Department of History

Understanding and Improving Public Engagement with Holocaust Photography

Project summary

The project examines visitor engagement with an interactive, multimodal exhibition that explores the role of photography in mediating the public understanding of the Holocaust.

It builds on the success of the AHRC funded project 'Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism' (2018-21), which explored how photography, which was widely used in Nazi propaganda, has distorted the ways we perceive victims of the Holocaust today. The project also unearthed how people persecuted by the Nazi regime deployed photography to record counter-narratives, thus creating a rich visual resource, which is, however, largely unknown to modern audiences.

These insights have informed a national touring exhibition 'The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust', which will allow us to test new methods for exhibiting these sources. This Follow-on Funding project is designed to enhance the significant social and cultural impacts of the project by capitalising on the unforeseen yet invaluable opportunity provided by the exhibition's tour: to observe and evaluate audience responses, thus generating evidence of the effectiveness of our various interventions in reaching contemporary audiences.

The aim is to inform future curatorial, pedagogical and policy practices around the use of photography in Holocaust memorialisation and learning. The project takes place against a backdrop of rising racially-motivated hatecrimes, Anti-Semitism, and a decline in public knowledge about the Holocaust. This political context means that gathering information regarding public understanding of these issues is both timely and urgent.

Our hypothesis is that public understanding is currently compromised by a one-sided reliance on perpetrator-made images when imagining the Holocaust today. While these images engage audiences emotionally, they also perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This follow-on funding allows us to ascertain whether different curatorial interventions can help audiences to view photographs of the Holocaust more critically.

In our exhibition, visitors enter an immersive Mixed Reality experience which allows them to explore a classical perpetrator image of the Holocaust, sharpening their awareness of the perspective, framing and selection at work in the image. They then encounter alternative images produced by victims of Nazi persecution, which are very rarely seen in exhibitions or online. Interactive display screens invite visitors to record their own reflections and to apply lessons learnt from the exhibition to photographs of violence, atrocities and mass migration in the world today.

A purpose-made artistic video installation provides the opportunity for us to explore the effectiveness of artistic interventions in supporting historical and technological displays. This project comprises detailed visitor observation, questionnaires and interviews in all five venues hosting the exhibition: the Imperial War Museum North (Manchester); the Bradford Peace Museum; the National Memorial Arboretum (Staffordshire); the Djanogly Art Gallery (Nottingham), and one London venue tbc.

Our project is ground-breaking in combining established qualitative methods of museum audience research with innovations from digital humanities approaches. This includes technological observation through gaze, eye and movement tracking in our Mixed Reality headsets, and digitally recording choices visitors make about photographs on interactive touch screens.

The resulting evidence will demonstrate the effects of our interventions on different demographics, empowering museums to make optimal use of our research for future displays. Our testing the effectiveness of digital interventions will also inform museums about the potential of new technologies to engage visitors with other difficult subjects in the future, and to minimise harmful side-effects when displaying problematic images.

Media coverage and responses

'The Eye as Witness' received national and international coverage in the media through print, online and broadcast channels reaching an audience of 148.1 million in six countries. 

In print and online

The Guardian - 12 January 2020

BBC News Online - 13 January 2020

The Telegraph - 23 January 2020

ITV Central News - 24 January 2020

Jewish News - 24 January 2020



Radio 4 

'Eye as Witness' was featured on two Radio 4 broadcasts: 'Front Row' on 24 January and 'Sunday' on 26 January 2020.


The Eye as Witness: Recording the Holocaust (exhibition website) 

Photography as Political Practice in National Socialism



Project team

This is an interdisciplinary project bringing together experts in their respective fields:

Maiken Umbach Elizabeth Harvey Experts on the relationship between subjectivity and ideology among the different groups living under the NS regime

Gary Mills Specialist in Holocaust education in schools

Steve Benford Specialist in supporting museums to use digital technologies to engage visitors with difficult ethical issues

Claudia Reese Project consultant, Senior Researcher, The National Holocaust Centre and Museum

Jonathan Stafford Postdoctoral researcher, working on audience responses to photographs of National Socialism and the Holocaust

Tanya Sakhnovich Honorary researcher, Rabbi and project advisor

Sylvia Necker Honorary researcher, expert in private Jewish photography



Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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