“An Immersive Journey:” Analyzing the Use of Survivor Testimony in Holocaust Museums


Source:  University of Washington


The purpose of this study was to identify interpretive strategies used by museums in connecting visitors to Holocaust survivors through testimony. As the Holocaust recedes further into the past and Holocaust survivors get older, Holocaust museums must find new ways to stay relevant and connect visitors to survivor testimony. Studies have indicated that meeting a survivor and hearing their testimony firsthand can be the most salient part of visiting a Holocaust museum, and therefore understanding how museums use survivor testimony now can help develop ways to continue to use it in the future.

Two data collection methods were used: semi-structured interviews and exhibit analysis. The sample for the interviews was five museum professionals at different American Holocaust museums that use testimony in innovative ways. The sample for the exhibit analysis was three of these five museums that use new technologies to make testimony more immersive.

This study’s results suggest that new technologies make testimony more accessible and less strenuous on survivors, that museum professionals see testimony as an impactful and unique museum experience, and that interpretive planning and design impact how these stories are told in Holocaust museums. Since this study’s sample was purposive and sites were chosen for their use of interactive testimony features, these results may not be generalizable to all Holocaust museums.

This research, alongside past research on survivor testimony in Holocaust museums, showed the positive impact of survivor testimony on museum visitors. The analysis of the elements of immersive, technology-heavy testimony features within museums may serve to educate Holocaust museum professionals on either improving or implementing similar features in their museums. The findings on what Holocaust museum professionals understand to be the future of testimony have implications for anyone working in or with institutions that use firstperson stories as interpretive tools. Even if these sites work with younger populations that provide testimony, they will at some point be dealing with an aging population and therefore be concerned with how to preserve the unique experience that only testimony can provide.

The prevalence of second- and third-generation presentation programs among participants showed that this is a trend among Holocaust museums. The participants’ enthusiasm for these programs and attestations as to the effectiveness of these programs may encourage other Holocaust museums to implement similar programs, if they do not already do so. The interweaving of Holocaust survivors’ testimonies with their relatives’ own stories seems to be a powerful, personal way to connect with an audience, and a way to incorporate more easily digestible sections of a large, multi-hour testimony into a presentation. Findings concerning immersive technological testimony features have implications for how Holocaust museums select and implement new testimony features into their museums. If museums are looking for ways to make testimony more accessible and sustainable, all while putting less strain on survivors themselves, technology seems to be a great solution, although it also has pitfalls. New technologies such as New Dimensions in Testimony are very expensive to implement, and therefore are not always a feasible option.

Updated: Oct. 08, 2018