Since September 2017, the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust has displayed New Dimensions in Testimony, an interactive exhibit developed by the USC Shoah Foundation that showcases the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. The museum is New York’s home for Holocaust education— the third largest museum of its kind in the world. However, what makes this exhibit unique is the fact that it allows museum visitors to have virtual conversations with lifelike projections of survivors through cutting edge technology. But now, visitors only have a few short months left to visit the groundbreaking installation, as it will be closing in August.
“We want to make sure that the museum’s visitors understand that the Holocaust happened to individuals,” said Miriam Haier, Director of Strategy & Engagement at the museum. “The magnitude of the numbers is often emphasized with good reason, but we want people to connect to it on a human level.”
When a visitor walks into the exhibit, they are met with two large screens—one projecting Pinchas’ story and the other projecting Eva’s. Both survivors look expectant and welcoming, while also aware of their purpose (they were read a story while being recorded to achieve this look), waiting for a visitor to approach the podium to ask a question. Visitors have the privilege of connecting with Pinchas Gutter and Eva Schloss, whose pre-recorded responses give insight into their lives before, during, and after the Holocaust. Pinchas, a survivor of six concentration camps, now resides in Toronto while Eva, Anne Frank’s stepsister and a survivor of Auschwitz, lives in London. Both traveled to the University of Southern California for the recording process, where they were each asked a range of 1,500 questions over the course of five days.
“The museum is running this pilot installation to address the very sad and morbid question of what happens in a few years when we really can’t hear from survivors in person,” said Haier, “but what we wound up finding is that there’s a lot that communicating in this way can teach us regardless, even when we do have access to survivors in person.” This is in part because the virtual versions of Pinchas and Eva are always readily available to speak to anyone, as well as because people seem to be more comfortable with the virtual versions of the survivors, which prompts them to ask questions one might feel uncomfortable asking a survivor in person.
We want to make sure that the museum’s visitors understand that the Holocaust happened to individuals
At the exhibit’s opening event, Pinchas shared that some individuals who have experienced having a virtual conversation with him will try to continue their “conversation” upon meeting him in person. He always quips, “You’ll have to remind me what we spoke about.”
Part of what makes the exhibit so engaging is that each visitor is responsible for their own knowledge. While listening to a survivor share their life story can be a powerful experience, listeners usually only receive the information passively. This exhibit, on the other hand, “forces you to take ownership of your education,” Haier pointed out. Visitors get to choose what they want to learn more about and can tailor the experience to their own interests.
Just like in human-to-human conversations, the virtual Pinchas and Eva sometimes misinterpret a question or give an answer that the visitor was not necessarily looking for. They have the human-like ability to detour into conversational tangents or politely tell the visitor to either rephrase the question or that they do not have an answer for them. Such nuances lend the experience a less “simulated,” more natural feel.
Unsurprisingly, different people reacted quite differently to the exhibit. During this reporter’s visit, a man walked right up to Pinchas and simply stated “death march.” The system picked up on the keywords, and Pinchas proceeded to discuss his own experience with death marches. Lisa Safier, the museum’s Director of Communications, mentioned that some visitors have had extremely personal conversations with Pinchas or Eva, just as they would face-to-face. School groups visit the exhibit too, and often students feel hesitant about leaving Pinchas and Eva alone when they’ve finished asking their questions; Haier has to remind them that the survivors are not really there.
Although the exhibit will be closing, the museum hopes that the interactive, virtual survivor testimony exhibit will become a permanent experience at Holocaust museums everywhere.