Holocaust Memory and Visuality in the Age of Social Media

Project Description
Currently, there are 11,701 images tagged with #holocaustmuseum, 6652 tagged with #yadvashem, and 16,735 tagged with #jewishmuseum on Instagram alone; all photos in these tags represent examples of individual visitor engagement with Holocaust museum and memorial sites, all of which provide me with a rich source base which requires interpretation and analysis. My PhD dissertation is an interdisciplinary analysis of embodied interaction with the presentation of the Holocaust in museum and memorial sites and the documentation of such experiences on the part of the visitor through social media. This project examines the evolving nature of visitor photography in Holocaust museum spaces and memorial sites, dissecting and questioning interactions between official Holocaust museum and memorial spaces and their publics as they support, contradict, and challenge one another using image-sharing platforms Flickr, Tumblr, and Instagram as spaces of expression and memory-making. I evaluate the shared images of visitors in the context of the development of social media policies of three of the largest Holocaust museums: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington DC), the Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education and Commemoration (Jerusalem, Israel), and aspects of Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

My theoretical framework draws from the disciplines of visual culture, performance theory, and public history. This project presupposes the following: that museum spaces, both physically and conceptually, rely heavily on relationships of power to communicate the past to the visitor; that the act of photography is the visitor’s attempt to exercise control and present-ness when engaged in emotional experiences; and, that the act of photography must be seen as a method of active engagement with one’s spatial environment. Photography in museum spaces – particularly self-photography (i.e. the “selfie”) remains controversial; my project calls for a deeper consideration of twenty-first century photographic trends in Holocaust museum spaces, rather than the condemnation of these practices. The power of visitor photography, beyond its easy transmission in the digital age, lies in its dual function as a mode of visual representation and framework for the interpretation of the spaces in which we find ourselves, as well as representations of the self.

Drawing from the existing literature on Holocaust museums and the visuality of the Holocaust, my research is guided by the following questions: How do museums, especially those dealing with painful histories, make use of image-sharing social media platforms? What is the significance of engaging with visual culture in this process, and how can visitor photography serve as a didactic tool within and beyond the walls of the museum? How can visitor photography complicate museum and memorial spaces? How does the act of sharing a photo allow an individual to contribute to a visual memory-making process? Most importantly, how can historians read visitor photographs as sources, and what can they contribute to our understanding of public engagement with the past, in the present? I situate my evaluation of imaged-based social media platforms as important sources for historians within broad and necessary conversations about the nature of contemporary commemorative practices, public engagement with the past, and the changing nature of Holocaust memory in the twenty-first century.

Current Methodology
At the moment, my working archive is composed of a hodge-podge of the sources which I have drawn together: photographic material from guestbooks and biennial reports from the Jewish Museum Berlin; interviews with social media managers and local artists; visitor feedback reports from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and a rather unwieldy repository of images on Flickr, Instagram, and Tumblr.

One of the issues I struggle with from a methodological standpoint is the ever-growing (and ever vanishing) nature of my social media archive. Currently, I have been spending time scrolling through various hashtags on different platforms to manually screenshot and save new images. While this is a rather tedious method, it has allowed my to collect a wide variety of images.

Future Directions and Challenges
Currently, my approach to my methodology has been that of a social or cultural historian, and I believe one area of my research that I am struggling with is whether my methods reflect the nature of my project. While still in the research phase, I am hoping to expand my understanding of methods and tools through this seminar.

1. One of my objectives for this seminar is to engage in a discussion about the ways in which digital scholars frame their methodologies, and the shifting nature of this discussion as we engage more and more with digital source materials, or rely on digital methodologies to communicate shifts in historical practice.

2. I am interested in whether the group knows of any programs which can analyze a large corpus of images; as I am interested in tracking and analyzing shifting visualities, I believe this may be my first step in attempting to do so.

3. Similarly, I am interested in whether the group has had any experience using Gephi (or similar networking applications) to visualize connections between users of Instagram or Flickr.