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Visual History of the Holocaust: Rethinking Curation in the Digital Age

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - VHH (Visual History of the Holocaust: Rethinking Curation in the Digital Age)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2021-06-30

Facing a growing distance to the historical period of the Holocaust, the organized mass murder of European Jews during the Second World War, museums and memorials as well as researchers and educators are confronted with new challenges. A dominant question in this context is how to establish new connections to the memories from the past, which became a crucial reference frame and formative event for many societies. Correspondingly, changing media environments, technologies and practices reach beyond controlled practices of reexperiencing, re-enacting, and secondary witnessing that dominated “classical” commemorative forms such as rituals and ceremonies as well as conventional media such as film and television.
In the museum and cultural heritage sector, the term “curation” recently, and in the light of this changing environment has been redefined to reflect the more interdisciplinary and engaged way cultural heritage collections are developed, maintained, and communicated to the public. Interactive and participatory modes that characterize digital and online media call attention to less controlled modes of engagement. Therefore, it became necessary to explore innovative ways of applying new technologies that focus more on the user’s identity and interests in relation to learning history and developing socially inherited memories. Users need to establish a space for their own active engagement, negotiation, and creation in order to render past events relevant and accessible for current generations. The Visual History of the Holocaust project is concerned with digital curation, focusing on advanced digitization, digital analysis, and linking of significant filmic records with other documents and sites of the Holocaust. It aims at challenging and expanding the concepts of heritage material curation in the digital age. However, this integrated concept for digital curation also goes beyond current technology-orientated models for managing digital collections. The goal is to combine these principles with principles developed in museum curatorship, and with innovative approaches in interactive storytelling and database-driven narratives to establish new modes of active participation and collaboration.
Major goals achieved in the first 2.5 years of this 4-year innovation action include:
In collaboration with peer cultural heritage organizations, the requirements of advanced digitization were assessed, resulting in the creation of a comprehensive Tool Kit intended to inform the digitization of film materials and related non-filmic archival materials. The VHH Team established working relationships with numerous archives, libraries, and memory institutions holding relevant materials in the USA, UK, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Rich data and metadata collections of digitized primary documents on the liberation of concentration camps and the discovery of other atrocity sites (films, photographs, text documents, oral history interviews) and related popular culture products (films, artworks, graphic novels, video games, internet memes) were curated and aggregated.
Key curatorial concepts enabling curated access and interactive engagement with these digitized or born-digital cultural heritage assets on a new type of Web platform were discussed, defined, elaborated, and published in numerous deliverable reports.
Strategies for the aggregation of legacy metadata on cultural heritage assets were developed. The VHH Team developed and implemented a standards-compatible metadata schema allowing for the preservation of data in a way that keeps the data faithful to its source. Comprehensive sets of controlled vocabularies were created for the rich and interdisciplinary time-based and non-time-based description of the cultural heritage assets and their contents. A Taxonomy of Relations was developed that can be used both as an analytical theory of visual relations and as a practical annotation model.
The methodological foundations for the automatic analysis of digitized films and texts were established. Automatic film analysis tools for shot boundary detection, shot type classification, and camera movements classification were developed and implemented, those for object detection and relation detection are in the making. A human-in-the-loop OCR pipeline for transforming digital copies of text documents into machine-readable text (BOW) was created. A prototype of a radically new way of linking, exploring, and searching digital text archives backed by semantic and contextualized search (ArchAIvist) was designed. All automatic analysis tools were or will be published open source.
The requirements of the Visual History of the Holocaust Media Management and Search Infrastructure (VHH-MMSI, aka the VHH platform) were elicited, the system architecture was defined, the hardware and software were set up, the back end and front end of the first version of the platform (the VHH-MMSI-v1) were implemented and tested. A new digital film player was developed and tested. Large sets of data and metadata were imported, including the recovered and verified legacy metadata of the Cinematography of the Holocaust.
The project’s objectives, research questions, findings, and prospected results were disseminated through numerous articles and presentations at academic conferences and workshops. A new project website was launched after year 1, communicating the activities and results of the project to the broad public. Stakeholder gains and pains were analyzed, exploitable results identified, and exploitation roadmaps defined.
Visual History of the Holocaust focuses on developing a new, inclusive concept of digital curation that will innovate curatorial work with digitized film and media collections and lay ground for new forms of experience and user participation through its shaping of engagement levels. The project establishes a platform and technology-driven workflows for the comprehensive analysis, annotation, and linking of individual events, agents, places, stories, formal and narrative patterns detected in the film records, and other related documents.
Digital curation signifies a paradigm shift from a tacit recordkeeping role to a highly visible community participation that many archives and other cultural heritage institutions went through in recent years. Its basic framework is the curation of data. For making this data accessible and subject of use, reuse, transformation, and creation, the project adopts methods from museum curatorship and heritage curation. The specific tools that enable the creation of new and interpretative media of information are technology-driven personalized engagement and interactive storytelling. Those techniques and practices inform specific ways of engaging with the past, especially an active mode of exploration (repository), methods of enquiring, comparing, and interpreting (analytical tools), transformation and co-creation (application). Embedded in a strong ethical framework, the resulting Web platform aims to exemplify what contemporary approaches to cultural heritage curation call “spaces of agency”: empowering citizens to question, re-contextualize, link, and enrich historical material, and to share these processes and outcomes with others.
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