you have to stop reading it immediately, put it aside.
So, other thoughts or other directions with it?
[Marty]: I mean, I was just gonna say, you know, I know you and I have talked about this before. The issue of using new technologies like Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality to try to, to try to convey these very difficult lessons, right? Do you want to talk about some of your, some of your work in that area?
Yeah, I mean, you know, it is part of our job right is, is part of my job, specifically is to think about how do these emerging technologies… how do you apply them in some places like the Holocaust Museum, right? So, so Augmented Reality and [Smithsonian] Air and Space is really very cool and very, very direct. You can kind of see where it fits in, and our talent has always been to think about how do you do that with what some people refer to as the “dead of memory” concept, right, like, this idea that, that we are not just a museum, but we’re also a memorial. So, how do you not dishonor the memory of six million people who were murdered, but still try out things that could change the way you tell their stories? That’s been a huge part of our work over the years. And, and you know, now that I’m saying it out loud, right, that part of it is incredibly slow process, right, that that it’s not just about us learning the technology and its affordances and how we would apply it, but it’s also really getting staff into a comfortable place with that technology and, and, and the impact of that technology.
So, I’m working on an Augmented Reality project and something we call the Tower of Faces right now. Tower of Faces is a part of our main exhibition. It’s one of the more, um, photogenic megafauna-type pieces of our institution, where, as you’re traveling through the exhibition, you, you enter a tower that’s about four stories tall, but it looks taller because of the way it’s built, and there are photographs of individuals on all four walls around you, and they go up kind of to a vanishing point on the ceiling. These are all photographs of people from one particular community that was destroyed during the Holocaust, Einsatzgruppe Eisiskes, and, and, and you don’t necessarily always see that with the visitors, but it is a moment of a very dark exhibit, of an exhibit, that is, metaphorically and, and physically dark and very, very heavy on the large narrative, the large-scale narrative. You don’t come face to face with individuals as victims that often in it until you enter this space. And when we were starting to first play around with, with Augmented Reality, I picked that as the place we would try it in. Simply because in an exhibition that is so dense with text and video and explanation and, and it’s, it’s incredibly thick exhibition space, that’s the one place where you don’t have anything. It’s just these photographs. There’s a panel as you enter the room.
And I, and I thought about the fact that, when I talk to visitors about this space, often they want to know who the individuals are. They want to know a little bit more.
You get the meta story. You get the story that this is a, these are all individuals from a single community, and you get the sense that they’re going to be destroyed as a community, and that’s actually revealed later on when you cross that space for a second time.
But, but what, what most people in the public didn’t know is that we actually know the names of a lot of these people. Because of the way this was collected by a single historian, and then supplemented by worked on by our Photo Archives staff and other staff, we actually often know who these people are, and what they’re doing, and we know the detail, the personal details about so many of these photographs. What if you could make that visible to people?
And we’re in the middle of ending a kind of a design competition, where we picked three companies that we’re paying a small amount to go through the design process with us to pick the final, kind of approached Augmented Reality in that space, so hopefully by next year, we’ll have that available as part of the main exhibition. But we’ve been doing prototyping in that space for about four years, I think, at this point, where we started with really simple prototypes, then we’ve got a more complex prototype that we changed where we were doing the work.
It has involved a huge number of staff. Not only our team there, you know, three or four of us have been involved from our small team, but also Visitor Services staff have helped with this. We’ve recruited in our Youth Program, where they would send in some of the youth, and the Youth Program in to work with us about how these things work. What their questions were, what they were seeing in the Tower, our Visitor Services staff helped us with data collection as we were trying out some of these simple prototypes. And it seems like, as I say that out loud, right, that four-year span of working with Augmented Reality seems ridiculous in today’s day and age, right? We could have actually launched a project in six months, but for us, just acclimating ourselves and our staff and our volunteers to the idea of Augmented Reality. To the idea that Augmented Reality isn’t only a game, it isn’t only frivolous, it isn’t something that simple, is a huge part of the work. And, and what we really tend to invest in is, is making that part really visible to everyone, internally, even if it’s not really visible to people externally.
[Marty]: Well, and I was just going to pop in to say that if you don’t spend four years thinking that through extremely carefully, that’s how you end up with people playing Pokemon Go in the Holocaust Museum.
Yes, right. And, and, and that’s how you end up with projects that are killed, right? Like, the number of projects, and, and sometimes for good reasons, and sometimes out of a knee-jerk reaction that we weren’t ready for things but, but you know, if, if there’s any concern, right, and it totally makes sense when you’re a memorial, if there’s any concern that you’ve gone, gone down a road and you’ve gone down in the wrong direction, you have to pull back. And so, for us to feel like this has a chance of, of actually… well, it’s already been approved, it’s already, you know, being built for the space in some sense. To get to that point really requires that slow, patient time of giving people a chance to see it, and you know, this is also my personal, you know, thing to remind people, to hear what the public thinks about it, right? It’s not just about the reaction we’re having. It’s about the reaction that the public is having to this as well. That they’re, they’re, the ones who are going to have a reaction to it that we’re going to need to listen to, but that’s also, of course, really powerful when I can say, we, we did this with our the, the kids in our teen programs, and they were asking great questions about the lives of these individuals in a really impressive way. That has an impact. That shows the power of what we’re doing in a different way that I can’t… I can’t, I can say out loud, but I can’t show as convincingly.
[Marty]: Well, I mean this also speaks to the, the philosophy of the museum that allows for these kinds of thoughtful, long-term, reflective projects. Do you think that’s, that’s endemic to the Holocaust Memorial Museum? How do you, how do you, how do you get people to buy into that kind of “Let’s take our time and do this right” approach?
Well, yeah… No, that’s very much the museum’s, you know, it’s a very… It works against us and for us, right? We really want to get it right. We’re, we’re, we are painfully slow about language, because we feel like we really have to be. How do you actually use exactly the right language to describe the things that are going on? How do you, how do you make sure you’re saying, you’re describing the history in, in, in a really precise, accurate way? A lot of that I think grew out of, you know, the sense that that are our exhibits aren’t just educational, that… and memorial, even… that they’re often also evidentiary, right? How are we showing without a shadow of a doubt, the reality of of events of the Holocaust, with, with worry about Holocaust denial? Which faded for a while. Honestly, I don’t feel like you were as panicked about that, for a little while in the middle there, after we opened. But I think it’s come back, right, so, how do you make sure that we are showing, showing the history so precisely that it’s, that it’s unimpeachable is something that we really have to take seriously? That gets comes back to you, because often by the time you are you’re able to go through that much thought and care, sometimes, the moment has passed. Sometimes, you know, Augmented Reality is one of those kinds of technologies that it’s changing fast enough that, you know, we do want to make sure we launch in a way that doesn’t get outdated within about 15 minutes of it being in the gallery, which I suspect it will anyway, just because it’s moving so fast. But there’s, you know, the downside to that is, um, I think it forces us to be patient as an institution, because we really… there’s such a high price for getting it wrong. There, the quote that I tend to go to was from a book about the founding of the institution, and, and that’s where I get that phrase “the debt of memory.” You know, that, that that was the, the price of being a memorial is that you have to constantly be paying the debt of memory. That has to be in the forefront of your mind. But, it does mean that we can be insanely patient. Things can take five years that, that other institutions may not have the patience for it.
I think, in some ways, our group was created, our group is, is just over five years old. Future Projects is supposed to be a small kind of innovation group, and, and we were created at a time when the museum was maturing, right, when, when we were kind of getting out of our wild and crazy teen years, which we really didn’t have wild and crazy teen years, but it sounds good. We were getting out of that kind of awkward period, and when the institution was young enough, we could often still kind of squeeze in innovation, just because often, we just didn’t know what was… what was the answer, right. There were so many things that we didn’t, we hadn’t run into before. And so we had no choice but as the institution gets more mature, and as resources get more carefully aligned with mission, which is something institutions should be doing, the space to grab a programmer you know and get their time on something is much, much smaller. And so, our group was really, was intentionally to build a little bit of additional space for this kind of, of innovation. I have one of my former bosses, Mike Abramowitz [former Director of the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education], to thank for giving us that space. He was the one who let us create this group when we pitched it years ago, and it was really to create that space to make sure that the innovation didn’t disappear.
Okay, I can go in a lot of directions. Are there particular…?
[Marty]: No, no, we don’t really need to… We’re just happy to have you go wherever you’re going to go. I was gonna say, if you wanted, if you wanted a prompt, I was gonna, I was gonna ask you to talk more about your, your small innovation group, and the kinds of projects that you work on there behind the scenes, yeah…
Yeah! No, absolutely. Yeah, as, as you know, I love talking about Future Projects. It’s been a really great team. We are, we were designed to be small. We have just actually hit our ideal size, which is four people. And, and everybody has a little bit of a Swiss Army Knife kind of background, so we can do a lot ourselves, although we really try to make sure everything we do is, is really in partnership with other parts of the institution. That’s where a lot of the real energy comes from.
The exciting work digital humanities work, for example, is a really strong partnership between us and our academic group, the Mandela Center, and are specifically the part of our collections group that does digital, digital collections work, and so that’s an example of it. And, and we, we really are, we really try to stick to this idea of how do you, how do you try something out? It’s really about getting people, giving people the hands-on opportunity, both people on staff and people in the public, to see what the impact of something could be and to talk about it.
A lot of our evaluation techniques are very open ended and exploratory because we often don’t know what answer we’re expecting. And we try to, we have tried, in the past to arrange things thematically, although we’re doing something a little bit different this year. For example, you know we didn’t start out talking about Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality. We started talking about technology that has an impact on, on sense of place and space, right. A lot of these kind of virtual technologies are really about giving you the sense of either you being transported into a different space, or your space being invaded by digitally controlled content. Right, so there’s a spatial aspect to this that we thought was really interesting.
And what we realized fairly quickly in it was that intellectually, I can understand what it means to be transported into another space in a Virtual Reality headset, and that has nothing to do with the reality of feeling it, and that what we really need to do is create prototypes, small examples that push people into those spaces so they could feel it themselves, and they could get a glimpse at what that would mean for other kinds of projects, we can do, and we were really fortunate in in a fairly short period of time to be able to play, not only with things we were doing like, some, some of the simple Augmented Reality, but also some projects we did in cooperation with our Exhibitions Group, like a 360 [degree] film that was related to a small exhibition, even just something that was, my colleague Nancy Gillette [Special Exhibits Manager], and her, and some of our partners did around a serial project which was, um, it was created by an external company which I’m not going to remember the name of off the top of my head. It’s called a portal. It’s a project where it’s basically teleconferencing, right.
In the days before a pandemic it, you know, obviously we all used it then, just like you know we’re using it now, but what they did was they blew it up, so that you entered, what they often used an old shipping container, and they basically tried to mask as much as possible the, the teleconferencing aspect of it by having you enter a space and the person, on the other side enter a space, and trying to remove the wall in between, so that you could literally have a conversation with somebody, on the other side of the world.
And in support of a small exhibit that we were doing, Nancy and many other colleagues, but Nancy is the one I worked with most on that, they basically set it up so that, after this small exhibit about Syrian refugees, you could actually talk to people in Syrian refugee centers in several locations around the world, and make that part of the dialogue. And to me, that was just as spatial as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. It was messing with your sense of where you were, and who was in that space, in a way that that was thematically the same.
And so, we spent a lot of time either developing those projects, or observing those projects, and talking to the public about those projects, and it helped us really come to our own conclusions about what we thought was the powerful opportunities that we could harness around these kinds of tools and technologies. And that’s the way we try to work.
So, it’s not about one technology. It’s really about, about a more of a thematic approach to it, and, and then we feed as much as possible. We try to create lots and lots of little projects. My boss likes to refer to them as eggs. Because then, you get into a discussion about the eggs hatching, and then you have baby dinosaurs on your hands, and then you need to figure out who’s going to take care of the baby dinosaurs. So, it’s a fun metaphor for some reason we can’t get past. Anyway…
But, but the, but the idea of it really works in terms of, you think about it right, like you have to if you’re gonna, if you’re going to seed things, you have to create fertile ground. You have to actually create a willingness to hear, an openness to it. So, we’ve done a couple of things around games, working with some really great people at Parsons School of Design, and a lot of that’s really just getting people acclimated, I keep using that word, accustomed to the idea that games can have serious impact. That you can do serious thinking within games. That they, they don’t have to be fun and frivolous. That they can really create critical thinking. They can create really deep thought, and aren’t in and of themselves antithetical to talking about the history of the Holocaust, right. So, a lot of our work there is just really building fertile ground for doing that.
The next stage is to seed it, right, then, to come up with a bunch of small prototypes that show different directions you could go within, within that larger area. What would it mean to create a game that was for people on site at the museum, who are going to see a temporary exhibit about America and the Holocaust? And then, if some of those seeds, some of those eggs are actually looking like they are hatching, how do you actually transition that into something that can become a full-fledged dinosaur for the institution, that could actually move its way into being a programmatic element of what the institution does?
And that’s the hardest part, is that we discover. We spent a lot of time on these other things, and you get, you know, a narrowing scope of you know very fertile ground, and a decent number of eggs, and a few eggs that might hatch, but then it starts to narrow down, and really that’s the heavy lift, we’ve, we’ve discovered. We can do the rest of it. But that’s when you’re starting to talk about real change on an institutional scale.
We’ve had the good fortune to experiment with everything, ranging from, as I mentioned, games and kind of spatial virtual technologies, all the way over to a lot on digital mapping, and a little bit of machine learning, a lot of interest in what I will refer to as physical data visualization in a particular moment, and some really interesting side effects that come out of it right, so a lot of it is fairly technologically based, but one of the things we’ve seen is that a lot of the projects we’ve done encourage things like conversations between people in our exhibits. [That’s] not something we were aiming for at all, but as a side effect that we’ve now seen on three different projects that we’re starting to talk about as, as something we need to be pursuing in a more intentional way. Maybe that’s a thematic element that’ll come up in the future. And so, really being open to kind of what comes out of these experiments is also part of it.
I think that’s a range. I could go into any of the individual pieces of it if that’s helpful.
[Marty]: Do you want to pick maybe one of your favorite projects? I mean you talked about several already, I know — you’ve got lots that you’ve done — and talk about that one?
Let’s see. I’m thinking about what would be um…. Yeah, I mean, so, so one of the things that we’ve been interested in, right, so, you know, to… thematically, just because it’s fun to do this, if I can manage it. Tying back to the data that we were talking about at the beginning. We have these resources, resources of data and they get out to being used periodically, but, um, but, but not as much as we want, and we’re looking for better ways to new ways to do that.
One of the ways that I’ve tried to do that is by working with interesting partnerships. And we have this great project with MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art, I think I am getting that right. One of my colleagues is an alum of MICA, and I always seem to put an “s” somewhere in there that I’m not supposed to, but I met a person who teaches data visualization at MICA, and, and she and I were talking about data sets that we can make available. And what could we do with data if we were to kind of let her, her graduate students work with it, and what it evolved into was a short residency for people finishing her program. And I can’t even remember what year it was, but where they came down, and they were on site, and they were able to not only explore the data, but also view our exhibitions.
One of the things we really try to do with people — again, there seems to be a large investment of time and just getting people into the spirit of the institution. Seeing our exhibits is a good way to get people to think in terms of how we specifically tell the story of the Holocaust, because not every institution tells it the same way. In fact, there’s some really fascinating differences, particularly internationally in terms of how people talk about the history. And so we try to immerse them in the institution, and give them access to staff, as well as data. And they spent, it was only about three days, I think, at the end, end of it in terms of what, what we could work out with them, but then they pitched interesting concepts of what to do with the data.
And there were some really great ideas and one of them actually, I think, went on to do a master’s project using the data she had been researching, but one of the ideas that I was really fascinated by was what I will refer to as a data sculpture. It was a sculpture that looked at the population of the Lodz Ghetto over time. Because the ghetto does things that you’re the way that the ghettos lived and died was much more complicated than you might have first, you know, expect. That, that you know you expect things to drop off, but they happen in periodic moments, and sometimes they actually grow in size. Lodz had this very large influx of, of Jews from Western Europe that were deported East into the ghetto, and then it empties out, and then it’s cleared, right. And then, so there’s a huge drop at the end. And they imagined this as, as a light sculpture of over 200,000 individual strands of, uh, what’s it called, um fiber, but it’s what we would use if you know, light emitting fiber that you would, what’s that…?
[Marty]: Like fiber optics?
Fiber optics! Yeah, fiber optic pieces. And it was a lovely concept. We had a really great discussion around it, but obviously, this is a major project that our group can’t actually do. And, and I was of the opinion that this was the kind of thing that this would obviously never go anywhere in our institution, because just saying the word “data chandelier” to most people is, is enough to kind of assure that it sounds crazy enough that no one will ever do it. But, but it was a beautiful concept. We really had a great conversation around it, and really appreciated their work, and they all graduated and went on to do jobs and things like that.
About a year and a half later, we had this opportunity that the, the section of an exhibition space was going dark, that was going dark earlier than anticipated for a variety of reasons. And, we were looking for ways to fill it, and my boss basically said, “Hey, can you come up with things to do in a room?” And I’m like, “Well, of course we can. We can come up with many, many things to do in a room.”
And it evolved into creating a studio space where we tried out a lot of the projects you’re hearing about. We were able to bring into that space and we’d mount them in that space for a couple of weeks, and we would talk to the public about them. And we’d bring in people who were involved with the projects, and it became really great creative space for the nine months we had it. But one of the projects was we were able to dust off the data chandelier project. And two of the… of my colleagues, one that’s part of our team, and one that’s part of our exhibitions team… he’s like, does, you know, he’s the person in charge of all of the mounting in the institution, and he does all the exhibition installations and, you know, you know his, his skill set is kind of so broad that I don’t even quite know how to describe it. The two of them really tackled the idea of like, “Okay, obviously we can’t do something with 200,000 fiber optic lights, but what if we did a did some kind of miniaturization of it? What if we did some kind of, some kind of prototype of a data chandelier? What would that look like?”
And so, they, they spent a lot of time, and, and we were able to get a variety of supplies, and they developed a seven strand data chandelier that tracks the history of the population of the ghetto in Lodz. It was called “Liquidation,” which is what we usually call it when you clear the ghetto at the end, it’s called a liquidation. And we were able to test it with the public, and even though it wasn’t at the full scale, I loved what the public said about it, right. We had these amazing interviews with the public, and some of the public would walk through what have no idea what they were looking at. And some of the public would take the time to read the description of it. And, and they knew, they basically said it’s the history, but it’s different, right? That it’s the history we were getting in the other part of the the, the museum. Our main exhibition is three floors, it’s like two thirds of the building. As I already said, it’s very, very deep, and, and, and, and full of text and video and photography and objects.
But, but here, they felt it. Right? Here was a piece of the history that you would feel instead of think about, or see. And just that interesting moment where you could tell that the public was recognizing it as something that was valid, but different from the kinds of experiences they were having an institution itself, was exactly what we were hoping for. They, they really felt, according to many of the ones we interviewed, that moment of the final drop in population as a physical jolt to the system. The room grows dark at that point because the amount of light associated with the population has, has dimmed, and so, the fact that we could even try that out it’s something that I never thought the institution would Okay, and they totally did, and I had you know, members of the Development staff that were so upset that this wasn’t a permanent installation somewhere, that we were taking it down after two weeks. They wanted to adopt it, that you know it was it was it was the kind of thing that I didn’t think the institution was really ready for, but because we had this opportunity, we were able to get into that space. And no, we’re not building any new data chandeliers. It’s not working its way into our main exhibition, but it, it raised all the points that we hoped it would it really it really got us into that discussion we were wanting.
[Jones]: I’d love to see some images of that.
I can send them to you. They look terrible. It’s the kind of thing that does not photograph well.
[Jones]: It’s better in person. I get it.
It’s much better in person.
[Jones] Like walls of water, yeah.
Yeah, it’s yeah… Great, because there was the projection aspect of it as well. There was actually a light pattern that was projected. It’s really, it’s very hard to, to capture. but I’ll send you what I can.
[Jones]: I do have a question about it, though. Based on the data set, did it just kind of, what was the duration of it, of the lights and forming the patterns?
The whole thing was, if I… I’m terrible with numbers. I think it was about… under three minutes. So, it was a relatively short piece. We have been, yeah there’s another project we did, which goes into that physical visualization piece on the camp system, which is “1,078 Blue Skies,” which are individual Polaroids taken at the site of each of the main concentration camps and subcamps, and the artist who did that was doing a sound piece that was actually built to sonify the data of people being transported to camps, but over the course of the actual time, so it was like a seven-year audio piece, which we decided we really could not figure out a way to get into the space, but this one, we… was compressed into just about three minutes.
[Jones]: Wow. In doing that, that would be dramatic, I think, pretty much, yeah.
Yeah, and, and there were some interesting questions about, you know, how, how accurate that representation was, and whether you know whether it, it foreshortened it too much or… But, but that’s exactly the conversation we wanted to have. It, it is part of what, what we also find is that, we find we often bring in very hesitant historians. The Virtual Reality project we did around the Warsaw Ghetto was like that, where they are like, “Yeah, I don’t know if this is a good idea.”
And then we’ll come out of it and say, “Okay, that’s a good idea, but I disagree with your interpretation of what the space would have looked like.” Right? And that’s a great conversation to be having, where we get into long discussions about, “Well, yes, the Warsaw Ghetto did have lights, but would they have had electricity at this point in time? That, you know, we think there would have been rationing of electricity, so they wouldn’t have had it.”
“Well, Okay.” So that’s a, that’s an important like discussion about historical interpretation of something that we wouldn’t normally be having. In fact, the, the main historian we worked with on that project was like, “Yeah, I’ve looked at, like, you know, thousands of photographs that I can find and I can’t tell you. I just don’t know.”
But, um, but it’s not something he would have ever asked. And so, we really, we really… it kind of goes into some of the ways that digital humanities work, even though it’s really more on the education side than the research side, which is raising questions that we, we don’t think to ask before in all kinds of new ways, has been a really great part of that process.
[Jones]: Yeah, that’s great. Thank you.
[Marty]: And I’m thinking that might be a good place to wrap up. We’ve, we’ve covered a whole bunch of different topics here, but I think they all really connect through this theme of helping tell stories through technology, whether that’s tackling obsolete database systems or a working with emerging technologies in culturally appropriate ways to citizen history projects to what were some of the other ones? Data visualization. Just building a culture of innovation within the museum, right, these are really complicated stories and thoughtful… I really appreciate your, your thoughtful and reflective approach to this Michael.
Well, as I said, it’s like, I like I really wish I had like you know this one story that I can tell, but you know it’s… It all spills into each other, I guess, for me. They’re all interrelated in a certain way, right, like out of, out of us kind of finding this, this, this rich source of digital information about the Holocaust that we didn’t even think existed in the ‘90s out into the data chandelier today, right? It’s like, suddenly we have the opportunity to see it differently and how do we even get our heads around that has been, I think, part of what’s made it just fascinating over, over the years.
[Marty]: Are you finding that other institutions are coming to you for advice about how to handle new technologies in appropriate ways?
Um, not really… We have a lot of conversations, but we’re also a little under the radar right like, you know, the, the, you know, what I… some of the people that we talked to occasionally who are running lab-like things in other institutions, they tend to run a website, and they tend to be much more kind of visible, kind of their, their work is much more with the public, well, we’re very much with the public, we just don’t talk about it publicly in the same way. It’s not that we don’t. Like, we go to conferences and we present and things like that, but, um, but our first responsibility is to tell the story internally, right, rather than tell the story to our community, which we value and we go out and we present with, you know a lot. But, um, but our real work is really internal. It’s really how do we change the institution itself. So I had this really great conversation with a historian in Australia, who does a, really a lot of interesting work in oral history, and he was really excited about the work we were doing. He’s like, he’s like, “I’ve been to the museum over and over again. I know all the people in like the Academic Center and in the like, the, the all the Reference staff that I work with when I’m doing research, and how come I don’t know that your group exists?” I’m like, “It’s not intentional. it’s just kind of a side effect of the way we work.” So, you know, we try to we try to contribute, where we can.
[Marty]: I mean, I’m not thinking of people like the inventors of Pokemon Go…
[Marty]: They’ve got a different model, but I’m thinking about other cultural… You know, while you were talking about the Augmented Reality and the Tower of Faces, I had a sudden flashback, I must have been a teenager, we were in France and we visited the site of Oradour, if you know it. It’s, it’s, it’s a village that was completely leveled by the Nazis and hundreds of people were, were just killed and the French Government decided to just abandon the village and they eventually turned it into a memorial site, and you can literally just wander around this destroyed village. And nothing has changed. The only thing they’ve done is put up placards indicating this is where this person was killed. This is where this person was killed… It’s a powerful experience to walk around a destroyed village, and see what see what was left, right, and you’re talking about Augmented Reality, and it suddenly occurred to me, I wonder if they’re thinking about Augmented Reality, because you know, that will be a powerful thing, but how do you do that, in a destroyed village, you don’t… in a way that’s appropriate?
Right. There’s a Bergen Belsen project that’s really been doing that, right. So Bergen Belsen as a camp was leveled by the British when they liberated it because of the disease was so rampant at that point, and the people at the memorial were having a really hard time trying to convey, “No, no, really. This is a serious place. it’s not just a park!” You know, where it’s, you know, rolling green, you know, fields, right now, and so they developed an Augmented Reality. They worked with a group in Spain at one of the universities, now I can never remember when I’m on the spot, but… and the idea was that they could send you through, and, and one of the debates they were having talking to the staff there is how realistic do you make it, right? Do the, their decision at the time was to make it look kind of like an architectural drawing, so you can hold up your iPad and see the buildings but, but it looked very architectural and very clean, and we were doing a project around music in Auschwitz with a fellow. This is really thrown together, thank God Russ [Sitka, Interactive Developer] is really a quick study. The fellow came in, she’s studying music and Auschwitz, music of the perpetrators in Auschwitz, specifically, and we had just received from a German Prosecutor Unit in Germany (obviously, in Germany), he’s the German Prosecutor Unit, they’re working on a case and they’ve created an Auschwitz one model, which is where she was studying, and so we did a mashup of those two pieces, right, where you could walk through a 3D rendering of the camp and you could hear the music associated with that location in the camp juxtaposed with photography or art created by survivors. So there, she had already identified things like art that had been created by survivors of the orchestra playing, and things like that. And the historians were like, “It’s too pristine. The camp wasn’t this pristine, and that’s misleading.”
Of course, do you really want to try to replicate non-pristine, right? Like, there’s, it’s a really fraught area, and there’s a ton of groups, well, I mean it’s, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for years. This is a flip side of what we could be doing right, and we haven’t been doing as a group, although we talked a lot about is, we really need to bring together people who are doing this kind of work in sites of conscience in Holocaust memorials because we’re all struggling with that same problem about what, what kind of representation is right for this use? Because there’s no single good answer, in fact, mostly what we have is all kind of okay answers, but, but at least sharing that and why, why you’re doing it this way versus that way.
There’s a university in New Jersey that’s doing a Warsaw Ghetto VR. There’s several different Auschwitz VR related projects that exists. Bergen Belsen has done quite a lot. Sobibor was working on something, but I don’t think, I think it was abandoned, but I could be wrong, so anyway… but it’s like there are dozens literally just in Holocaust alone, let alone people who are doing 3D capture of Gulags, let alone people who are recreating slave auction sites. There’s a huge amount of this type of work going on, and we have similar problems, of this kind of spatialized representation of historical, of, what’s the easiest way to say it? Complex historical moments that are, that are difficult to represent, yeah.
[Jones]: Atrocities of the past.
That’s, yeah, that’s much better.
[Marty]: And, you know, again, it’s a great example of invisible work because it’s, it’s people see that finished AR product but, not only do they not see the technology work that goes into creating technology, but they don’t see the discussions, the thoughtful deliberations, the complicated questions that are behind what should you even do in the first place, and how do you do it in a way that’s appropriate?
Yeah, totally, and right. And how do you, like, it’s hard to footnote VR, right? Like we were having this discussion about like, you know the lights, whether the lights turned on or not, or whether they would have been using candles. If we wanted to say we think the lights would have been on, we would need to footnote that in VR. I don’t think, it’s really not designed for that, but when we show it to the public, how do we prepare them for the idea that this is a historical interpretation? You know, and this isn’t entirely new, right? You have historical interpretations in, you know, historical reenactment-type kind of settings and things like that, but you also have more human contact in those kinds of settings. You have you had different kinds of opportunities, I think, than, than often these VR things, at least at the moment, tend to be things you, you experience by yourself, you are alone within them. And, and you have all kinds of assumptions because of the way that we are used to consuming this type of media.