Could pairing VR and storytelling help us keep collective memories alive?

How new technologies make us engaged witnesses of past and present conflicts

As a powerful tool for accurately recreating places and environments, virtual reality appears as a weapon of choice for historical exploration. In his talk at the last Museums and the Web conference, Michael Haley Goldman (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) showed how such new technologies could help retain and disseminate personal stories that are crucial to what is often termed “duty of remembrance” in Europe. In this article, we look at a few projects that successfully blended VR and storytelling to address narratives of past and present conflicts.


Stories from the past

“It really is about space, presence and first person narrative,” Michael Haley Goldman declared during the Museums and the Web conference as he reflected on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum use of VR technology. He mentions the “explosion” of VR experience on concentration camps. For instance, at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial in Germany, scientists from the  Synthetic Perceptive, Emotive and Cognitive Systems (SPECS) group at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona developed an augmented reality app recreating the fully-destroyed camp.

Although these new technologies prove extremely useful in capturing the attention of younger audiences, it seems that personal testimonies are much more powerful when it comes to transmitting knowledge and awareness regarding those conflicts. But what happens when all the people who have lived through those direful events are gone? In his talk, Goldman mentions the extensive efforts made to capture the testimonies of the last holocaust survivors. Several projects around the world have used hologram-like technologies to create immersive and interactive educational experiences based on survivors’ testimonies. For the Forever Project in the UK, ten of them were interviewed.

They answered over a thousand questions while being recorded with a 3D laser image technology. Those recordings were then projected within the museum. Visitors could ask questions to the image and thanks to an ingenious algorithm, the machine selected the most appropriate answer among the 1400 recorded, thus creating a dialogue-like interaction between visitors and survivors. The Forever Project followed shortly after the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie’s “New Dimensions in Testimony”. In this project,  a hologram-like representation of survivor Pinchas Gutter answered students’ questions within the setting of their classroom.

Those examples show that the use of VR technologies can be an excellent way to keep collective memory alive. It does come with a few challenges though. As Goldman pointed out during his presentation, such experiences raise a few questions in terms of user interface: how do you speak to a hologram? And then, in a few decades when these technologies will have become obsolete, how will we be able to preserve those testimonies?


Stories from the present

War and conflicts are not solely contained in the past. The numerous conflicts and population displacements happening today also call for documentation, conversation and representation. In his talk, Goldman cited a recent installation by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which allowed visitors to have a live conversation with Syrian refugees as part of the “Genocide: The Threat Continues” exhibition. Conversation is also at the root of the interactive VR experience “The Enemy” on show at the Institut du Monde Arabe until June 7th.

This multi-users VR installation takes participants into a 300-square meter virtual perimeter where they meet six different soldiers from three different conflicts: gang wars in Salvador, the Israeli-Palestinian and the DR Congo conflicts. There is no live interaction here, but the filmed sequences change according to the visitors’ information, and to their physical reaction during the experience. Last but not least, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – which we mentioned in our previous article – realized a VR storytelling experience for the Empowering Women exhibition in August 2016. The experience called Weaving a Better Future VR, collected stories from Maya women of Guatemala. They shared their experiences as victims of human rights violation, activists fighting for social justice, mothers and weavers.

Empathy helps us understand and retain information, but as Goldman pointed out during his talk, using empathy to teach traumatic subjects can be problematic. On the matter, he cites the work of Liora Gubkin and invites us to move from “empathetic understanding” to “engaged witnessing”. In an immersive experience, the way we tell stories and the amount of visual information we offer to the viewer are crucial. An experiment around the VR documentary Taro’s World, showed that “when the audience has limited visual information they will work twice as hard to make meaning out of every detail they see”. When dealing with themes of war, conflict and traumatic events, how much should we show? There is a risk of creating sensational or even voyeuristic experiences that move away from the educational and social goals of our cultural institutions. Once again, when it comes to VR experiences at the museum it seems that technology must not be an end in itself, but another tool to help institutions achieve their mission.