Employing Identification in Online Museums
Billie Jones, Penn State University, USA
Museums are a culture industry that has evolved over time. Historically, museums have been the place of rare and often valuable collections, preserved and displayed predominantly for their aesthetic value. These collecting museums did not intend to educate; however, after World War II, modern science museums and children's museums were created around the message they wished to espouse rather than a collection they wished to exhibit (Weinberg and Elieli. The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli, 1995: 50). Instead of the collection as a museum's commodity, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill concludes that "Knowledge is now well understood as the commodity that museums offer" (Museum, Message, Media. London: Routledge, 1995: 2). In discussing historical museums, Weinberg and Elieli state that in such a museum, the narrative arranges knowledge like "building blocks in a continuous story line [designed to] educate in the sense of changing and developing their visitors mentally, emotionally, or morally" (The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli, 1995: 49).
In this paper, I will claim that such education
is rhetorical, and as such requires, according to social critic Kenneth
Burke, the establishment of identification. After discussing the concepts
of rhetoric and identification, I will turn first to the physical presence
of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), I will show how
the designers of the Permanent Exhibition of the USHMM have attempted
to build identification throughout the museum through the display of personal
artifacts, as ordinary and yet as intimate as shoes and toothbrushes;
and photographs, which emphasize the individual humanity of the victims
rather than massive dehumanization of entire cultural groups. Finally,
then, after I have briefly illustrated some of the ways in which a physical
museum attempts to establish identification, I will turn my attention
to the ways in which a museumís online presence, museumsí latest evolutionary
form, can also establish identification by which to educate and persuade
its audience. Looking at the online presence of two Holocaust museums,
the USHMM <http://www.ushmm.org> and Yad Vashem
Rhetoric and Identification
For twentieth-century rhetorical critic, Kenneth Burke, persuasion, rhetoric, is everywhere. He claims that, ". . . wherever there is 'meaning,' there is 'persuasion'" (Burke, Rhetoric of Motives 172). For Burke, the use of any system that makes meaning through symbols, such as the most obvious language, but also those less obvious but equally as meaning-making: architecture, visual images, and design arrangement (physical and virtual) is persuasiveóis rhetorical. Integral to persuasion, for Burke, is the concept of identification. He writes, "You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his" (Burke, The Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950: 55; original emphasis). In order for a museum exhibit to persuade and thereby educate its audience, it must establish identification with that audience.
Examples of Identification
The task of building identification is made difficult in an historical museum, like the USHMM, because identification is difficult with a people who are from a different time in history, from countries different than one's own, and often from a different ethnic/religious group. In many cases, visitors to the museum are not Jewish and the museum must enable these visitors to identify with the Jewish victims. Furthermore, no one wants to identify with the role of victim, yet this identification is crucial for visitors to be persuaded that this unprecedented horror could happen again, perhaps even to them, if they are not mindful. Moreover, the magnitude of the group of victims--six million Jews, as well as millions of other victims--makes identification difficult because such a large group becomes an incomprehensible abstraction.
The USHMM seeks to build identification and thereby deny such an abstraction by particularizing and personalizing the victims. Photographs are used in a variety of ways throughout the USHMM. Photographs are the key component of the Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection, forming the "Tower of Victims" exhibit, where hundreds of photographs chronicle fifty years of Jewish life in a small town in what is now Lithuania. This three-story, four-sided tower is covered with a pastiche of photographs depicting ordinary people in ordinary situations: weddings, new babies, school and religious rites of passage, working, or playing--simply people living. The museum visitor walks through this tower on two floors of the exhibition. At the earliest point, on the fourth floor, the visitor is only told that these photographs are of Jewish villagers from one Shtetl; however, at the second point of contact, the visitor learns that all but twenty-nine of the Jewish residents of the Shtetl were killed in 1941, and that no Jews live there today. By viewing these photographs twice, visitors are able to identify with these people among the living, before being forced to accept them as the dead.
In fact, few pictures are displayed showing masses of humanity, living or dead. (An exception is the first photograph in the Permanent Exhibition, which depicts American soldiers gazing in disbelief at a charred heap of corpses. However, the corpses, in the lower foreground of the photograph, are barely distinguishable upon first sight; what is most apparent is the ring of Americans, who in the background of the photograph, appear at the visitor's eye-level.) Instead, most photographs are of individuals, and many of these photographs feature the individuals' faces. These individuals, ordinary people ripped from ordinary circumstances and thrust into an extraordinary situation, represent people from a variety of socioeconomic classes and ages, both male and female, and this variety allows each visitor to find someone with whom they can identify.
The voices of victims, as well, are heard in several sections of the exhibition to promote identification. Most compelling is the room where audio recordings of Auschwitz survivors can be heard telling their stories of fear and survival. In the final part of the Permanent Exhibition, a video runs continuously of survivors who give their "Testimony" (also the title of this final exhibit). This video is particularly poignant located on the heels of an exhibit that illustrates the plight of children in the Holocaust, and includes artifacts such as clothing, toys, and drawings made by children who were interned in the camps. The visitor is reminded that these now elderly testifiers were children themselves during the Holocaust, and to see these heartbreaking childhood experiences personified in a surviving, adult form is moving because it makes real the experience to which the previous exhibit has referred. This video is stirring also because it concludes the Permanent Exhibition on a note of hope--some people did survive--to bear witness to these horrors and the millions who did not survive. As in the photographs, these victims are common, ordinary people with whom most museum visitors can identify.
This theme of ordinariness through diversity as a means of establishing identification is carried through many of the artifactual displays. Immediately after leaving the railroad car, a grim reminder of deportation and death, visitors see various suitcases strewn about the ground beneath the car. This battered luggage is made more evocative by the names scrawled across the leather by their owners, hopeful that their journey would not end in death. Later, a display case contains piles of victims' belongs, such as scissors, silverware, combs and brushes, all diverse, yet demonstrating the ordinary humanity of their individual owners. Most poignant is the display of 4,000 shoes brought from Majdenek.
Other types of clothing are displayed in a variety of ways throughout the museum, as a means of establishing identification. Soon after entering the fourth floor of the Permanent Exhibition, visitors see several of the distinctive, striped prisoners' uniforms hanging limply in a steel grille-work display case. This case, actually part of a three-story tower (the height of which is not as evident to the visitor as it is in "Tower of Victims"), is visible again on the last floor, near the end of the Permanent Exhibition. In another instance, an early display case holds, among other photographs, a Nazi uniform, not hanging limply, but formed over a seemingly invisible body image. Although there is no visible form, the illusion of a body is complete because the soldier's hat is suspended a head's distance above the shirt collar of the uniform. By keeping the enemy faceless, visitors may be able to see themselves as a perpetrator.
Not only are these uniforms displayed in different ways, the display cases that hold them are varied as well. The metal grille-work that holds the prisoners' uniforms is reminiscent of a cage, symbolic of the prisoners' harsh confinement, but this is an uncommon style of display case in the Permanent Exhibition. Most of the exhibits, particularly on the fourth floor, like the one that contains the Nazi uniform, are housed behind glass walls, whose front panes are angled in toward the floor, in order to invite the visitor into the display. This invitational exhibit design helps visitors build identification with the contents, by allowing them to feel a part of the display.
Moreover, larger architectural design features, "freighted with meaning" (For the Living), help to build identification by fostering empathy with the victims' predicament. Many of these features, such as the use of brick, limestone, granite, exposed architectural concrete, steel, and exposed pipes serve to simulate, in a minuscule way, the appearance of the ghettos, the camps, and their crematoria. For instance, the doors of the elevators, which transport visitors to the fourth floor where the displays begin, are stark, brownish-gray steel, reminiscent of crematorium doors.
Much of the Permanent Exhibition is devoid of natural light. The most obvious exceptions to this are the two glass bridges through which visitors walk from one section of the exhibition to the next. These bridges, reminiscent of the overhead walkways that were erected in some ghettos to prevent Jewish pedestrians from walking on non-ghettos streets, are constructed of glass, which provides visitors with a view of the main area, the Hall of Witness below. Even the floors are made of translucent glass blocks, which although they admit light, prevent visitors from seeing clearly what is below, just as the victims of the Holocaust could not see the horrors that awaited them. These glass bridges serve as punctuation to the museum's rhetorical text, giving visitors a chance to breathe before embarking on the next line of the narrative. Not without discursivity, the names of towns whose Jewish populations were decimated in the Holocaust, and surnames of people who were victims are etched in white on the bridges' glass walls, and these names serve an identifying function as well.
Identification prompted by empathy is also a result of the labyrinth-like spatial arrangement of the displays forming a downward, chronological, constricting spiral which intensifies for the visitor just as the situation intensified for the victims. In some instances, visitors are able to stand in the very spot where victims stood, such as in one of the railroad cars that transported millions of victims to their deaths. Visitors can walk into the shell of a concentration camp barracks and actually touch a wooden bunk in which prisoners were stacked like cords of firewood. This spatial and palpable proximity with the victims allows visitors to identify with them in a way that mere discursive text could not.
Identification in a Web Museum
Many of these, or at least adaptations of these same means of establishing identification can be used in an online museum; however, demonstrating goodwill toward the audience of an online museum, a largely anonymous and widely diverse audience, is more difficult than establishing identification with visitors to a physical space. First of all, there are no physical beings with whom to identify; cyberspace breeds an impersonal environment. Furthermore, designers of online museum exhibits do not have the luxury of spinning knowledge with a single, narrative thread; cyberspace valorizes hypertextualityónot linearity. Nevertheless, online museum designers can still work to establish identification with their cyber visitors.
Because of the hypertextual context of online museum exhibits, designers have a responsibility and actually an opportunity to guide site visitors through the inclusion of navigational cues and devices, and ease of access and navigation are two ways that online exhibition designs can demonstrate goodwill for their audiences. However, rather than constructing a single narrative thread like that which binds the physical space of the USHMM, online exhibit designers need to construct an intricate web, of often infinite connections, and making these connections, and the navigations between them clear demonstrates goodwill on behalf of the online museum toward its audience.
Just as the architecture, and spatial/temporal arrangement of the physical presence of the USHMM is arranged in such a way that identification is established between visitor and the museum exhibitionís subject, an online museum exhibition can be arranged in such a way to enhance understanding and identification. At the online exhibition home page <http://www.ushmm.org/exhibits/exhibit.htm> of the USHMM site, visitors can choose from eleven different linked images, each one representing a particular special exhibit. After linking to an exhibit, site visitors enter the exhibitís space, and each with its own distinctive architecture. Although this distinctive architecture gives each exhibit its own flavor, dissimilar design and navigational components can be discomforting, and even confusing, to site visitors. At the USHMM site, the exhibit entitled the "Voyage of the St. Louis" http://www.ushmm.org/stlouis/search/research/index.htm, has a high degree of interactivity, prompting site visitors to choose sets of research documents for four different passengers of the St. Louis. Both the interactivity and evoked connections with individuals lead site visitors to identify with its subject, as does the traditional vertical scrolling to view individual pages in their entirety. However, many of the pages in the exhibit, "The Holocaust in Greece" (for example, http://www.ushmm.org/greece/eng/athens.htm), use horizontal scrolling, which is virtually unmarked (except for the browserís default navigational bars). While these are certainly sufficient, given the unexpectedness of horizontal scrolling, inserting an extra line of direction would better demonstrate goodwill toward site visitors.
Within the architecture of these sites, photographs are a common method by which an online museum can exhibit its holdings, both photographs and artifacts. As I illustrated earlier in my discussion of the physical space of the USHMM, the inclusion of photographs is an obvious way to establish identification between a museumís audience and its subject, and photographs are one of an online museumís best ways of conveying a sense of their presence to site visitors, and thereby establishing identification with their audience. However, in an online exhibition, photographs can have both positive and negative effects on building identification. While photographs can provide an important bridge across the impersonality of cyberspace, the additional drag that multiple image files place on pagesí loading speed can sometimes irritate or confuse site visitors, or even overtax certain older systemsí capacities. Care must be taken to reduce, as much as possible, the size of image files, without unduly sacrificing visual quality. In such cases where the designer determines that the contribution that image makes to the page is worth the extra loading time, then the designer would be wise to add a notice to advise site visitors about possible slow loading times.
The same consideration would apply for video and audio files that require special plug-ins or programs that are not widely available on most computer systems. Any obstacles that stand between the web exhibit and its audience can hinder identification, so designers must consciously consider whether such large, slow loading files, possibly necessitating the needless common system features, add sufficiently to the site to justify their inclusion. One way of handling this possible obstacle is to make mention of special system requirements at the beginning of the web exhibit. For example, one particularly sophisticated site at the USHMM site, "Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto" (http://www.ushmm.org/kovno/index.htm), includes a link to "technical notes" which tells visitors of audio/video requirements and even offers links to download sites for those programs.
Another aspect of web exhibition design that can contribute in both positive and negative ways to the establishment of identification is site sophistication. Some of the online exhibits of the USHMM, such as the previously mentioned "Kovno" site, are quite sophisticated in design, using design features like the layering of images and text (e.g. http://www.ushmm.org/kovno/ main.htm). While these pages layer not only images, but meanings, with their sophistication, they can put off some site visitors who lack the technological savvy to feel comfortable in such spaces. For example, in this particular exhibit, the concept of "hidden-ness" is echoed by the hidden layers of images, visible only with mouse-overs. While this creates a wonderful imaged extension of the metaphor, these images, actually links to other segments of the site, may seem non-existent to some site visitors, thereby not only thwarting identification, but literally stopping movement throughout the site. As I have already mentioned many times, care must be taken, by museum site designers to achieve a balance between sophisticated content and possibly less than sophisticated site visitors and their systems.
The two sides of this balance can be seen by viewing online exhibits for the USHMM and from Israelís Yad Vashem (http://www.yadvashem.org.il/collections/exhibits/main.html). The online exhibits for Yad Vashem are not nearly so adventurous as those for the USHMM; linearity and convention abound in Yad Vashemís exhibits. At many points, these two online museum sites seem at opposite ends of a design continuum, and it is this continuum on which each online museum designer must position oneself. The greatest chance of building identification lies at the point of balance, and whatever a designer does, establishing identification between the exhibitís subject and its visitors, is a useful, and rhetorically powerful goal to be considered.