How We Create Sustainable Digital History Projects
An interview with Angela Jannelli and Franziska Mucha from the Historical Museum Frankfurt about the digital memory platform "Frankfurt and National Socialism.”
The joint project with the Jewish Museum Frankfurt and the Institute for the History of Frankfurt (ISG), funded under the Education Agenda NS-Injustice, has bundled more than 15,000 data records, processed them, and made them available via a website and an app.
In Frankfurt am Main, many civil society institutions and associations are working to address and make visible local examples of National Socialist injustice. Why are there so many stakeholders?
Jannelli: That is certainly typical of Frankfurt. We like to call ourselves the critical city because this is where the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School originated. Frankfurt was one of the centers of the ‘68 movement. These factors have certainly strengthened the will to reappraise and the willingness to critically examine history. In addition, the city is quite small. It is easy to create networks because you often cross paths and discover common themes. And there was something missing on the municipal level: We had no official remembrance projects. So civil society initiatives filled this gap.
What were the challenges in the project in terms of cooperation between institutions? Did new networks form during the project, and were there any surprises for you as a project curator?
Jannelli: Through our exhibition projects "Frankfurt and National Socialism,” our museum has already had contacts with the initiatives. For example, in the CityLab "Searching for traces today,” there was a "Gallery of Initiatives" where various stakeholders could present themselves. With the platform, in turn, we were able to make the work of the initiatives clearly visible again.
Still, on the weekend of the project launch, it was surprising to see the diversity and different perspectives of the initiatives involved. Attendees showed their content, discussed it again, tried out the app and gave us feedback, and also got to know each other.
Mucha: A digital project that was first located online has led to such encounters in real space. And in the process, some new project ideas have emerged. Students who shot videos of memorials in the school theater studio came together with the Stolperstein (stumbling stones) initiative and were able to combine their critical examination with the commitment of other volunteers.
In your project, you also drew on old sources and were able to re-define them with digital possibilities...
Mucha: According to the Digital Content Life Cycle, we make sure from the outset that the data is re-usable, enriched, well described, and accessible. And the data is bundled in one place. The three elements of our project (the Memory Platform, the Frankfurt History app and the city’s data pool, the METAhub framework) together form an excellent infrastructure. Data is not only processed but also stored in a central location. This gives smaller initiatives and associations the opportunity to make their content visible and available.
Jannelli: I think it’s important for us to initiate more such sustainable projects. It is easier for users if there is a central location, and better for data quality if the knowledge gained is bundled.
But it’s also complex because so many people and institutions are involved. To be sustainable is unfortunately not easier. It’s much more complicated because I have a different time frame and more stakeholders. This needs to be factored into projects, financed, and resourced.
When we talk about the digital space and the opportunities offered by social media, does that automatically mean that established institutions have to give up some of their sovereignty of interpretation?
Jannelli: For us, participation is a core value of the museum. We have been working according to the principle of shared expertise for a long time, and therefore do not feel that we are losing anything or have to share anything. On the contrary, we get much more. People have accumulated so much specialized knowledge out of interest over many years. No curator could have such in-depth knowledge. Why should we exclude these people? We might check: Is this valid knowledge, or is it fake news? But we do not give up sovereignty of interpretation. We certainly relinquish power. But then it also becomes more interesting, more well-founded and more versatile if you give others space and let them have their say.
Mucha: Museums need to consider which platforms they will use. This depends on resources. In principle, it makes sense to get involved and co-determine the culture of digitality. Otherwise, you lose relevance. And museums must develop an attitude towards anti-democratic movements online. They can set counter poles with their projects. They can help people position themselves. However, the way the Internet and especially social media work also means that institutions such as museums must take a stand and find appropriate communication. For many institutions, this certainly means a changeover.
What’s next for the Memory Platform?
Jannelli: The app will be expanded on the occasion of the anniversary of St. Paul’s Church to include the history of democracy.
Mucha: The platform will continue to grow and be the venue for a wide variety of historical topics. Then we have the idea that we can also build Open Educational Resources from the app, but also from other elements of the museum, i.e. that content can continue to be used specifically for learning groups. We will probably start a project there at the end of the year.
Jannelli: I am also concerned with preserving the many interviews with historical eyewitnesses that the Frankfurt initiatives and private individuals have recorded over the decades. There are countless audio and VHS tapes slumbering in the bookshelves and basements of many homes. The interviews are also a legacy of the survivors that we have to deal with as a society, but also as a memory institution. We need to embrace, nurture, and manage this legacy. In a forthcoming project, we want to take care of exactly that.
Have you already been contacted by other German municipalities or cities that are planning similar cooperative projects?
Mucha: I recently presented the project at a conference. And the discussion has shown that this idea of bundling data and making it available centrally is a concern for many stakeholders. It’s nice that we can set such an example with the project.
The interview was conducted by Leonore Martin and Sophie Ziegler.