Virtual Holocaust Memoryscapes

Dr Matthew Boswell will lead a new research project entitled Virtual Holocaust Memoryscapes: Scoping the Creation of Immersive, Spatial Archives of the Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme Memorial Sites, funded by the AHRC/EPSRC Research and Partnership Development call for the Next Generation of Immersive Experiences. This project represents phase 1 of a larger project that will ultimately lead to the development of distinctive new cultural products — the immersive, interactive, virtual environments based on 360 degree photography and sound recording that Dr Boswell and his team term ‘virtual Holocaust memoryscapes’ (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 virtual technologies can connect significant Holocaust landscapes — in the first instance, the former Nazi concentration camps at Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme — to relevant archival content such as films, photographs, diaries, artworks, oral testimonies and historical documents. The team 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, 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, website or mobile app, 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 the team 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 past. The project’s non-academic partners — which 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 using technology in a nuanced and reflective fashion to deepen the public understanding of Holocaust landscapes, the project aims to ensure that Holocaust memory remains relevant for future generations in the post-survivor era. Ultimately, the team 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.

A hut in the women’s camp of Bergen-Belsen being burned down after the camp was liberated. Image (c) Wellcome Library.