Digital exhibits containing video are harder to come by than imagined. As I searched for new history websites to review for their multimedia presence, I found that very few incorporated video into their exhibitions. Those who did, such as the Gilder Lehrman Institute, simply hosted 1-2 minute videos of a scholar sharing a brief academic commentary on a specific topic. Access to Gilder Lehrman’s online exhibitions page, which promised more videos and multimedia experiences, required a paid subscription. Of the websites I searched, only Colonial Williamsburg, which has its own digital productions team, had a variety of freely accessible educational history videos available online, though even Colonial Williamsburg kept its best material locked behind a subscription screen, and for good reason—video production requires extensive time, money, and effort, which is why so many of the sites I visited had little video to show.

However, I eventually stumbled across Yad Vashem’s online exhibitions, whose multimedia usage impressed me. The site’s exhibits incorporate images and video into their textual narrative to tell stories of Jewish history, culture, and life before, during, and after the Holocaust. The Death March to Volary exhibition’s use of video was particularly powerful. The exhibit tells the story of approximately 1,000 Jewish women forced on a death march from a camp in Poland. An introductory video blends the stories of women who survived the march with images and film clips to make the horror of their experience more vivid. The video served as a compelling introduction to the site, bringing the opening text to life. The rest of the exhibit traces the chronology of the march day by day, from its origins to liberation and return to life. In each section, more videos, images, and artifacts pertinent to the event tell the story of those specific days of the journey. Unlike many other unsuccessful attempts to integrate written historical narrative and video components that I’ve seen, the text, audio, and video on this site complemented one another. Not only does the video enhance what’s described in the narrative, text and photographs situated alongside the videos contextualize the experiences the women describe in their testimonies.

Above: Introductory video to the site.

Attentive to users’ needs, the exhibit includes closed captioning not only as a translation for non-English speaking narrators, but also for audiences with hearing difficulties. One unexpected detriment to the videos, however, is that if users click to the next day without stopping the video, anticipating that the link will take them to a new page, they discover that the link instead scrolls them farther down the original page to a new video and set of information, leading them to have to scroll back up to pause the previous video in order to listen to a segment of the next one. The setup works seamlessly for those who will listen to the videos all the way through, but serves as an obstacle to users who tend to browse exhibits quickly or selectively rather than go through them thoroughly.

Each exhibition on the Yad Vashem site uses video in different ways. In some, videos are central; in others, testimonies are available to click for viewing on a side bar. Many contain survivors’ testimonies; others show documentaries about Jewish life, or the devastation of the Holocaust. Unlike videos on some other sites, these segments do not appear superfluous. They work intimately with the exhibit text, or stand alone, either to convey the vibrancy and complexity of Jewish life, or to serve as a sobering expositions of a tragic history.

Featured image copyright Kelly Schmidt.

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2 thoughts on “Conveying the Holocaust through Video

  1. I also looked at the Yad Vashem website when looking for exhibits to evaluate and similarly thought this exhibit was very powerful. I think exhibits like this which really focus on survivor accounts and testimony can really benefit from audio and video. It reminds me of some of the things we talked about in oral history – being able to see facial expressions, body language, and even silences tell us a lot more than just a transcript could. I think this intersection between oral history and video is highly intriguing. Do you think this exhibit would have been as successful with only audio recordings? Or only transcripts?

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    1. I appreciate the connections you made to our discussions about oral history! I think you’re right, while a transcript would add some meaning, an audio recording even more, to an online exhibit narrative, the video component of the interview does the best at conveying the emotion of the experience through body language, expressions, and silences.

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