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Showing or Telling: The Immersive-to-Informational Transformation of Museum Exhibits

I have vivid memories of visiting the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas as a child in 2007. Fredericksburg, hometown of German-American and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, hosts this expansive museum complex in honor of Nimitz’s role as Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet in the Second World War. This museum complex includes the original Nimitz Hotel, with an exhibit about Nimitz’s life, and the George H.W. Bush Gallery, with a larger gallery covering the entirety of the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The old gallery as I remember it, featured three walk-through dioramas, each immersing oneself in a specific scene from the war: the deck of a Japanese submarine just before the attack on Pearl Harbor about to launch an authentic mini-submarine, the deck of the USS Hornet as it prepared to launch Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s B-25 bombers for the raid on Tokyo, and Henderson Field on Guadalcanal at night. Of these the Henderson Field display was the most memorable. The whole setting was dark to simulate night on the island, with ambient jungle sounds in the background. Shortly after entering, one would come across two mannequins of US Marines loading boxes. One was an animatronic, and pressing a button on one of the boxes would make him rotate his head and awkwardly move his plastic lips as a recorded voice spoke to you about the experience of Marines of Guadalcanal. Further on, a US aircrew of two mannequins repaired an authentic Wildcat fighter aircraft on one side of the path. On the other side, further way, was a wreckage of a Japanese aircraft. As one walked through this life-sized diorama, the sound effect of an approaching bomber aircraft could be heard in the distance, getting closer. The Japanese launched several single-aircraft night raids through the fall of 1942, with the sole intention to deprive the Marines of sleep. The bomber would be heard approaching, doing several low passes over the airfield, then dropping a single bomb. The “bomb” would explode off the path, violently rattling the wreckage with a flash of orange light. The experience was definitely scary for ten-year-old-me, and I remember it changing the way I thought about war. I had always been aware that war was terrible, but this diorama was the first thing that made me understand the terror of it. The darkness, the anticipation, and the suddenness of the explosion made it clear to me that death in this setting could have happened at any moment. It may seem ridiculous to think that a dated, decaying, and by today’s standards, kitschy museum display could have an effect like that. But it did on me. 

One can then imagine my disappointment when I visited the museum again in 2009, shortly after its highly-anticipated renovation. The new gallery was highly digitized, with many large-screen interactive displays, and colorful panel walls displaying blown-up photographs, maps, and blocks of text covering every aspect of the Pacific War. But the immersive experiences of the old museum had all been removed. The mini-submarine was now the centerpiece of an impressive audio-visual display, with film footage and some effects projected on a flat screen behind. The replica of the larger submarine that carries the mini-sub was however no longer there, along with the Hawaiian Islands mural that had accompanied both of them. The Guadalcanal diorama was completely gone. The Wildcat was still in the museum, but displayed on its own with no physical contextualization. Only the Doolittle Raid diorama survived in part: The B-25 was still there on what looked the deck of the Hornet, with the original mural still behind it, but with the mannequins and a significant piece of the flight deck removed.

The Doolittle Raid diorama at the National Museum of the Pacific War as it appears today.

I will admit that I was able to learn a lot from the new displays. Cutting the dioramas saved on space, allowing for the display of more artifacts and incorporation of new digital elements. The space between the dioramas in the old museum, from what I can remember, were very antiquated, with photographs and small text panels pasted onto walls, and less artifacts to be seen. But I still feel like something was lost with the removal of the immersive displays. A helmet in a display case, accompanied by text or a film explaining what it was, would not have brought me to that same understanding of the experience on Guadalcanal as that diorama did. 

It turns out that this phenomenon of increasing digitalization and decreasing physical displays has been a common story for museums on recent history. 

The Disappearing Diorama 

Dioramas, which portray a scene with a sculpted foreground that blends with an intricately painted background to create a three-dimensional illusion, became popular museum exhibits in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These physical displays, often made with exquisite craftsmanship, were an effective way to transport a museum visitor to another place or time before the age of widespread photography and film. The American Museum of Natural History in New York is world-famous for its intricate dioramas of animal taxidermies in their natural habitats. Indeed, nature and natural history are the most ubiquitous subjects of dioramas, with just about every such museum in the world exhibiting such displays. The Museum Koenig in Bonn, Germany even took the time in 2003 to restore all its animal dioramas to their original 1923 condition.1 They are still popular attractions, being one of the significant draws for visitors in the case of the AMNH and the Musuem Koenig. Old dioramas have become museum artifacts themselves as important a part of the heritage of a museum as the dinosaur bones or ancient pottery that accompany them. 

A wild boar diorama at the Museum Koenig in Bonn.

Dioramas portraying scenes of human history, however, are becoming increasingly hard to come by in the museums of Europe and the United States. Many have disappeared from museum displays since the start of this century, owing to several different reasons. One is a renewed emphasis on displaying actual artifacts over space consuming crafted displays. The Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg removed most of its walk-through World War I trench diorama in 2009 to make way for new exhibits covering other American conflicts and displaying more military artifacts (A small part of the trench does remain at the beginning of the museum gallery, and fortunately the background mural painted by a former German soldier in 1968 has also been retained).

The old trench diorama of the Pennsylvania Military Museum, dismantled since 2009.

Another reason is dioramas can inaccurately portray their subjects, especially if they are older. While natural history can be considered static, human history is very dynamic and perceptions of it are constantly changing. For example, several natural history museums have removed diorama displays of Native American cultures. This has been done because some of these dioramas no longer show what is considered an accurate portrayal of these cultures, and also because of the problematic nature of exhibiting indigenous cultures in natural history museums (I.e. alongside animals) instead of social history museums. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History removed its Native American Dioramas in 2002 for these reasons.2 

Finally, there are the museums that removed diorama displays to update and modernize the way they told their stories. A remarkable example of this is the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, near Ottawa, which recently underwent one of the most dramatic museum overhauls of the past twenty years.

Canada Hall 

When it first opened in 1989, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, as it was then known, offered a unique gallery unlike anything that had been seen in a history museum before. The museum’s “Canada Hall” took visitors on a journey through 1,000 years of Canadian history, from the arrival of the Vikings in Newfoundland up to the 1970s. To do so, the hall featured a number of life-sized walk-through dioramas portraying scenes from throughout Canadian history. These included, among other things, the interior of a Basque whaling ship, an eighteenth-century Quebec town square, a Victorian main street in Ontario, a 1930s grain elevator in Saskatchewan, and a 1960s Vancouver Airport lounge. All of these scenes were under a domed ceiling illuminated in the color blue, giving the illusion that one was really outside. Buildings in each scene could be explored, all with furnished rooms and artifact displays integrated into the scenes. 

A representation of an Ontario town main street circa 1885. . .
. . .and a lounge in the Vancouver Airport circa 1960, both in the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s old Canada Hall. Photos by Matthew Farfan

This immersive method of telling Canadian history proved to be very popular with visitors, and by the mid-2000s the Museum of Civilization was the most-visited museum in Canada.3 Immersing visitors wholly in historical environments, it can be argued, was more impactful than cabinet displays of artifacts. Seeing the objects in the context of their use gave them much more meaning. 

Canada Hall was, however not without problems. From the beginning it was criticized by some historians for its focus on settler history and neglect of the First Nations, the indigenous peoples of Canada. The First Nations were covered in a separate gallery of the museum, but their stories from post-Columbian Canada received comparatively little coverage in Canada Hall. In addition, the reconstructions gave prominence to particular provinces in each era, while neglecting what happened in the same era in other provinces. The Maritime Provinces were only covered in the exhibits on early history, whereas the Pacific Coast  only received treatment in the mid-twentieth century exhibits. This presentation also left little space for more detailed accounts of specific stories from Canadian history, such as those of migration, politics, and wars. This was Museum President Mark O’Neill’s chief criticism of the hall when he set out to renovate it in 2013.4 Under his leadership, the Museum of Civilization was renamed the Museum of History and underwent a $25 million overhaul. This remastering of the Canada Hall stripped away all of the immersive displays, replacing them with the modernistic text-and-image panels, touch screens, and glass artifact cases common in contemporary museums. A 1907 Ukrainian settler church from Alberta, the only authentic building in the old hall, was the only structure to be retained in the new Canadian History Hall. 

The new Canadian History Hall. Canadian Museum of History

This new exhibit gallery opened in 2017. It allows for many more aspects of Canadian history to be displayed through visitors through text, videos, and artifacts, and does a much better job at incorporating the experiences of the First Nations. Yet it does not provide nearly as immersive an experience, and stories prominent in the old gallery have become less so in the new one, not without controversy. Canada’s New Democratic Party voiced its anger over the removal of a reconstruction of a union meeting room from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, probably the most significant event in Canadian labor history.5 This display had a multi-media presentation with recorded voices of strikers playing, making it as if the visitor was among them in the meeting hall in 1919. Artifacts relating to the strike were displayed in cases on both sides of the hall. In contrast, the strike only gets a single panel in the new gallery, easily missable after a series of huge World War I panels and cases. A police badge, armband, and billy club appear to be the only artifacts representing it now. 

The recreation of “Meeting Room No. 10” from the Winnipeg General Strike exhibit in the old Canada Hall. CBC
In the present Canadian Hall of History, the strike is represented only by the green panel on the right. Canadian Museum of History

Something significant was gained, but something significant was lost as well. That is the case with Canada Hall and all other museums that have undergone these kinds of renovations in this century. 

The Textbook Problem 

The original Canada Hall also faced understandable criticism for its alleged “Disneyfication” of history. As is often the case with history education, there is a debate over how much “entertainment” over education should be present within a museum. Dioramas can be seen as dated, hokey displays, with little educational value and serving no purpose other than to terrify young children, and that historical information is best conveyed through reading. 

But how would one make an attractive exhibit design this way. I have noticed from recently developed museums that there is an increased emphasis on reading text. Walls of it cover every exhibit divider. There are some screens playing short films, to add to the experience, and floating artifacts are displayed in otherwise bare display cases to show the visitor “these are the things that were used by these people.” It is a different kind of immersion: an immersion in the information, or in the technical side of the history. One can read about the statistics regarding the usage of an artifact, but cannot actually see how the artifact was used or feel connected to someone who used it. 

With this increased reliance on text and photographs, it becomes difficult to think of one question: why go to a museum at all? With reading and looking at images making up most of the exhibits, how can one distinguish the experience from, say, reading about the subject on an iPad at home? I remember my father saying that the new Pacific War Museum gallery was like “walking through a giant textbook.” This is a fitting description, in that museums are moving towards displays that will convey information effectively, but not attract visitors. Few people have ever been excited about reading a textbook. One might answer that the artifacts would be the draw, but artifacts can speak for themselves only so well. Artifacts that are well-known, like Abraham Lincoln’s hat at the National Museum of American History, will attract visitors with little need for contextualization because most visitors will already know its significance. A regular top hat, though, will not be able to speak in the same way, and visitors will not flock to see it. A description of who wore the hat might help, but even so it will still have little relevance to the museum visitor. One could go onto the museum’s website, search the collections, and read the description for the top hat there. With increasing digitization, there are fewer and fewer reasons for people to leave their homes and pay entrance fees to see such objects. 

As I wrote in my first article of the “Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis” series, museums must give people reasons to come visit by providing unique learning experiences. This will be especially important once the pandemic has passed and people are considering where they want to go out again. A museum that only offers an experience comparable to reading a Wikipedia article might have difficulty attracting visitors again. If dioramas are too dated to do so, a new technology might be able to fill the role. 

Virtual Reality: The New Diorama? 

Virtual reality has exploded in the last decade, become accessible for everyday consumers via new home technologies. An increasing number of video games make use of VR, and some VR programs have already been made by historical organizations. The American Battlefield Trust, for example, made a virtual reality experience of the Battle of Petersburg last year, available to view on YouTube. VR completely immerses a viewer in a time and place with digital recreations, sounds, and actors. It creates an environment more dynamic that what could be provided by a static diorama. 

Detail of the “TimeRide” attraction in Berlin, from the TimeRide Berlin website

It is no surprise, then, that some museums and historical attractions have already made use of this technology. A German firm called TimeRide has recently produced VR tourist attractions in Cologne in Berlin, the former simulating a tram ride through the city in 1910 and the latter simulating a tour bus trip through 1980s East Berlin. The Royal Air Force Museum in London created a VR ride experience simulating the “Dambusters” raid of 1943, with visitors sitting in crew positions of a Lancaster bomber. Most noteworthy however, is the creation of the Migration Museum in Germany. 

The Documentation Center and Museum of Migration in Germany (DOMiD) has been working for years to create a museum dedicated to immigration to Germany. A physical museum building is expected to open this year or next year in Cologne, featuring a massive collection of artifacts relating to immigration in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To promote the establishment of the museum, the DOMiD developed the “Virtual Migration Museum,” which made its debut in 2018. This “museum,” which can be viewed entirely through home technology, digitally recreated environments experienced my migrant workers in twentieth-century West Germany. These include apartment buildings, a factory floor, and a railway station. Visitors will also be able to view photos of artifacts from the upcoming physical museum.6 In a way, this experience is like a digital successor to the old Canada Hall, recreating social history environments to be explored by visitors. The VR experience, available for Windows, Mac, mobile, and the HTC Vive VR headset, can be downloaded at https://virtuelles-migrationsmuseum.org/en/download-en/. Might this in fact be how we experience museums in the near future? Completely “from home?” 

VR Simulation of a train station in the Virtual Migration Museum. Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

Conclusion: The Case for Physicality 

I personally would hope not. The new technology is exciting, and has the potential to make a visit to a museum building even better, displayed alongside artifacts. Imagine how easy it will be to alter and update “VR dioramas,” and how little space this technology would take up. That solves all the problems presented by physical dioramas. Even more impressive experiences cold be made with more intricate technologies not available at home. Museums should take note of this as they re-imagine themselves for the future. 

Yet I also hope that physical dioramas do not completely disappear. Even with increasing digitization, they can still pain vivid pictures because of their tangibility, being seen and understood by a visitor without having to look through a headset. I point to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia as an example. This museum uses detailed tableaus to portray scenes from the Revolutionary War that were not illustrated in the many paintings and sketches of that time. In this manner, the dioramas illuminate scenes not always visible in the popular memory of the war: George Washington breaking up a fistfight between his troops, dejected Continentals retreating from their defeat in New York City, and fourteen-year-old London Pleasants donning a British Army uniform to escape slavery in Virginia.7 These scenes, though static, are brought to life through the detailed life-sized figures that create personability for a visitor, coming face-to face with people from the past.

A diorama depicting George Washington breaking up a brawl at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. MoAR Virtual Tour

As museums continue to evolve, they should make use of the best of old and new exhibit technologies to immerse visitors in history. Screens and text should be balanced with physical displays that create environments to make a comprehensive experience. VR can complement these displays, providing for further immersion and interactivity. With all of these in place, they could bring a young person to understand and respect history the same way a stiff, aging Marine animatronic did for me so many years ago. 

  1. Dioramen in der Dauerausstellung,” Zoologische Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig, last modified 2019, https://www.zfmk.de/de/museum/dauerausstellungen/dioramen. []
  2. Francie Diep, “The Passing of the Indians Behind Glass,” The Appendix, last modified September 18, 2014, http://theappendix.net/issues/2014/7/the-passing-of-the-indians-behind-glass. []
  3. “Canada’s most visited museum celebrates 150th anniversary,” Canadian Museum of Civilization, last modified May 10, 2006, http://www.civilisations.ca/media/show_pr_e.asp?ID=806. []
  4. “How Stephen Harper is rewriting history,” Maclean’s, last modified July 29, 2013, https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/written-by-the-victors/. []
  5. “Winnipeg General Strike exhibit being dismantled in Ottawa museum,” Winnipeg Free Press, last modified May 25, 2015, https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/Winnipeg-General-Strike-exhibit-being-dismantled-in-Ottawa-museum-304914601.html. []
  6. “About the Museum,” Virtual Migration Museum, last modified 2018, https://virtuelles-migrationsmuseum.org/en/about-the-museum/. []
  7. “12 Surprising Things You’ll Learn at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution,” Frommer’s, last modified 2017, https://www.frommers.com/slideshows/848166-12-surprising-things-you-ll-learn-at-philadelphia-s-museum-of-the-american-revolution. []

Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: International Maritime Museum Hamburg

As summer begins in Germany most establishments have reopened in some capacity, including museums. All are still operating under restrictions, with limits on numbers of visitors and mask requirements being ubiquitous. All museums, municipal and private, are required to adhere to national and local government regulations. This series so far has covered municipal and state-funded museums, but not a privately-run museum. This article will investigate the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg, one of the largest private museums in Germany, and how it is handling COVID-19. 

Exterior of the International Maritime Museum Hamburg
© Michael Zapf

The International Maritime Museum is located in a circa-1879 harbor warehouse in Hamburg’s Speicherstadt (“City of Warehouses”) near the city’s port. The museum’s collection was gathered by Hamburg journalist and maritime enthusiast Peter Tamm, who began collecting after receiving a toy boat from his mother at the age of six in 1934.1 The museum opened in 2008, featuring a collection of around 40,000 model ships (including Tamm’s toy boat) and a plethora of shipping and naval artifacts. The museum has eight floors total, each dedicated to a specific theme of maritime history or technology. The themes range from exploration to merchant shipping to navies, with significant attention to Hamburg area and German maritime history. The lower floors focus on early maritime history and navigation, with exhibits on Classical-era sailing, Early Modern exploration, piracy, and the international slave trade. The middle floors feature exhibits on navies, with several artifacts related to German naval history. One notable display here features an officer’s uniform from every navy in the world. The upper floors display most of the model ship collection, a gallery of maritime art, and space for temporary exhibitions. There is also a highly-detailed hip simulator, with a recreated cargo ship bridge. Groups of visitors can work together to guide the ship into Hamburg’s port, with guidance from experienced sailors who advise the simulation. 

Peter Tamm, the museum’s founder
© Christian O. Bruch
The toy boat that started it all
Photo by Andrey Belenko
An exhibit about cruise ships on the museum’s sixth floor
© vdl

The International Maritime Museum followed similar procedures to public museums in Germany when the coronavirus hit the country, and closed its doors on March 16th, 2020. During the closure period, the staff made routine updates to the museum’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages, keeping guests informed about what was going on. On the Facebook page they had been posting a picture and description of one of their models almost every day since 2016. This task became increasingly important during the pandemic closure. The museum recorded above-average activity on their social media pages, with more likes and comments than ever before. In addition to posts about each of the models in their collection, the page also posted highlights from some of the museum’s other exhibitions, such as navigational instruments and travel ephemera. Additionally, a museum guide livestreamed two tours of the museum in the month of April: one in German and one in English. These tours reportedly had over 45,000 views.2

A screenshot of the museum’s Facebook page

The museum reopened on May 7th, with limitations in place. Guided tours are not taking place, and the ship simulator is closed. However, these are slated to start again on July 1st. Visitors are required to maintain social distancing and wear masks while inside the museum, and to wash their hands thoroughly. These procedures are the same as what has been seen at other museums featured in this series. Peter Tamm spoke of the museum’s reopening: 

“As a private museum, the closure ordered by the authorities hit us particularly hard. The past few weeks have been difficult, but our museum has a new look when it reopens. We have carried out cosmetic repairs and cleaning work and hopefully many enthusiastic visitors will find new exhibits on many decks. “3

Despite the difficulties presented by closure for a private museum. The Maritime Museum took the opportunity refurbish its displays and add new additions to its galleries. A new temporary exhibition, titled “Johannes Holst – Painter of the Sea” opened with the museum’s reopening. This gallery features detailed ship paintings from early twentieth-century German marine artist Johannes Holst, previously held in private collections and not accessible to the public. The exhibition runs until July 19th.4

The International Maritime Museum weathered the worst part of the COVID-19 crisis doing much of the same things its municipal counterparts did. It engaged an audience through social media, inviting them to experience the museum from home. In doing they attracted attention from a greater number of viewers than they had encountered before, potentially attracting many new visitors for the post-lockdown months to follow. 

  1. Matthias Gretzschel and Michael Zapf, Am Anfang war das Schiff – Das Internationale Maritime Museum in Hamburg – Sein Stifter und Gründer Peter Tamm (Hamburg: 2012), 10. []
  2. “Die Wiedereröffnung am 7. Mai,” Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg, last modified May 5, 2020, https://www.imm-hamburg.de/2020/05/die-wiedereroeffnung-am-7-mai/. []
  3. Museum, “Die Wiedereröffnung.” []
  4. “Sonderaustellung,” Internationales Maritimes Musem Hamburg, last modified June 13, 2020, https://www.imm-hamburg.de/museum/sonderausstellung/. []

Virtual Exhibitions at the German National Library

Julia Wycital is in her final semester in the American Studies BA program at the University of Heidelberg. Her interest in history was sparked early, during her school years, since she enjoyed reading and learning about Ancient Greek legends and myths. In 2018/2019 she was an exchange student at the University of New Mexico, where she developed a strong interest in US immigration policy and its history. Her other historical interests include the period of the Second World War. Julia Wycital completed a (partially remote) internship at the GHI in the spring of 2020. Href was lucky to recruit her as an author for our blog series on the impact of COVID 19 on cultural heritage institutions in Germany and beyond.

During the current COVID crisis, people around the world have felt more physically isolated than ever. Yet, digital media have offered an exciting range of experiences to explore history in a virtual environment. For example, the German National Library currently offers seven virtual exhibitions in German and English accessible from anywhere around the world. From the exhibition “5000 years of media history online,” in which you can learn about the importance of Egyptian hieroglyphs as one of the first written systems of humanity, to the exhibition “Arts in Exile,” online visitors have the opportunity to still engage with history as COVID-19 has forced cultural institutions to close their doors this spring temporarily. The German National Library (DNB) has been collecting and archiving over 30 million media items in the German language since 1913.[1] While education and culture are the responsibility of the individual German states, there exists one national library is decentralized in its structure, with two branches, one in Frankfurt am Main and one in Leipzig. This is a result of the postwar German division and reunification.

I took a closer look at two of the seven virtual exhibitions, both of which have been permanent exhibitions at the German National Library before. The exhibition “100th anniversary of World War 1” is the reopening of the First World War Collection of 1914, which was first set up by the Deutsche Bücherei, one of the antecedent institutions of the DNB and founded 1912 in Leipzig. This exhibition showcases different aspects of everyday life’s hardships during the war, including the blockade of food imports or the propaganda used on young German schoolchildren. Visitors of the online exhibit can switch between eight categories. For example, the “Media World” and “People” during the First World War are offering information in the form of a gallery and an introductory text on the subject. In the category “Collecting the War,” the audience learns that in 1914 many believed that the war would soon end victoriously for Germany. That is why such a numerous and diverse range of documents from this time have been preserved. In this category, the visitor has access to newspapers, posters, photographs or a map titled “The ships sunk by our submarines according to position and number” from 1918 that were circulated during the war. Moreover, the category “Propaganda,” contains, among other propaganda material, digitalized drawings from German satirical journals. Before the start of the war, these journals were an outlet for social and political criticism of German society, but eventually they had to submit to the official war narrative. Overall, the exhibition offers significant insights into life during the First World War.

Compared to the First World War exhibition, the virtual exhibition “Exile. Experience and Testimony” concentrates on the process of emigration during the Nazi regime, including the Second World War. It is usually exhibited permanently at the Frankfurt branch of the German National Library. On the DNB website, the exhibition is structured similarly to the First World War exhibition; three different categories inform visitors about the actual process of escaping, biographies of eight exiles, and countries of refuge. One part of the display of the escaping process highlights the support system the refugees needed to leave their country successfully. The exhibition then shows documents and photographs that were often connected to international aid organizations. They forged passports if the refugee had no valid identity papers or gave information on escape routes. Moreover, using a letter of Sigmund Freud from August 7, 1938, the exhibit shows that renowned individuals also lent their names to organizations such as the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom. In the category “People in Exile” the DNB introduces among others the Austrian lawyer and librarian Clementine Zernik, whose license to practice law was revoked because of her Jewish background when the annexation of Austria in 1938 occurred. Zernik then emigrated to the United States but could not follow her career as a lawyer and instead started working for the group Austrian Action that supported Austrian emigrants. The virtual visitor can take a look at her document of disbarment for a lawyer or at her box with mementos, such as postcards, tickets, etc. from Vienna. This virtual exhibition profoundly communicates the complexity of exile between the years of 1933 and 1945.

The virtual exhibitions of the German National Library are a great way of curating museum content to a large audience during a time when visiting in person is not an option. The two exhibitions that I presented in this blog post are informative resources for learning about the First World War in all its variety, and about the phenomenon of exile during the Nazi era. But one problem of these online exhibits is that they mostly consist of editorial content illustrated with pictures of documents. They cannot replace the firsthand experience of encountering documents or objects in a permanent exhibition and feeling the history behind them. Nevertheless, the online exhibits of the German National Library offer educational spaces to engage with German history and individual biographies and fates

 

[1] “Portrait of the German National Library.” German National Library. Accessed May 18, 2020. https://www.dnb.de/EN/Ueber-uns/Portraet/portraet_node.html

Transcribing Manuscripts in German Script at the Library of Congress (link)

Almost two years ago, the Library of Congress launched the crowdsourcing platform By the People, which invites volunteers to transcribe, review, and tag digitized images of manuscripts and typescripts from the collections of the Library of Congress. The project runs on the open source software Concordia, developed by the Library of Congress to support crowdsourced transcription projects.

Among the manuscripts made available for transcriptions are documents in German script. In a fascinating recent blog post, David B. Morris, the German Area Specialist, European Division, at the Library of Congress, discusses the art of Unlocking the Secrets of German Handwritten Documents.

The blog post will be particularly interesting for contributors to GHI’s German Heritage in Letters Project, which uses Scripto as the platform to crowdsource transcriptions of German letters, including letters written in Kurrentschrift.

Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig

On April 30, 2020, the German government began to lift some of the lockdown restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the number of new infections per day in the country decreased. Museums, along with public parks and churches, have been allowed to reopen, as long as they follow federal social distancing guidelines.1 German museums will now be able to draw in visitors once again, but the visiting experience will be very different from what it was before. The opening procedure of the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig, with social distancing guidelines in place, provides a demonstration of how life will continue in Germany amid the pandemic.

The Stadtgeschichtliches Museum’s main exhibition building: the Old Town Hall in Leipzig
Photo by Thomas Biggs

The Stadtgeschichtliches Museum is the municipal museum of the city of Leipzig. It consists of eight exhibition buildings spread out around the city, each containing galleries pertaining to a topic of local history or culture. The museum’s main building at the sixteenth-century Old Town Hall contains a permanent exhibit of the city of Leipzig’s cultural history from the Middle Ages to the present. The nearby Haus Böttchergäßchen, a modern building, features space for rotating exhibitions about further topics of city art and culture. This building also houses an interactive children’s museum aimed at museumgoers ten and under. FORUM 1813, located next to the city’s famous Battle of the Nations monument, is a small museum dedicated to the Napoleonic Wars and the decisive Battle of Leipzig of 1813 that saw the defeat of Napoleon in the German states. The Schillerhaus, located north of the city center, features an exhibit in a farmhouse where poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller spent a summer in 1785. The Museum Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum holds an exhibition about coffee in Germany inside the oldest coffee house in the country, which opened in 1711. The Sportmuseum, next to the Red Bull Arena, covers regional athletic history and contains one of the largest sports-related collections in all of Germany. Finally, the Alte Börse, Leipzig’s seventeenth century customs house near the Old Town Hall, hosts lectures, readings, and other events put on by the museum organization.2

An exhibit about the 1989 Monday Demonstrations in the Old Town Hall.
Source: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig website

 

A view inside the Museum Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum
Source: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig website

Like other museums in Germany, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem closed all of its facilities to the public in March 2020. On May 7, due to the lifting of restrictions, most of the museum’s facilities have reopened. Only the Children’s Museum and the libraries in the Haus Böttchergäßchen remain closed. Because the pandemic has not fully passed, special regulations in line with government recommendations are in place for museum visitors. All exhibition spaces will limit the number of visitors allowed inside at the same time. Visitors must remain six feet (two meters) apart from museum staff and each other, and must wear adequate mouth-nose coverings. The museum is encouraging visitors to use electronic payment for admissions rather than cash, and is engaging in regular disinfecting and cleaning of the facilities. No screening is required to enter, but hand sanitizer is offered for all visitors at entrance areas. All visitors are also asked to respect hygiene measures by regularly washing their hands, coughing into their arm, and keeping their hands away from their faces. 

Because of the almost two-month closure, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem postponed all of its upcoming special exhibitions and extended the duration of the exhibitions on display at the time of the closure. During the closure period, it also started a new online exhibit. Titled Hoffnungszeichen, (“Signs of Hope”), the exhibit features images and descriptions of artifacts from the museum’s collection that provided hope for city residents in past years. The first artifact exhibited was a communion chalice from 1632, a year when Leipzig suffered from a plague epidemic amid the Thirty Years’ War. The purpose of the exhibit, according to Musuem Director Dr. Anselm Hartinger, is to show that this generation of Leipzigers “are by no means the first generation to be confronted with general societal challenges, pandemics, wars and upheavals in Leipzig, [who] learned to live with them and ultimately found a strengthened new beginning.”3 The exhibit also allows visitors to submit their own stories, photographs, and comments relating to their experience with the COVID-19 pandemic in Leipzig. On May 7, the museum opened a corresponding physical exhibition in the Haus Böttchergäßchen, featuring the objects the museum showed online and a selection of the digital submissions from visitors. 

The Hoffnungszeichen exhibition in the Haus Böttchergäßchen
Source: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig website

 

An art installation featuring toilet paper, on display in the Hoffnungszeichen exhibition
Source: Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig website

By following federal guidelines and encouraging visitors to do the same, the Stadtgeschichtliches Musuem has managed successfully reopen as the pandemic continues. In doing so it provides a model for how museums elsewhere can reopen, though time will tell if these measures will effectively prevent the virus from spreading more in lieu of a full lockdown. The new exhibition demonstrates this museum’s recognition of COVID-19 as an important historical event that will be studied extensively in the future, and an intention to contribute to its documentation within its community. 

  1. Nasr, Joseph. “Germany eases lockdown but Merkel warns of new outbreak risk.” Reuters, April 30, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-merkel/germany-eases-lockdown-but-merkel-warns-of-new-outbreak-risk-idUSKBN22C2WO. []
  2. Unsere Häuser.” Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.stadtgeschichtliches-museum-leipzig.de/besuch/unsere-haeuser/. []
  3. Stadtgeschichtliches Museum setzt digitale Hoffnungszeichen.” leipzig.de. Stadt Leipzig, March 24, 2020. https://www.leipzig.de/news/news/stadtgeschichtliches-museum-setzt-digitale-hoffnungszeichen/ []

Bachelor Thesis Research during Covid-19

Editorial note: Betty Schaumburg is an intern at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C. She is about to graduate with a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Her High School exchange in 2012 in Wisconsin sparked her curiosity in US history. During the course of her undergraduate studies, she also participated in the exchange program of Heidelberg University and spent her junior year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. There, she narrowed her historical interest to the post-Civil War era, Reconstruction and the New South, which contributed to the topic of her Bachelor Thesis.

When I registered my Bachelor Thesis in the beginning of March, I had little idea how my research would be impacted by the looming threat of Covid-19. What started out as the exciting final stage of my Undergraduate Studies, turned out to be a rather complicated and uncertain process. Not only have near to all vital public research institutions closed, but even online book stores showed great delays in literature deliveries. As a direct result, many students who are currently in the same position as me, as well as  fellow researchers who are in the midst of their projects, have found themselves stranded and exposed to these unconventional times. This entry aims to describe how in the age of a pandemic I personally have adapted to the unusual circumstances in the duration of my research and utilized digital research in the midst of this Covid-19.

During the course of my academic exchange year at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, my interest in the Lost Cause mentality in the US South has manifested itself so greatly that I knew I would incorporate this topic into my Bachelor thesis. The fact that the Civil War outcome still has such a tremendous influence not only on political discourses around the country, but also on the academic sphere of universities and their students, triggered my interest in the topic of my thesis, which is dealing with North Carolina universities’ response to the rising opposition against Civil War remnants on these campuses. Since my Bachelor thesis primarily focuses on US soil, I narrowed my sources down to the American periphery.

First, I researched newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post for articles discussing rising protests on North Carolina campuses surrounding Confederate monuments to get an idea about the national significance of these debates. What struck me most was the deal the University of Chapel Hill made with the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans concerning UNC’s controversial Silent Sam statue on their campus. According to the New York Times, the university reached a temporary settlement of $2.5 million with the division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to remove the statue from campus, in return for the division to take care of the monument.[1] Immediately the questions “How influential are Confederate groups on North Carolina campuses? How do campuses address their controversial monuments?” came into mind.  

Fig. 1: Protesters on UNC campus advocating for the removal of the statue “Silent Sam”.

Consequently, I started searching on UNC’s website for internal sources about their statue and was successful. UNC offers free access to archive.org and their annual Alumni Reviews, which also contain articles about the completion of Silent Sam.[2] While the reviews about the monument and newspaper articles of the revealing gave me a broad overview about how people at the time perceived the statue, the actual dedication speech by Julian Carr in 1913, exposing racist content,  is available for free on the internet.[3] As a result, I started to search through selected campuses’ websites for released articles addressing controversial names of campus buildings, statues, and their dedication speeches, which led me to successfully retrieve several documents. Then, on the other hand, I researched statements released by the University administration addressing either the removal of named statues, or plans to regard them as historical artifacts to create a direct comparison of different perspectives throughout the University system. However, while it was difficult for me to find out how exactly the Confederate groups influenced or not influenced those decisions, I at least able to collect a spectrum of the statue’s and building’s timeline and the University’s standpoint on them.

Fig. 2: UNC’s Alumni review from 1913 reveals a  cooperative effort between  University and Confederate groups regarding “Silent Sam”.

Next, I was able to borrow two important books before the shut down of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro library that contextualize the history of Confederate groups and the manifestation of the Lost Cause into society.  While they enhanced my understanding of the movement behind the Lost Cause in general, they did not suffice to answer my first question. I also still needed about three other sources whose delivery were delayed by a full month due to Covid-19. I knew that due to the delay of the books I had to focus solely on online resources. I needed to dig deeper to analyze campus relationships with Confederate groups. That is why I now shifted my focus to the website newspapers.com, where many newspaper articles published over a span of centuries are available in digital form and continue to find the right resources that bring me closer to the answer to my questions by utilizing the online resources that UNC provides on their website.

Another important finding I made on the UNC website was North Carolina’s General Assembly’s decision to categorize Civil War monuments as “monuments of remembrance” resulting in the statues’ exemption from removal.[4] This hence created the intentional exclusion of marginalized groups on campus and muffling of the Civil War monument opposition. I plan on researching more about the General Assembly’s rulings and impacts on campus life. 

Even though I had planned to use the sources the Library of Congress and UNC library provide for visitors, I have thus far gathered a detailed overview of critical questions vital to my Bachelor Thesis. Covid-19 prevented me from finding sufficient secondary source material concerning the history of the intermingling between Confederate groups and campuses, but UNC nevertheless provides a great range of digital sources concerning their own controversial history with “Silent Sam”. Overall, Universities in North Carolina do a good job in opening up the debate surrounding the Lost Cause and fill in some of the blanks. The pandemic has shown how easy a delay in research can be, and I was thus able to extend the deadline for my thesis to make use of my ordered books and the libraries once they open up again.

 

 

 

[1] Michael Levinson, “Toppled but Not Gone: UNC Grapples Anew with the Fate of Silent Sam,” New York Times, February 14, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/us/unc-silent-sam-statue-settlement.html (Accessed May 5, 2020).

[2] UNC Alumni Review, “The Soldiers Monument Unveiled”, June 1913,  p. 184, http://www.carolinaalumnireview.com/carolinaalumnireview/191306/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=184#pg8 (Accessed May 13, 2020).

[3] Julian S. Carr, “Unveiling of Confederate Monument at University. June 2, 1913” in the Julian Shakespeare Carr Papers #141, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://hgreen.people.ua.edu/transcription-carr-speech.html (Accessed May 13, 2020).

[4] Adam Lovelady, “Statues and Statutes: Limits on Removing Monuments from Public Property,” August 22nd 2017, https://canons.sog.unc.edu/statues-statutes-limits-removing-monuments-public-property/ (Accessed May 13, 2020).

Figure 1: Angum Check and Tim Osborn, “We Tried to Peacefully Protest. The the University Shut Us Down,” The Nation, September 12, 2017, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/we-tried-to-peacefully-protest-then-the-university-shut-us-down/ (Accessed May 15, 2020).

Figure 2: UNC Alumni Review, “The Soldiers Monument Unveiled”, June 1913, p. 184, http://www.carolinaalumnireview.com/carolinaalumnireview/191306/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=184#pg8 (Accessed May 15, 2020).

Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: German-Russian Museum

As the anniversary of V-E Day arrives, another museum in Berlin finds itself changing the way it observes. The German-Russian Museum is the center of May 8th commemorations in Berlin. In 2020, this historic museum is taking action to ensure that its commemoration is accessible even from the home.

The German-Russian Museum is housed in a circa-1936 building in Berlin-Karlshorst. The building began its life as the mess hall of a Wehrmacht military engineer school, but became known internationally on May 8, 1945 as the place of Nazi Germany’s surrender at the end of the Second World War. In a ceremony held in the school’s central hall, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht signed the German Instruments of Surrender. The document officializing the capitulation was accepted and signed by Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov and British Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, with Generals Carl Spaatz of the United States and Jean de Lattre de Tassigny of France signing as witnesses. The building subsequently served as the headquarters of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany, and in the 1960s became the “Museum of Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany in the Great Patriotic War.” The museum was organized and operated by the Soviet military and presented the history of the German-Soviet war. In the late 1990s, the museum was redone in a collaboration between German, Russian, and Ukranian historians to chronicle German-Soviet relations between the Russian Revolution and the end of the Cold War while retaining a focus on World War II. It underwent a second revision in 2013, with upgrades to the permanent displays. The museum’s centerpiece is a recreation of the “Capitulation Hall” where the surrender ceremony took place, made to appear as it did in 1945. In addition to the main gallery, there are also exhibits about the building’s history, including the preserved offices of the Soviet military administration. Some exhibits from the museum’s Soviet era have also been preserved, displaying how the history was presented during the Cold War era. Outside on the museum grounds there is an extensive collection of Soviet armor and artillery, as well as monuments erected by the Soviets. 

The mess hall of the Heerespionierschule as it appeared in 1945
© Foto Timofej Melnik, Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

 

The museum building today, with the flags of Germany, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine flown out front
© Photo Thomas Bruns, Museum Berlin-Karlshorst

 

The central hall of the museum building, where the surrender ceremony took place
Photo by Thomas Biggs

 

One of the monuments outside the museum, featuring a Soviet T-34 tank, as it appeared on May 8, 2018. Wreaths and flowers have been laid on the pedestal.
Photo by Thomas Biggs

The German-Russian Museum usually hosts a large commemoration event every May 8th. Dignitaries from Russia visit the museum, and there is a concert and a serving of Russian food and drinks. A wreath-laying ceremony takes place at the monuments outside. The museum planned for an expanded ceremony this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, including the opening of a new exhibition, a visit from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and visits from representatives of all the former Allied powers, to take place over several days. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions, all of these events had to be canceled. However, due to the German government lifting some of the restrictions on May 4th, the German-Russian Museum will be able to hold a reduced ceremony. The Capitulation Hall will be open to visitors between 10:00 am and 8:00 pm on May 8th through 10th. The exhibit galleries will remain closed. Outside there will be an outdoor exhibition about the surrender, similar to the larger one that was supposed to take place on Pariser Platz. Berlin Mayor Michael Müller will visit the museum on May 8th, and there will be a smaller wreath-laying ceremony later that day. 

The museum is also taking measures to make sure visitors can view its content from home. Most notable is their handling of the new exhibition that was to debut for the anniversary. Titled “From Casablanca to Karlshorst,” the exhibition traces the progress of the Second World War from the 1943 Casablanca Conference, where the Allied powers determined that an “unconditional surrender” from Germany would be the only acceptable means of concluding the war, to Germany’s unconditional surrender at Berlin-Karlshorst in 1945. The exhibit follows two themes: the efforts of the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany and the escalation of violence in Europe by the Nazis that led up to the end of the war. Notable artifacts on display were to be a Russian-Orthodox liturgical book, recovered from a village in Belarus destroyed by German occupiers, and a tree trunk from the site of the Below Forest temporary camp with the names of Soviet POWs carved into it.  The museum has created a virtual tour of the exhibition, accessible at https://tour.art.vision/deutsch-russisches-museum-de-en-fr.html. Using software similar to Google Maps Street view, visitors can go through the entire exhibition. All of the exhibit text, presented in German, Russian, and English, is clear and readable. The Capitulation Hall and Marshal Zhukov’s office are also accessible in the virtual tour. 

A view inside the “From Casablanca to Karlshorst” exhibition
© Photo: Harry Schnitger, Museum-Berlin-Karlshorst

The museum also has a page on their website dedicated the 75th anniversary at https://www.museum-karlshorst.de/index.php?id=146&L=1. This page features selected photographs from the museum’s archives related to the surrender, more information and highlighted artifacts from the new exhibition, and pictures and testimonies sent by present-day children from Germany, the former Soviet Union, and the former Western Allies as answers to the question “What does World War II mean for you?” Visitors to the page can submit their own answer to that question via the email address erinnerung@museum-karlshorst.de. They can also partake in an online poll asking the same question, with the options of “Victory,” “Defeat,” “Liberation,” “New Beginning,” and “Meaningless” for answers. The content is all available in German, Russian, and English, with the photograph pages also available in French and Polish. 

Screenshot of the “Voices from children and teenagers” page

Though a large-scale on-site commemoration of the 75th anniversary of V-E Day is not possible this year, the German-Russian Museum has made sure that the occasion will still be observed, and has made their contributions accessible to a worldwide audience through its online platform. 

Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis: Allied Museum Berlin

Editorial note: Thomas Biggs is an intern at the German Historical Institute Washington DC. He is a graduate of the George Washington University (2019) with a BA in International Affairs and minors in History and German Studies. He studied in Berlin for his junior year spring semester with the IES Abroad Language and Area Studies Program in collaboration with the Humboldt University of Berlin. During this semester he visited the Allied Museum Berlin as part of his coursework. His areas of study included security policy, US and German history, and the development of German democracy between 1815 and the present.

Every museum’s intention is to attract visitors: A museum wants people to experience the stories and objects it has on display, with the hope that they learn something new or understand something greater. Unique exhibitions and significant artifacts are what convince people to visit a specific museum location. The experience of being in the physical location, being able to see images or objects, hear, sounds, and sometimes even smell smells associated with a particular idea or period, is what drives people to visit a museum location. Information today is more accessible than ever, be it in books, on television, or on the internet. Yet people still visit museums, and million-dollar museum projects keep opening, because there is something so unique about the museum experience that cannot be conveyed through any other medium. It is a full immersion in a topic, in a time, and in a place. The COVID-19 crisis has presented a great problem for museums, as stay-at-home orders have made it impossible for them to perform this necessary function of attracting and educating visitors at their specialized locations. To stay in touch with their visitors and present their collections without opening museum buildings, museums have turned to the internet. New technology has allowed for innovative ways to bring a museum to one’s home.

The Allied Museum in Berlin is one such institution facing the issues brought on by COVID-19. The museum presents the history of the three Western Allied powers’ (Great Britain, France, and the United States) military presence in West Berlin and West Germany during the Cold War. It interprets the daily lives and missions of the Allied troops, as well as the impact their presence had on Germany. The museum’s collections hold scores of related artifacts and documents. Its physical location at Clayallee 135, in the former American Sector, is intricately tied to the history it presents. The museum makes use of two former American base buildings, the Outpost Theater and the Nicholson Memorial Library, to house its galleries. In between the two buildings is a plaza displaying the museum’s large artifacts. The most popular of these is the British Handley Page Hastings cargo aircraft, a participant in the Berlin Airlift. On Sundays between April and October, visitors can pay one Euro to climb inside the aircraft, take a look into the cockpit, and view a short film about the airlift. The aircraft is effective at drawing families to the museum on Sundays and is one source of much-appreciated donations for the otherwise state-funded museum.

The museum’s lot with the Handley Page Hastings as its centerpiece. The Nicholson Memorial Library is in the background. Photo by Thomas Biggs

Since the Allied Museum closed on March 14, visitors cannot experience it in any of these ways. All of the museum’s planned events for the foreseeable future have been cancelled. The museum’s website, alliiertenmuseum.de, has a posted notice about the indefinite closure. Otherwise the website remains largely as it did before march, featuring summaries of the exhibit galleries and an entry about highlighted objects. The “Collections” section offers descriptions of the museum’s collection areas and articles about three “highlighted” artifacts selected on a rotating basis. Historical information and statistics about the Berlin Airlift and denazification are also featured. The museum’s events list has been updated to announce the cancellations.

Fortunately, the Allied Museum is still working to stay in contact with interested patrons, and is making use of new ways to engage the public while they are sheltering in place. The museum has launched a new YouTube channel (titled “Alliiertenmuseum”) featuring German-language video tours. The channel currently has four videos, all posted within the last month. Three of them highlight “favorite objects” on display in the museum galleries, with a visitor guide telling in-depth stories about each. The fourth video features a “behind-the-scenes” look at the museum’s archival facilities, showing how artifacts and documents are catalogued. The museum plans to upload more videos in the coming weeks. The museum’s Facebook page is similarly engaging audiences by posting historical images and photographs of more of the museum’s artifacts, all accompanied by German and English descriptions. The museum will post all further information about museum activities during the pandemic to this page.

The Allied Museum’s Facebook page

May 8, 2020 will mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (V-E Day), and the Allied Museum had plans to observe the occasion. There was to be an open-air exhibition by the Brandenburg Gate about the end of the war, featuring contributions from the Allied Museum and other Berlin museums that document this period in history. Sadly, this exhibition had to be canceled as well. Allied Museum Director Jürgen Lillteicher states that the majority of the exhibition will now be shown online instead. Dr. Lillteicher hopes that interviews recorded for the exhibition will be made available online as well. Information about this project can be found at kulturprojekte.berlin/projekt/75-jahre-kriegsende/ and on the Facebook page “75 Jahre Kriegsende.”

The museum had additionally planned a film series to be shown at the museum, featuring works of cinema about events between D-Day and V-E Day. Instead, posts about the planned featured films are being added to the Facebook page, so individuals can watch them at home. The museum also intended to host events covering the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by the Allied forces. Posts about this topic are being made for the Facebook page as well, with the most recent one featuring the liberation of Sachsenhausen by the Soviets on April 22, 1945.

The Allied Museum has found ways to engage potential visitors even though no one can visit the museum site itself. Its solutions, utilizing familiar social media platforms, are simple yet effective. People wanting to learn about the postwar period or what the museum itself has to offer can do so by utilizing these platforms, even after the pandemic has passed.

Digitality and museal landscape – a contradiction? Critical thoughts on digitization in the museum

When visiting a museum, one expects to encounter and interact with historical objects, artefacts and their materiality. Especially after the turn of the millennium, museums increasingly introduced (and embraced) new digital components. Today, audio guides, for example, have become indispensable for many institutions. According to the National Museum of American History, it has more than 1.7 million objects “and a 22,000 linear feet of archival documents”[i] in its collection. The Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) in Berlin has also more than 60,000 historical documents and more than 900 movie clips from the past.[ii] These are too many historical objects and media to exhibit on the walls of museums. Therefore, museums have been discussing and experimenting with ways of using digital technology to make objects from their archives and storage facilities more visible. Would you expect that there will be a next level of presenting museal artefacts digitally to visitors?

The Mindener Museum in North-Rhine Westphalia is one example for a fruitful combination of a museum as a haptic room with digital methods. Since 2018 the head of the museum, Philipp Koch, has been cooperating with Prof. Silke Schwandt from Bielefeld University whose research interests include digital history and humanities. This cooperation offers students the possibility of thinking creatively and of developing their own digital projects about museal artefacts of the museum. In the past, the students developed a new tour for the digital city model related to the bombings of Minden by the allied forces in World War II and produced 3D scans and prints of a crest from the 17th century. Currently, there is one group, which creates an escape tour, inspired by the traditional experience design from the gaming scene. Julia Becker, an expert of experience design, supports the escape room project and shares her knowledge with the students. In this museum the areas of narrative history, which is making the past come alive with digital elements, and the traditional historical craft of researching the historical artefacts and contents overlap.[iii]

virtual city model – Visitors can choose historical tours on the screen that are presented on the city model via beamer afterwords.

The limited option for showing historical objects is a common problem for every museum. Therefore, Philipp Koch acknowledges the value of digitization, especially since it enables the display of treasures from the archives to visitors. Digitization can open up access to objects for researchers and historically interested people alike. It supports the preservation and display of historical files on the one hand, while pushing the pedagogical work on the other. Hence, digitization facilitates access for individuals to historical objects and chronological processes and supports the understanding of complex structures. Yet, digitization also has its limits, some of which are demonstrated by the example of the digital city model: The digital tour of the bombings in WWII needs more layers of telling than the mere presentation of the impacts of the bombings on the screen. Needed is an accurate and well-researched textual introduction to the historical events, now provided on the screen and of course ideally through a guide. Without these additional layers of explanation, historical education through digitization will not be as effective.

main menu of the tour on the bombings of WWII – Visitors can access information about WWII and bombings on the city of Minden.

Indeed, it requires more than just digital objects on a screen. Experts describe the way of dealing with digitization in the cultural, museal field as “Digital Cultural Heritage.”[i] The possibilities opened through digitization call for the discussion of visualization, presentation, and publication of digital artefacts. For Silke Schwandt, digital history is an evolving field of historical research that offers a wide array of application in museums. Therefore, digital representations such as interactive maps or 3D models of historical artefacts like in the Mindener Museum, allow visitors to interact directly with the displayed materials in ways that were formerly unavailable. Certainly, the opportunities of digitization are wide. You can think of using tablets to provide tours through the museum, virtual reality apps on the smart phone to bring portraits to life, or 360° experiences to set visitors into a historical scenery for example. In addition, digitization reduces the risks of damaging the originals, since visitors explore historical manuscripts on the screen. Imagine that you can scroll through the Declaration of Independence or letters from Bismarck virtually. Nevertheless, Silke Schwandt pleads for an intersectional dealing with digital elements. Most applications of digital tools in historical research, and the museal sector as well, do not make human interaction, interpretation, and communication obsolete:

“Historical information or insight tends to be more complicated than can be shown in a simple diagram. Historians stress the fact that there usually is more than one answer to a research question, more than one interpretation of the past. To meet these demands, digital representations in museums, or in any other context for that matter, should therefore be interactive in a way that allows the visitor to see more than one linear interpretation and maybe even arrive at their own interpretations after interacting with the material.”

What does experience design mean in a museal context? As Julia Becker says, in most people’s minds, the general idea of visiting a museum is being a passive spectator who gets to see exhibits and gains information. Therefore, application of experience design to this practice literally could turn visits into experiences that speak to several senses and put the human at the centre. The visitor would become a participant and their once passive position changes to a more active mode of participation in the experience. If a museum is able to tell stories and has the financial means to try out something new designing an experience for a museum can establish a memorable user journey, even if it breaks with traditional expectations for museum visits.

According to experts that are mentioned above, here are some pieces of advice (or guidelines) for doing digital history at the museum:

First, you should reflect about what digitization could yield for your museum. Digital elements in the exhibition can be a useful supplement, visitors still come to experience history primarily by looking at historical artefacts. Therefore, one should evaluate how much the museum on the one hand, and the visitors on the other, can benefit from digitization. Your curators should keep in mind that technology needs frequent maintenance and technical problems can arise every time. One should ensure that there is sufficient personnel capacity to manage failures in case. The Mindener Museum, for example, has its technician Mr. Wurm who is responsible for the digital city model. If there are problems with the image resolution or with the beamers on the ceiling – he is the one who fixes them.

Second, digital objects need thorough and accurate historical research as a basic preparation for their display in a museum context. The digitized objects or experienced stories may be as astonishing as ever, but no one will benefit from it without solid information about the historical content: ‘What kind of an object is it?’, ‘In what time period was it produced?’, ‘How has it survived over time?’ and even more questions should be asked and answered about an object. Of course, this can be very difficult and sluggish if you do not find the information at first sight. But to set the object into context makes it interesting for visitors. They want to know the content of the presented objects to connect this background information with knowledge they already have. Therefore, the basis should always be historical research by professionally trained historians. Without ensuring the accuracy of the historical context, the museum would fail its educational mission.

Third, the museum needs financial means for digitization. That can be digitized objects on a screen or ideally, experience design. Either need capacity in manpower and money for preparation and curation over time. The goal should be that digitization will be an additional enriching element in the exhibition and not a handicap. Remember that every digital project needs time and money to develop it from the first idea to the fully finished product. In addition and in the best case, every museum should have an in-house technician like Mr. Wurm. Besides the care of the technique, this person can share his or her knowledge with your curators to arrange technical solutions for your grand digital vision. The group of students who developed an additional virtual tour for the city model was in close exchange with the technician of the Mindener Museum to see if the historical maps fit on the screen, if the resolution of the image is good enough for presentation, and if the beamer lights are set correctly.

Fourth, while experience designs have to fulfill historical standards, they also have to adequately represent the complexity of story structures and narratives. Making history alive via digital tours through the museum or via virtual reality, for example, usually requires curated historical research. If experience design is interesting for your museum, curators should keep in mind that all playful and historical elements are connected to another and that the historical content must be worked out carefully. For example, the group who is currently working on the digital tour through the Mindener museum is still struggling with the conflict between the playability of historical stories. Is it allowed to change the historical facts of the escape tour just to provide a positive end and a feeling of success for the visitors? This question is not as simple as is looks at first sight and requires a huge amount of reflection on the side of the students. Beyond that, one has to take into consideration the different types of experiencing. Which mode fits to your historical artifacts and story?

At last, one has to live with gaps in historical storytelling. Every historian stood for the challenge that some questions stay unanswered. This is okay and the risk of historians, who should stick to what they know. (In that case you should only spread proven knowledge.) Do not take the trap of inventing historical fiction just for entertaining. The 3D-printed crest from the 17th century has shown how difficult it can be to deal with physical objects in a digital world. While the student read a lot of literature, it turned out that only a few pieces of proven information could be provided by the museal documentation and the research. Of course, he would have loved to share deeper knowledge of this crest. But in the end, he had no other choice than to stick to the information he could prove if he wanted to contribute to the educational task of the museum. The fact that there remain open questions about objects such as the 17th crest that even experts cannot answer remain is shared with the visitors.

If you plan digital or playful elements in your museum with these thoughts in mind, it could be a great opportunity to take the next step into to the 2020s. Exhibitions and educational work can support the ways by which museum visitors experience history in different ways. It can set them into the view of an historical character; it can open up historical files and hidden objects in the archives; it can give visitors the opportunity to experience history in an unexpected way. In short, while it should be carefully prepared and conceptually balanced, it gives visitors the chance to experience history in more than just one traditional way.


[i] National Museum of American History Behring Center, Collections, (access 04/09/2020 5.10 pm).

[ii] Deutsches Historisches Museum, Sammlungen Dokumente & Filmarchiv, (access 04/09/2020 5.20 pm).

[iii] Julia Becker, Philipp Koch, Silke Schwandt, Interview, February 26, 2020. All statements that are mentioned in this article refer to this interview.

[iv] Silke Schwandt, “Digitale Methoden für die Historische Semantik: Auf den Spuren von Begriffen in digitalen Korpora.“ Geschichte und Gesellschaft 44, no. 1 (2018), p. 107-134, here p. 108-109.

How to deal with digital sources as a history student – workshop report part 1

Many graduate history students will be familiar with the moment (or phase) in their studies when they have to make a decision about the topic of their final thesis. Some students may already know the topic early on. Others may take a few productive detours on their way to developing their final thesis topic. I am a history student from Germany who is working on the final thesis and in the latter category. With this blog contribution, I would like to share insights into the perspective of me as a historian at the end of my graduate academic education, whose final thesis research also marked my first foray into the field of digital history.

Digital surrogate: Internet Archive.

At the beginning of my Master’s degree program at Bielefeld University, Germany, I was sure that I wanted to do research on a different topic than my Bachelor thesis. World War I, albeit an exceptionally cruel war, has always been fascinating to me. I was especially interested in researching the fate of soldiers with neurotic/ psychiatric symptoms during or after their military service (today it would be called PTSD) Therefore, my general topic was clear. What was less clear was my exact research question and, related to this, the accessibility of sources. At first, I wanted to get to know how soldiers interpreted their own conditions. But soon it seemed clear that it would be difficult to get access to this very specific sources. By chance, I explored the series of medical journals called “Berliner klinische Wochenschrift”[i] that was published between 1864 and 1921. It seemed clear to me that I would have to examine it more closely. After reading secondary literature I realized that no one has ever researched the concrete medical phrases used to describe the “shell shock“ phenomena. So far, researchers only concentrated on the contemporary medical discourses but did not pay attention to the way how the doctors exactly phrased the symptoms of the soldiers in their publications. Therefore, the question “How did medical doctors describe the neurotic/ psychiatric symptoms of soldiers that have serviced in the war?” came into my mind. A warm welcome to my question!

But, how to get access to the journal? Unfortunately, the library catalogue was unable to provide me with answers. Then, I got the hint from my thesis supervisor that I should ask Google – it has been too obvious and easy. No sooner said than done, I found the digitized journal on www.archives.org.[ii] Immediately, I began to save the files of the volumes from 1914 until 1919. Since then, I have saved more than 8.000 digitized pages of medical articles by German doctors. What’s next?

On the one hand, it is nice to have digitized historical articles. On the other hand, working with these accurately requires more than just the normal screening of texts with a human eye. After some time, I realized that I’ll have to venture into the field of digital history to develop better strategies. People might think that digital history is just a field for lazy historians, but it can be so much more. Dealing with digital sources does not mean that the historian is obsolete.[iii] In my specific case it means the possibility to widen my period of research and quantify my sources of research, meaning that I can develop new and different ways of dealing with words than I was used to. Tables of words (“Wortlisten“[iv]), enumerations and charts as presentation options can do more for you than just examine specific words closely: Digital tools help with investigating relations between words in documents, for example: In which context or combination of medical terms appears the word “war neurosis?“

Here are some of my findings based on my initial explorations of the field of digital history:

First, I had to clarify the kind of questions I have and define what exactly I would like to know. Is it really necessary to bring digital methods to the thesis? What outcome would I like to achieve? Which disadvantages could arise when I work with digital tools? The level of (self-) reflections seems to be indispensable. Only when these questions can be answered, either on your own or in discussion with your supervisors, it makes sense to combine traditional hermeneutical methods with digital ones.

In addition, thankfully the text corpus of the “Berliner klinische Wochenschrift“ is already digitized, published by the same source, and homogenous in its layout. Following Silke Schwandt’s advice, sources of digital history need to be readable for machines. Applied to my example, that could be that each page has the same two-column structure and the font type is set uniformely in Antiqua style. Based on these criteria, my historical sources fulfill the first requirements.

Third, I still need to find the right software to support my work. If you are using handwritten documents, you will need to transcribe and digitalize them. In that case, a helpful tool could be „Transkribus“.[v] As I have written above, I do not need this type of program for my current work. At least, so much is clear. But the question which software may aid my research and help with analyzing the medical terms that doctors used to describe medical symptoms remains important. I can certainly rely on my supervisor’s experience. Because the variety of computational or DH tools is wide, I assume and hope that professionals who have used digital tools for a longer time than I have will be able to help me with advice. As you can see, my exploration is ongoing. At this stage, I have paused my thesis work to explore potential digital tools. Only when I know what tool I will be working with I can resume my foray into the field of digital history and start writing my thesis.

Nevertheless, I’ll continue my work as I follow these steps:

  • Input of digital sources in program
  • Analysis and evaluation of the output/ results of the computational  process
  • Set the results in context
  • Writing the thesis

How I’ll cope with this challenges you’ll see in future. I‘ll keep you updated!


[i] Deutsche digitale Bibliothek, Berliner klinische Wochenschrift: Organ für praktische Ärzte, (access 3/23/2020 4.40 pm).

[ii] Internet Archive, Advanced search, (access 3/23/2020 3.09 pm).

[iii] Silke Schwandt, „Digitale Methoden für die Historische Semantik. Auf den Spuren von Begriffen in digitalen Korpora,“ Geschichte und Gesellschaft. Zeitschrift für Historische Sozialwissenschaft 44, no. 1 (2018): 107-134. The assumptions in this article refer to the work of Silke Schwandt.

[iv] Schwandt, „Digitale Methoden für die Historische Semantik,“ 122.

[v] Transkribus, Scholars, (access 3/23/2020 3.50 pm).

LeMo Lebendiges Museum Online – A reliable source for an introduction to modern German History

As a German high school or college student, you will be familiar with the scenario: A homework assignment requires you to locate reliable information about William II, the Emperor of the German Empire, and the deadline is tomorrow.  It’s late in the evening, every library is closed, and the only tool left is the World Wide Web.  If this sounds familiar to you, don’t panic. Take a moment and let me take you on a digital journey to Berlin, Germany!

The Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM), physically located in Berlin, Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (HdG) and the German federal archives, the Bundesarchiv,  provide a virtual museum called LeMo, Lebendiges Museum Online. [i] It represents a historically reliable introduction in modern German History and is the biggest virtual museum in the digital landscape in German speaking countries.

LeMo addresses everyone who is interested in German History beginning in 1800 until the present day. It is a virtual museum for everyone – K-12 students, college and university students, adults, including senior citizens.  You as a virtual visitor can access the museum easily from home and are invited to explore the website. The appealing presentation design combined with fascinating objects invite you to browse the site and get trapped in the web of history.


This virtual museum provides introductory texts, images of ancient objects, historical photographs and videos, audio files, biographical stories, pedagogical material and more materials on eleven epochs and topics of modern German history. Each historical period has three levels of telling history:

First, there is an introduction that provides an overview of the content.  So, if you need information about William II. you can click on the topic “Kaiserreich”. There you will find an overview with the most important information to the German Empire in written texts and historical media like paintings and filmclips. This presentation of historical media evokes imaginations and impressions of that specific past and makes it easier to access it. In addition, the texts and side information on the presented objects provide keywords that lead you to further information.

Second, every general topic has a table of content to explore more information on each period of time. If you have additional interest in the foreign affairs of William II. and especially in his colonial policy, the website can assist you. Once you’ve clicked on it indicating that you are interested in gaining deeper knowledge of foreign policies, LeMo provides new subject areas and historical events related to that topic. Then, you can click on “Kolonialpolitik”, colonial policy, to access more information on the colonial beliefs of William II.

Furthermore, the museum provides an overview of historical events of each year, so if you need information on a specific historical event, you can choose this tool of doing research as well. This way, digital visitors get the impression to take a much closer look on a virtual exhibition of a German museum. In addition, if you still cannot find the item you are looking for at first glance, you may take advantage of the search function tailored to support specialized research topics.

The portal was first established in 1997. Its initial goal was to experiment with new technologies and the World Wide Web, still emerging at the time. Therefore, with its early efforts to represent a historical museum online in Germany, LeMo was a pioneer in that time. Since then, the virtual museum has enjoyed ever-increasing popularity and attracts visits from all over the world. Would you have expected that the highest number of visits with more than 100.000 per year comes from the USA? Digital paths of telling history have been and continue to be useful for many people from all over the world. LeMo is free, the only requirement is the ability to read German language.

Whether you are working on a homework assignment that’s due tomorrow, or are just interested in learning about German history, please visit LeMo. Even to me, who is quite familiar with German History, it is every time exciting to visit this virtual museum. I always find new information and get fascinated by the historical media presented on the screen.

Well, are you interested and need assistance? Here we go: https://www.dhm.de/lemo/

[i] Ina Frodermann, Oliver Schweinoch, Email with brochure “LeMo – Lebendiges Museum Online“, February 27, 2020.

Haller ZeitRäume – a virtual museum

Editorial note: Laura Maria Niewoehner is a MA student in history at Bielefeld University. She completed an internship at GHI from January until the end of March 2020, when she had to depart DC early due to the Coronavirus health crisis. Her MA thesis is tentatively titled:“`Kriegsszitterer`, `Kriegsneurotiker` oder `Kriegshysteriker` – Fachaerztliche Wahrnehmung von psychischen Auffaelligkeiten von Soldaten im Ersten Weltkrieg” and analyzes how medical specialists perceived mental illnesses in soldiers during and after World War I. She’s worked at a variety of museums and public history projects, including in Namibia, where she did research for an exhibition dealing with the post apartheid era. She also worked at a regional memorial for POWs of World War II.

Laura is a student assistant for the management team of the Bielefeld-based collaborative research centre 1288 ‘Practices of Comparing” and assists professor Silke Schwandt with her digital humanities work. Laura is very interested in researching the implications of digital research strategies and presentations for historical work, and href was lucky to recruit her as a guest author.


The Teutoburger Forest is rich on having myths and essays about Hermann the German. [i] According to history Hermann, in Latin called Arminius, has fought the battle of Varus against the Roman Empire successfully 9 years AD. [ii]  Because of the crushing defeat of three Roman legions the Empire has sacrificed the further extension of the Roman regions – it remained in German hand.[iii]

In this heart of German history the city Halle is located and the home of approximately 21.700 residents.[iv] This medium-sized city has grown substantially in recent years. The established fashion industry with its most popular brand “Gerry Weber” and the nearby highway have contributed to the growing population. Halle is particularly well-known for its history of transportation and the tennis stadium OWL Arena. Once a year, the best tennis professionals from all over the world visit Halle to participate in the big tournament. In addition, the so called “Haller Willem” was probably the first cab driver in this area. In the 19th century, he transported with his coach people and goods from and to the cities Osnabrück and Bielefeld and contributed to the flourishing of local life.[v] Today this transportation line is a railway line and is named after coach driver Wilhelm Stuckemeyer. Given Halle’s rich industrial history, one could say it is a shame that this flourishing city does not offer its own physical museum. Nonetheless, the city has found an innovative way to make its history accessible to all. The museum manager and historian Katja Kosubek and her team have created a virtual museum that guides digital users back to the beginning of Halle, in Westphalia, up until the present.[vi] As long as you are willing to take a digital path to history, history comes alive in the virtual museum. The virtual museum makes history come alive when someone is willing to take the digital path of history.


The digital museum presents a permanent exhibition with a virtual tour. Every ‘ZeitRaum’ – exhibition room – represents a different topic and phase of time, which are connected to the local history. After “entering” the exhibition room, visitors receive a short introduction of the topic and time period being presented. Visitors also have the opportunity to further explore topics through photographs of historical objects. The range of topics is broad; the time period covered starts in the 17th century and ends with the 2010s highlighting the technical progress of television and development of virtual worlds.

In addition to the permanent exhibition, one can access the so called ‘Geschichtspfade’ – historical walks – to explore the region on foot. Presented with a map, one has the opportunity to use a digital guide to take a walk through history. For example, one can walk to the old cemetry and follow the stations given on the map. If you take your smartphone,  the museum provides additional information on each station of the walk. Furthermore, the museum has designed historical walks for children and also provides rally sheets for schools that may wish to take advantage of the museum’s resources. The virtual museum also offers special exhibitions and publishes articles related to current historical topics.

The virtual museum is presented in German. But for visitors reading German, the museum offers a new and interesting way to explore East-Westphalian history. It provides visitors the option of gaining  deeper knowledge of the town’s history. Hence, it offers insights to historical objects which would not be possible without the virtual museum. Therefore, Katja Kosubeck has created a new way of telling history without going to physical museum. It could be useful for anyone who wants to learn something about German history from a local perspective. Students can use the articles for research or history enthusiasts can improve their historical knowledge by exploring the museum.

Take a click, it is free: https://www.haller-zeitraeume.de/

[i]       This text has been created with the help of Krista Bolton, who has made linguistic corrections before publishing.

[ii]       Benario, Herber, “Arminius into Hermann: History into Legend,” Greece & Rome vol. 51, No. 1, (2004).

[iii]      „Hermannsdenkmal,“ Naturpark Teutoburger Wald, accessed March 11, 2020, https://www.naturpark-teutoburgerwald.de/attraction/hermannsdenkmal/.

[iv]     Stadt Halle Westfalen, Zahlen – Daten – Fakten, (acess 2/12/2020 10.34 am).

[v]       „Der echte Haller Willem war ein Fuhrmann“, Stadt Halle Westfalen, accessed March 10, 2020, https://www.hallewestfalen.de/portal/seiten/haller-willem-historischer-fuhrmann–900000558-22700.html.    

[vi]     Haller ZeitRäume Virtuelles Geschichtsmuseum der Stadt HalleWestfalen; (acess 02/12/2020 11.31 am).


Conference report: Transatlantic Perspectives on Digital Hermeneutics, October 10-12, 2019, GHI

“On 10-12 October 2019, the international conference ‘Digital Hermeneutics: from Research to Dissemination’ took place at the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington DC. The conference aimed to critically reflect on the radical impact of the digital turn on all stages of historical research, including archiving, research, analysis, interpretation and dissemination on a transatlantic level.” Read the full report by Tim Van Der Heijden, Juliane Tatarinov, and Gerben Zaagsma, C2DH, posted on November 5, 2019.

The Nuremberg Trials Project: Providing History for All

The GHI benefits tremendously from the help of its many talented interns. The following post was written by GHDI project intern Isabella Auerbach, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, who is majoring in European history. — Editorial note, Href

The Nuremberg Trials Project, an ongoing digitization effort by the Harvard Law School Library (HLSL), is an open-access initiative aimed at transporting the documents relating to the 1945 to 1949 tribunals to an online platform. The project, first conceived in the late 1990s, features a highly organized website that provides ample introductory information regarding the Nuremberg trials, along with the trial documents and transcripts themselves.

A document provided by the Nuremberg Trials Project, containing excerpts to be used in GHDI Volume 7

I was fortunate enough to speak with Paul Deschner, the project manager for the Nuremberg Trials Project and an Application Developer at the library’s Innovation Lab, who was first brought on to the project due to his professional background in software engineering. Deschner discussed both the history and potential future of this undertaking, emphasizing the ongoing significance of these documents, which were produced over seventy years ago.

History of the Documents

Documents relating to the Nuremberg trials were published almost immediately after the conclusion of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), the earliest of the thirteen trials. In 1947, the first of forty-two volumes containing documents, transcripts and judgements was published in Nuremberg under the direction of the IMT. The Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, released as the official record of this first trial, served as a crucial step in making this historical and legal occurrence accessible to a wider public.

Moreover, throughout the duration of the following twelve Nuremberg trials, Deschner estimates that close to one hundred copies of documents were compiled for prosecution and defense lawyers, judges and the international press. After the trials concluded in 1949 in Germany, the staff of the tribunals chose to distribute these documents to various archives, primarily in geographically dispersed institutions in North America and Europe, to make them available for researchers.

Not all material sets were fully complete, and various institutions received different portions of the trial documents. Harvard Law School was given a nearly complete version – Deschner believes this may be because a number of graduates from Harvard Law School worked at the trials, and tribunal staff members frequently gave their document sets to their home institutions.

After being shipped to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, the Nuremberg trials documents would spend the following fifty years occupying 700 to 800 archival boxes in the basement of the Harvard Law School Library. Researchers utilized these documents during the second half of the twentieth century, but the way in which the trial materials were organized permitted only scholars with procedural knowledge of the Nuremberg trials to study the case materials.[1]


[1] The Harvard Law School Library trial originally placed trial documents in filing cabinets, organized by trial. A box-level description noted which case was located in each box, and the document books were at times thematically organized. A researcher would typically be told which boxes contained which trials and if the documents were from prosecution or defense, or were source materials. Because only this information was provided for visitors, one would likely require significant knowledge of the documents’ structure in order to search for specific materials.


History of the Project

The Harvard Law School Library’s Nuremberg trials documents had remained in a building basement for nearly fifty years when, in 1998, the Nuremberg Trials Project was conceived. At this time, libraries were first beginning to explore the use of digital technology. The desire to make these documents accessible to a wider public, paired with the deteriorating physical state of these records, drove Harvard Law School to undertake the digitization of the 750,000 pages of the documents they had received five decades prior.

When the pilot project commenced in 1998 — made possible via funds provided by a Harvard Law School graduate — a professional historian was assigned to analyze the documents for Case 1 (the “Medical Trial”) into a database, and a database developer was brought on board to create the database and a prototype of the website to be used to make the documents available to the general public. The project contracted with Harvard’s Digital Imaging Group to provide the digital images of the documents for Case 1.

Since 1998, Harvard Law School has conducted the digitization process in discontinuous stages, in accordance with the ebb and flow of grant funding. The project, Deschner tells me, has had to depend on external funding since its conception in order to process and publish all thirteen trials. This has forced Harvard Law School’s team to work in various stages, whenever funding is made available.

Organization Today

The online database for this project is constructed in an accessible and highly organized manner, allowing viewers less familiar with the Nuremberg trials to comprehend the information offered through this website. The project contains a “Trials” section, comprised of information on both the defendants and the thirteen Nuremberg trial summaries. A “Who was who in Nazi Germany” page lists relevant individuals involved in the Third Reich government, the SS, the NSDAP and the military, providing readers with both official positions and dates for 118 men involved in these trials.

Because the content of each document is often unclear, the Nuremberg Trials Project has created descriptions for each document, containing information such as the individuals and the subjects relating to the corresponding source.

A database provides users with information regarding each document. Every source is accompanied by descriptors such as item number, descriptive and literal title, author, document date, notes, photographs, language, document version, subjects concerned in document and trial citations. Once a document is selected, the user is presented with a digital version of the document and the descriptive information associated with it, including date, author and the trial issues relating to the text (for example, “freezing experiments”).

Today, documents for five out of the thirteen Nuremberg trials have been fully analyzed, digitized and made available on the project website; Harvard Law School has thus made a total of 650,000 pages of primary sources available to the public. These documents consist of trial exhibits, source documents, trial transcripts, opening and closing statements, trial briefs from both prosecution and defense, along with over two hundred photographs from the trials. Through funding provided in 2014, Harvard has now completed the digitization of all trial materials, and is in the process of completing the analysis work for the remaining trials.

Deschner sees the project moving forward and expanding in the future. He hopes that after completing the basic document-description work for all trials – this is estimated to occur sometime within the next year or two – the project team will be in a position to post all thirteen trials and manuscripts online. At this point, Deschner anticipates adding a layer of deeper analysis to each trial and supplementing the basic descriptions with richer metadata. An additional phase would focus on converting all the documents in the collection to machine-readable text, allowing for the addition of full-text search. “I think that this will enormously increase the utility of the website,” Deschner explained to me, “once people can access the documents using their own search terms, and not just the ones that our analysts have decided are appropriate.”

Thus, the project team plans not only to increase the number of trial documents for this project, but is also taking steps to make the Nuremberg Trials Project even more accessible to a wide range of users.

Audience

While originally tailored to researchers, the Nuremberg Trials Project has attracted individuals from diverse areas of professional concerns, along with users interested in these documents for private reasons.

The project website originally contained very little introductory material and described digitized documents in a clipped manner. Once users began sending feedback to the project staff in the 2000s, however, the team realized that many questions had been sent from high school and middle school students interested in various aspects of the trials.
Thus, the website now includes introductory materials to the various elements of the collection and the separate trials that have been published thus far. As a result, the project website has become accessible to users containing varying degrees of knowledge of the Nuremberg trials. Moreover, Deschner explains that the trial transcripts provided by the project’s website serve as crucial context for the documents. “I think originally, the main focus was the documents themselves, because the documents are the places where the Nazi regime can actually be seen planning and carrying through its program,” Deschner explained to me, “but the transcripts are the narrative, the background, of everything that was happening in a given trial… They’re a wonderful kind of contextualizing material or text to have for someone who is looking at the documents.”

Through its introductory information and inclusion of trial transcripts, the project’s website serves as far more than a digital archive for researchers. It has evolved into an educational platform accessible for all audiences, drawn to these documents for different reasons, each with varying degrees of knowledge surrounding these military tribunals.
Therein lies the brilliance of this project. That it truly provides history for all.
Near the end of our conversation, I asked Deschner why he believes that these documents, produced over seventy years ago, are still so relevant and widely used today:

People who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. It’s just something we can’t afford to have happen. And these documents lay out in great detail, from so many different perspectives, how that all happened historically… It’s just making that usable and trying to make it as coherent as possible. That is what we are trying to do. I mean, that is the value of studying history at all, I think.

 

Sources: All documents and screenshots are from the Nuremberg Trials Project website.

Image 1: Extracts from speeches concerning the SS and the conduct of the war, NMT 2, October 4, 1943.

Image 2: Instructions to Security Police and Security Service officers on the assignment of prisoners to concentration camps, January 2, 1941.

Bauhaus Knowledge for Everyone: The Bauhaus Bookshelf

The bauhaus bookshelf is a bilingual (German-English) online resource created by Andrea Riegel, a partner at the Düsseldorf-based communication design agency Riegel+Reichenthaler. Riegel also created Design is fine. History is mine, a popular blog on design and art history. The beautifully designed bauhaus bookshelf, a labor of love launched in 2019, combines access (for personal use) to reproductions of original Bauhaus publications with a timeline, excerpts, photographs, and other contextual information. Libraries, archives, and museums have made most of the reproductions that are gathered on the bookshelf available under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses, and users are advised to download materials from the site for personal use only. While many events and publications in 2019 celebrate the Bauhaus centennial, the bauhaus bookshelf is the only comprehensive online gateway to original Bauhaus publications and sources.

Interview with Andrea Riegel, the virtual bookshelf’s creator and curator

What inspired you to develop the bilingual bauhaus bookshelf?

Some time ago, I began teaching design history as a lecturer alongside my regular career. I had worked for various design companies during my career in communications consulting. However, studying and teaching design history was a new field for me, even though it had been a long-standing passion of mine. As an initial step, I began creating an image database for my students, and decided on using tumblr as an English-language platform in order to reach a larger, international audience. After more than five years and 15,000 posts, the blog Design is fine. History is Mine. now has around 160,000 followers from all over the world.

The Bauhaus as a German institution has always been close to my heart; it fascinated me even as a child. I grew up in Stuttgart and during my school years, our art class made annual visits to the museum where Oscar Schlemmer’s figures from the Triadic Ballet are on exhibit to discuss or draw them. That was my first encounter with the Bauhaus and it left a lasting impression, thanks to good art teachers.

Last year, I began collecting my Bauhaus discoveries on my own website; first there were a few books and interesting publications, then it became more and more of a mission: a collection of sources that can be downloaded free of charge. Bauhaus knowledge for everyone. The anniversary was an additional incentive to launch the project in a timely manner.

How did you proceed with your research? Which publications and sources were you looking for? Did you research only online or also in analog collections?

The original sources from the Bauhaus period formed the basis for the site, complemented by publications by Bauhaus members or affiliates, or other contemporary witnesses. Initially, I relied on online research, as availability on the Internet was a mandatory prerequisite. Once the framework was set and my passion could dive into details, I was able to fall back on my own small Bauhaus library. The catalogue of the 1968 Stuttgart exhibition, for example, was an excellent source, and since I also own a copy of the English-language edition, this proved to be of great help in translating the typical Bauhaus terms. This catalogue, by the way, is not available online, so sometimes you can’t get around the analog versions.

Which discoveries did you particularly enjoy, or which ones particularly surprised you?

A highlight was the first catalogue book on the exhibition in Weimar, whose title page and contents I had seen frequently. Under the umbrella of the SLUB Dresden, I finally found what I was looking for: browsing through and studying the entire work at my own pace for the first time, and the whole thing available in rather good quality, was a wonderful moment – many thanks to Dresden!

Also, the complete edition of the journal “Form,” provided by the University of Heidelberg, is a great way to immerse yourself in the bustling twenties, including the world of advertising.

I am also happy to note that my work resulted in the online publication of the original English-language version of a lecture held by Ise Gropius at Harvard in 1978. I had first discovered the text in a German translation published by the GDR magazine “form und zweck.” With the help of the Harvard archives, I received the original script, which I diligently typed before placing it on my virtual bookshelf. It is certainly worth reading the article by “Frau Bauhaus,” as she was called back then.

One of the focal points of the centennial is on highlighting the history of the women associated with the Bauhaus. What challenges did you notice in the course of your research?

Of course, the theme of the Bauhaus women is a topic close to my heart. In general, it is important to me that I introduce and revive those women in my history lectures who have been “forgotten” for centuries, be it Sappho or Sofonisba Anguissola. As far as the Bauhaus is concerned, Anni Albers, Gunta Stölzl and Marianne Brandt have been among the well-known personalities for quite some time, and there are new publications on Ise Gropius, for example. While studying Bauhaus books and magazines I noticed works by Hilde Hubbuch, Rosa Berger, Hilde Horn or Lotte Burckhardt, but little or no information about these individuals is to be found. Lou Scheper-Berkenkamp and the architect Wera Meyer-Waldeck are known only by small circles and deserve more attention. Initial results of a study about Michiko Yamawaki, who studied (alongside her husband Iwao, an architect) in the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus and later made the “bauhausu” known in Japan, were presented at the beginning of 2019 in the context of the anniversary. To date, not much has been known about Yamawaki in German-speaking countries. But there is widespread interest in learning more about these women, who have remained relatively unknown thus far, and in honoring their work.

Your site is not only a list of links, but also a small online exhibition with short portraits and excerpts from original publications. Which themes did you want to emphasize when conceptualizing your website?

Presenting the diverse spectrum of the Bauhaus was a matter of concern to me, at the same time, the focal points are just as important for orientation purposes. The Bauhaus was a school. Artists taught at the Bauhaus. There were many strong personalities at the Bauhaus (and thus there were conflicts). The Bauhaus was arts and crafts, theory and practice. At the Bauhaus, there were many new developments – not only in architecture or product design, but also in photography, typography, advertising, PR. While the Bauhaus in Dessau was forced to cease operations in 1933, in some ways this was just the beginning. If there is just one takeaway for visitors to my site, then my mission has already achieved a lot.

What were the particular challenges in developing and designing the chronology?

Designing the structure of the website chronologically seemed obvious and sensible, as it provides a helpful thread leading through the entire range of topics. Since I did not proceed strictly according to plan, I always ended up interspersing something thematically that was situated “in between,” which suddenly opened up different contexts – the work certainly was never boring. Visually, in this context, infographics are important to me, and they have been included, for example, on the pages “Bauhaus Chronology” or “Bauhaus Masters.” Who was active at the Bauhaus? How active and for how long? The 1968 exhibition catalog, which was compiled and coordinated by Bauhaus members still alive at the time, provided a perfect model for this infographic.

Which principles inspired your web design?

At the beginning there was no defined concept, the website was created according to the principle “learning by doing,” for fun. The layout was developed in the process; as more and more content was integrated, the appearance emerged in the process of creation. One inspiration for the graphic design was, for example, the photo of a bookshelf that Josef Albers designed in Weimar at the beginning of his Bauhaus period (reproduced in Bauhaus book no. 7/page 18). It was supposed to look just as geometric, balanced, and solid as it does. Even today, one can still learn a thing or two from Moholy-Nagy’s graphic art.

What are the challenges of transferring the historic Bauhaus design into a digital environment?

It is actually easy to design in the Bauhaus style, the modern look still corresponds to our viewing habits, “Less is More” is timeless. What matters is a clear and consistent grid as the basis, a nice and tidy arrangement, no frills. The primary colors serve as accents, or one can choose the combination black-white or black-red. Square and circle as style elements are, of course, a must, whereas I neglected the triangle, just my personal taste.

What do you particularly enjoy about curating the Bauhaus bookshelf?

It’s fun that it’s actually a story that never ends; I don’t feel that the work is “finished” yet. There are so many protagonists, texts, or events that are interesting, my folders on the hard drive are filled with content. I will expand the shelf throughout this year, at least, whenever I get to do the work. The work on this virtual library is a hobby, which is limited to the evening hours, unfortunately. It would be nice if I could earn money with it, being a freelancer, then I’d be able to work on it even more. At the same time, that’s also a lucky advantage: having the independence to work on my library as I please, while certainly serving the cause of sharing the best Bauhaus sources with the public.

Thank you!

Sources: All screenshots are from Andrea Riegel’s bauhaus bookshelf site.

Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar 1919-1923. Published by the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar and Karl Nierendorf. Weimar-München: Bauhausverlag, 1923. Cover page designed by Herbert Bayer. More information and link to the digital surrogate. 

Translation of the interview by Katharina Hering, assisted by Atiba Pertilla, Kelly McCullough, and DeepL.