Laptop and DuSable Museum of African American History, The Interface Between Public History 
Museums and Their Websites: A Case Study of Three Museums by Marcy McDonald.

The United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum

The Virtual Visit

The entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum was the first museum I investigated. My initial visit to the website took place on November 18, 2004. (To see the page from that date, click here.) At that time, a large banner across the top fourth of the screen announced the “Genocide Emergency: Darfur, Sudan.” Because the graphics were prominent—black type on a red background, as I recall (it did not print, so I rely on memory)—I focused on that headline. My “seven-second” thought was that the museum’s primary exhibit at the time was on Sudan. Down the page was a link to read more about the emergency. Scrolling further, near the bottom of the second page, I found a link to a photo essay and commentary for “Sudan: Staring Genocide in the Face.” I was confused by why this was so far down if it was the main topic, whether this was a different exhibit, or an online exhibit of related materials.

Scrolling back to the front page, I determined that the next most prominent feature was the “Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Exemplary Lessons Initiative,” an invitation to submit a lesson. It was linked to more information, as well as to “What’s New—See Entire List.” Beneath this section were sixteen boxes with graphics, titles, and short summaries of various programs, papers, events, exhibits, and so forth.

At the top of the page was a search feature, “What Are You Looking For?” On the left side of the page was a detailed menu with five sections; only the first two showed up on my screen without scrolling. All together there were seven sections with fifty-nine subheadings. Reading through the lists took a while and left me still unsure how I wanted to proceed. It was evident, however, that the website was deeply layered and intended to educate in a direct manner about both the Holocaust and genocide.

Visually, the home page was out of balance and busy. I felt overloaded with information before I even began exploring. The museum’s essential mission (Education, Remembrance, Conscience) was only generally evident.

I decided first to clarify the question of current exhibits and scrolled down until I found “Exhibition Information” beneath “Inside the Museum.” I realized then that “The Holocaust” was the main and the permanent exhibit. A long scroll took me to the other exhibits. Two of the three had links to online photo archives, and one had a video with a “RealPlayer” download to ensure accessibility. The graphics and text were on the middle and right of the screen and left an extended section blank.

The menu to the left offered navigation for within the section, a button at the top took me back to the home page, and a navigation bar at the bottom offered links to “Museum Information,” “Education,” “Research,” “History,” “Remembrance,” “Conscience,” and “Join and Donate.” I noticed that two links in two different sections, each with a slightly different name (“Museum Exhibitions” and “Exhibition Information”), were highlighted, even though I had just been to one section. I checked and learned that they were one and the same except for the titles.

I next did some general exploring in the “History” category; I clicked on “Introduction to the Holocaust,” which was called “The Holocaust” on the page it took me to. The main section’s menu at the bottom of the page disappeared in the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” section. A link to “Contents” took me to an extensive list of articles offered in three languages. I encountered similar navigational problems throughout the site.

An informative overview of the Holocaust took into account not only Jews who had died, but also the many other groups who were persecuted by the Nazis. The section had many links to related topics, such as an article, “Jewish population of Europe in 1933.” This section, like others, further linked to related articles, maps, photography, personal stories, artifacts, videos, and songs. Unfortunately, the “Play this Music” feature did not work on my browser, although I have all the necessary files.

Some of the linked articles came up as a separate pop-up window, which made it easy to get back to the main page of the category. Others took me to sections of the Encyclopedia. After a few such detours, I was hopelessly lost in the hierarchy that could get me back, and resorted to the home page link to start over. A “breadcrumb” navigation tool would have been inordinately helpful; this kind of system displays the history and hierarchy of your links in an obvious place, such as the top of the page.

Jumping from section to section, I read for several hours abut the Holocaust. The articles were well written, clear, cohesive, and compelling; they seemed to lose nothing by being read out of order. All were well supported by statistics and rounded out by personal stories. My sense was of a well-balanced medley of authoritative and populist approaches. I read so much that I felt exhausted and quit to explore the website on a second visit.

I used the subsequent visit to get details about the hours, location, and directions. This section, located under “Inside the Museum,” also linked to a “Teacher Guide to the Permanent Exhibition” on the same page as “Entry and Hours,” as well as a calendar link, “Frequently Asked Questions,” contact information, and more. As in other subsections, the only back button was through the browser. While using the back button is current practice for returning to the previous page from a link, access to navigation to all the main sections is also current practice, and this was not always readily available at the time. (In this website, I opted to go against current compliancy code to make the navigation easier, since the website has so many outside links; for these I have created a link to a separate window. Internal links and graphics use the back browser button to return to the page.)

The “Inside Education” section was extensive. The museum’s dedication to community outreach was evident here and throughout the site.

I had problems printing some pages. The margins were set too wide for my printer, pages split unevenly (dividing graphics), graphics did not always print, and often I got pages that said “Page 1 of 1” and contained only the website address. When I printed out the “Special Focus” section, I got a message saying that it was “Page 1 of 586.” (Needless to say, I aborted the printing job.) PDF versions of articles would have helped resolve this problem.

Given the complexity and extensiveness of the site, I think that I could turn to it whenever I needed a resource for myself or my family on any aspect of the Holocaust, even though I was reasonably well versed on the subject already. In addition, once I was familiar with how to navigate the site, the experience ceased to be so frustrating. The sections on “Site Navigation” and “Accessibility” were helpful as well, and I wished I had thought to investigate them immediately.

Having access to the additional materials provided a much fuller story, one not just of facts, dates, and horror, but of real people who led lives that parallel mine.

The Physical Visit

Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the power of the real-time visit. From the onset, it was a different experience from any museum I had ever been to. I stood outside on a rainy, cold November day and listened to a voice on a loudspeaker announcing rules while I shuffled toward a steel, glass, grey, prison-like structure, more reminiscent of an armament battery than a museum. Holes along the top of the walls looked like they were built for guns. The illusion was suppressed but not dispelled once I was inside and attending to the practical matter of a pass.

In “The Poetic Image and Native American Art,” Patrick T. Houlihan discusses the deeply emotional response that does not come from the brain but the soul. It does not require an analytical construct but resonates immediately, as a poem through its exuberance seizes the imagination. (34) The architecture of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the quiet inside the building as we neared the elevators that would take us to the exhibit, the clanging of the doors as they shut on us, the whispering crowd suddenly hushed as we “proceeded through time to the back door of the Holocaust”—these elements offered a very dark poem indeed. We were not allowed in without a pass and a security card, we had to wear the identity of a victim of the Holocaust as our badge.

Every reason ever given for why a virtual museum cannot replace an actual museum holds true for the experience of visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum. The sensory, emotional, and intellectual reactions to the exhibit cannot be replicated by staring at a screen. The phrase “multimedia presentation” is insufficient to explain what is more like an immersion experience. As the crowds unloaded from the elevators and entered the main exhibit space, everyone, without exception, was immediately silent. Everything I saw was not just through my own eyes, but through the group’s eyes. A large quotation plastered across one wall met our communal gaze; it explained what we were doing there:

The things I saw beggar description…the visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering…I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’

We were not museum-goers, we were witnesses. We were there so no one could forget.

Being in the crowd, hearing the shuffle of feet—people were practically tiptoeing—and moving en masse to the first section was as far as you can get from clicking a mouse to move to the next topic.

A film, “The Nazi Rise to Power,” broke the hush. Maps, newsreels, artifacts, simultaneous films, photographs, and audio tapes of survivors telling their stories all contribute to the sensation of stepping into another world. Yet because the text and materials take visitors “through” time while they are moving through carefully constructed walkways and rooms, the sense is not of a frozen past removed from our own time. The faces and stories are too real. A film, for instance, projected life size and showing children reading propaganda, is chilling.

The somber lighting, the narrow pathways, and artifacts that you can walk through and under work together to recreate the grave mood before and during the war.

Standing inside a “cattle car” that was used to deport victims to the camps was eerie. I had seen pictures of such wagons in books and on the Web, but I only realized how dark,

smelly, and confining they were once I was inside. Throughout the museum, I was aware of textures, colors, and scale as meaningful elements of the story unavailable through the Web. Although materials are lit well enough to see clearly, most of the space is dimly lit, heightening the sensation that this is hallowed ground, sacred space—a memorial as well as a museum.

The artifacts are arranged thoughtfully, their juxtaposition lending another shade to the story. A Roma wagon, for instance, is situated next to details about the persecution of Romas; a nearby case features Roma clothing and comb. The inscription reads, “The woman who wore these combs was forcibly sterilized.” By attaching stories to material objects and photographs, every item echoes the devastation of genocide.

At one point I was looking at a gate that had closed on women and children who were about to be murdered by the Gestapo. Beside me stood a middle-aged, African American woman who exclaimed aloud at the horrors described. When I heard her gasp, I turned to her. Facing each other, I saw that we were both crying. That momentary connection transcended everything in our individual lives and brought us together—an experience unavailable in the isolation of the Web.

Although I was not on a tour, I followed a specific course through the exhibit, as the exhibit path was narrow at times and always aimed in a particular direction. The curators largely controlled what viewers saw and in what order. A website experience is typically uncontrolled; viewers jump from page to page in any order. The Holocaust exhibit would not have made the same impact if the way visitors viewed it had been random. This was the most controlled, orchestrated exhibit I have ever attended, and the manner in which it was arranged was essential to the experience. This unabashed curatorial control runs against the populist ideology of many museums, yet it clearly works. The experience intensified from one room to the next, until it seemed as if I were seeing all my own friends, families, and neighbors annihilated. I learned a lot, but I felt a lot too.

My only frustration with the exhibit was the size of the crowd. Frequently I could not get close enough to read materials or see artifacts. I also had to skip some sections altogether as the crowd pushed me past; it moved faster than I wanted to. Nevertheless, I was able to linger in the shtetl tower, where photographs from the now non-existent village of Eishishok reach three stories. I could read the names of victims in the passageways between galleries, and I sat alone in a memorial room between sections. Few people ventured into the Museum’s Hall of Remembrance, and it was a serene, well-lit space in which to contemplate the experience of the main exhibit.

The other exhibits—“Deadly Medicine: The Master Race” and “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story”—were not as controlled as the main exhibit in the sense of how the visitor toured them, but the text was still explicit. Nowhere did I perceive any reluctance to tackle harsh facts, even if controversial.

All in all, the real-time visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum was the most moving, well-rounded, and comprehensively educational experience I have ever had in a museum. Without a doubt, the treatment exemplified Greenblatt's notion of “resonance”; the museum is indeed sacred space.

Further, the exhibits successfully addressed issues of multiplicity by examining the effects of the Holocaust on numerous peoples; it made history relevant by directly asking how viewers would respond in the same situation and linking the genocides of World War II with current events; and even though it was authoritative, it brought in voices of the people. Both the virtual and physical spaces were in accord on these issues. In addition, neither space succumbed to any aspect of edutainment; the education offered by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum is diametrically opposed to “Disneyfication.”

The Follow-up Web Visit

When I visited the website afterwards, I looked up a few items I had questions about. This time, I sometimes had trouble seeing the whole page or printing any of it, depending on which browser and type of computer I was using. The home page had changed to one announcing the “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” exhibition in what might be considered the billboard space. (It has changed since then as well.) The website functioned as a generally useful follow-up resource, but it did not otherwise add to the experience.


If after I had viewed “The Holocaust” exhibition I could have explored a post-exhibit project that allowed me to reread (or read) at least key points throughout the exhibit, it would have helped solidify the material, much of which I missed due to the crowd and how long it takes to walk through the exhibit. This material may already be online, but if so, it was not apparent to me how to find it. In no way would being able to read the specific details ahead of time or afterwards detract from or compete with the impact of the physical exhibit. It would, however, help fill in some missing pieces.

A post-exhibition section could also include topics such as “Things to Think About,” “Additional Subjects/Resources to Explore,” “Related Projects,” “Post your questions and responses,” or any other of a number of activities directly tied to the exhibit and designed to carry on the dialogue. One critical component of the physical experience was how tightly it directed the visitor through the exhibit. I see no point in trying to duplicate this on the Web, but it does raise the question of whether a similar approach could be tried in the virtual space. If a linear option were offered, for example, it would help viewers put the pieces together so they make a complete picture. One directory might take the viewer on a “tour” through linked pages, for example. A timeline that was linked to points in the exhibit would recapture some of the linear approach as well.

Specific artifacts could be photographed and located on a map on the Web to show where they came from. This would have several benefits. It would clarify the extent of Nazi terrorism and at the same time provide a contextualized geography lesson. Likewise, the routes of the “cattle cars” could be animated on a map. Rollovers could provide additional information about the trains, where they went, with whom, how often, and when. For the sake of creating perspective, a comparison to recent acts of genocide would be enlightening. The possibilities for contextualizing the artifacts are endless.

As for the way the website is currently designed, giving prominence and clarity to the main exhibit of the museum—in the top third of the page—would focus the home page and clarify the museum's mission for the viewer. Even dedicating the whole home page to the primary exhibit in a way that was clear, dramatic, and concise, while also indicating that there are other exhibits and resources, would work well. An “Enter” link could take the viewer to a comprehensive site index. Other issues are problems with navigation, sensory overload, long pages, and printability. With five million virtual visits and two million real-time visits (35), the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum is in no danger of closing its doors to lack of interest, but even the few glitches I noted can be enough to send someone “surfing.”

To visit the current website, click here.

Go to the next section: the national museum of the american indian

Laptop and DuSable Museum of African American History, The Museum and the Web: Three Case Studies, by Marcy McDonald.