Art Grad Students Collaborate with Holocaust Museum on Citizen History Project

Left to right: (back) Ryan Woldruff, Sarah Lowe, Meghan Terry, David Klevan, Nourah Alrashed, (front) Vickie Phipps, Neil Ward, and Kelly Porter at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in January 2011.

Most people have heard of the genocide of roughly six million Jews by the Nazi regime during World War II, but not everyone is familiar with the individual stories behind the lives that were lost or persecuted. Now, through collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, University of Tennessee graduate students are working on a project that will allow researchers to access online datasets to build narratives around victims of the Holocaust.

Sarah Lowe, associate professor of graphic design in the School of Art, learned about the idea for the project at the American Association for History and Computing Conference in 2009 when she met David Klevan, USHMM educational manager for technology and distance learning. The project was in Lowe’s line of research, which focuses on interaction design in relation to cultural heritage. Although she could have taken on the project herself, she thought it presented a great opportunity for her graduate students to be involved.

Under Lowe’s direction, the class is working with USHMM staff to ideate a website entitled Citizen History. This site, targeting secondary education students, will allow student users to conduct research on victims of the Holocaust using USHMM databases to develop a narrative of that person’s life. The narrative will be reviewed by a USHMM researcher and then housed in a publicly available digital environment.

The project grew out of the USHMM initiative to develop narratives on particular children who were known to have been at the Lodz Ghetto. Launched in 2007, the “Children of the Lodz Ghetto” site allows users to select the name of a child known to be at the Lodz Ghetto and go through databases to develop a narrative.

Hungarian Jews with yellow stars, at the time of the liberation of the Budapest ghetto. January 1945.

Among the goals for the Citizen History site are to build a collaborative research community, to develop an authentic experiential learning experience, and to help users understand the role of research in constructing historical narrative.

“There is so much unknown information about the Holocaust still to discover, and what better way to go about learning it than engaging the community? It’s a form of crowdsourcing,” Lowe says.

To initiate the project, graduate students, with generous funding provided by community donors through the Knoxville Jewish Community Center Family Fund, visited the USHMM in January. There they met museum staff and began work on the project. A first-time visit for all of the students, it proved to be a memorable experience that made the gravity of the project content much more of a reality.

Since then, students have participated in the Tennessee Holocaust Commission Educator Outreach Program, Voices from the Holocaust: Moving from Reflection to Action—The Decision is Yours, where they met the acclaimed author Alexandra Zapruder. They have also learned from Daniel Magilow, assistant professor of German in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures, as he shared his research on the Holocaust and his experience as a postdoctoral fellow at USHMM. Most recently, they visited with local Knoxvillian Arthur Pais, survivor of the Dachau concentration camp, to learn about his experiences.

Jewish children in the Lublin ghetto. The men behind them were forced to remove their caps in deference to a German officer standing next to the photographer. Poland, 1941-1942.

Kelly Porter, a first-year MFA candidate, said her emotional ties to the project have come full circle as she has gained a deeper understanding of the Holocaust. “I started the project with only the distant knowledge that I was taught in school, but when I visited the museum, I was overwhelmed by the horrific nature of the genocide and immersed in its reality,” she said. “Now, after meeting Arthur Pais and hearing his powerful story, I see the beauty of life that has overcome tragedy, and I feel privileged to have contributed to such a project.”

The students will present their proof of concepts and idea directions to USHMM in May. They hope that their extensive research and design will result in the development of a site that provides a student researcher with further understanding of the impact of the Holocaust and that shares the identity of some of the thousands of Holocaust victims with the public beyond the walls of the USHMM.

“It has been rewarding to watch my students be so driven to find an answer to help. At first this project was a design effort, but now it has become a humanitarian effort,” Lowe said.

Lowe says she hopes to continue the relationship with USHMM even after the proposal is submitted and perhaps even to extend aspects of the project into an undergraduate course.

—Sara Collins Haywood