The audiovisual installation “Here: Bergen-Belsen, Space of Memory” was opened on October 28, 2012 at the Anne-Frank-Platz, the entrance square of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial. It was part of the activities marking the 60th anniversary of the Memorial’s inauguration on November 30, 1952. Placed on the square in what we soon would call ‘the box’, the installation served as an introduction to the memorial grounds. Although thought as a temporal installation, its recognition and appreciation with the visitors has been so wide that the video loop “Here: Bergen-Belsen, Space of Memory” is still shown, now inside the memorial’s documentation center, and will be updated to become a permanent, interactive introduction to the memorial site.
Inside the space, visitors are offered an immersive introduction to the memorial’s main theme of commemoration, through the words of surviving prisoners, images from then and now, and a 3D reconstruction of the former concentration camp. The aim is to make the visitor aware of her/his position in-between past and present, and one’s own responsibility to commemorate as result of this perspective.
‘The box installation’, as we informally called it, was the first manifestation of what subsequently would be developed into the framework concept and tablet application as further introduced by this website. Though not yet interactive in 2012, the ‘box’ installation did integrate key framework elements like the 3D reconstruction of the historical site as well as its narrative interaction with archive material and interviews. It also gave both developing partners, the SPECS research group and the Bergen-Belsen Memorial foundation, the first opportunity to explicitly address the multiple, different expertises and workflows that need come together in such a project, like historical and archeological research, 3D animation, media production, and user experience design.
The twelve-minute video loop shows visitors what once was, and binds it to the present. First, former prisoners share their impressions of the site the first time they came back, often decades later, which not only was an emotional event but often also one of strange surprise, since the landscape has since changed into a beautiful nature park, seemingly void of its horrid past. The narrative then goes back in time, introducing a brief history of the camp, its use, prisoners and victims. A flight through a 3D reconstruction of the camp, accompanied by the historical audio of Richard Dimbleby describing his impressions of the camp at liberation in April, 1945 for BBC radio, forms the central pivot of the installation. We descend from an overview and enter through the main entrance, following the route that most prisoners followed to the gate deeper inside the camp. A number of brief stops reveal historical photographs and brief descriptions on the installation’s sidewall screens along the way through the camp. Afterwards, a number of impressions of recent, international visitors bring us back to the present state, binding it to its role on the memorial’s entrance (and exit) square.
For many visitors, including the children of former prisoners, the three-dimensional view of the reconstructed camp was the first time they were offered a clear, integrated view of the entire historical site, in a perspective that connected it to the ’empty’ landscape of the present, outside the ‘box’. Although presented in a modest, desaturated style that deliberately refrained from providing realistic details (which to a large extend are simply unknown from current research), the model organization of reconstructed huts, towers, fences and other landscape items provides visitors with a spatial framework to relate their impressions to, connecting size, scale, distance, and complexity to the memories of what had happened as expressed by documents and interviews with survivors.
A noteworthy, unexpected effect was observed when the installation was visited by surviving former prisoners, often with their families. To some, the installation did not only offer them a framework to explain their personal memories to their peers, but its moving camera perspective also sometimes called memories that had been thought forgotten. Of course, for some this spontaneous effect triggered many emotions and was not always desired. In all cases, people were fully respected and could leave the public installation at any time. From these observations came the idea to conduct dedicated, voluntary interviews with survivors, applying the spatial reconstruction and navigation through it as a specific tool to help record important memories of the camp’s history, while some of its survivors are still alive. A few of these interviews have been conducted in dedicated sessions outside of the public installation.
The installation was opened together with the sound installation “There, Echoes of Memory” located in the passageway between the memorial’s document center and the entrance to the former camp site. Both installations were opened on October 28, 2012 for the duration of the memorial’s 60 year commemoration activities. Both installations remained in function for much longer than planned, the ‘box’ installation remaining open until spring 2014. As of writing, it is shown in the seminar room inside the memorial’s exposition building, especially for group visits. We are working in a much expanded, interactive version for this room (a first version has been running for 6 months in London’s Wiener Library), while there are also plans to install a similar, now permanent site introduction at the entrance square.