The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, founded in 1925, has been dedicated to the preservation and study of the history and culture of East European Jewry for over 95 years. The YIVO Bruce and Francesca Cernia Slovin Online Museum is YIVO’s newest online experience. This free resource utilizes the stories and lives of everyday people as a vehicle to tell the larger history of Eastern European Jewry and to share the treasures of the YIVO archive of over 23 million artifacts and a library of 400 000 volumes – including rare or unique artifacts, documents, photographs, and books – with a broader audience.
The central issue that guided the development of the YIVO online museum was understanding what defines a standalone online museum. We are used to seeing the digital presence of museums as an extension of a physical institution, usually focused on exploring existing on-site collections. But when a museum exists only online, as is the case of the YIVO Cernia Slovin Online Museum, do the same principles apply? This led to rethinking the concept of an online museum. How can the behavior of users in digital environments be leveraged to make digital exhibitions more engaging? What can only be done effectively online? The answers to these questions provided the framework of the YIVO Cernia Slovin Online Museum. Taking advantage of a medium that is ideal for storytelling and a multiplicity of interactive experiences, the exhibitions of the online museum are narratives based on the life of a person told through a combination of different archival objects, written text, animations, videos, interactive 3D environments, games, and more. These narratives contextualize the artifacts from the archives and show the importance of conservation and archival work. Personal stories are the thread that connects different topics of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
All stories are broken into chapters, and each chapter focuses on a specific topic – a series of experiences that visitors can undergo as a whole or individually. The museum was launched with our first exhibition – Beba Epstein: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Girl. The inaugural exhibition presents the life of Beba Epstein, a young girl who grew up in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania), survived the horrors of the Holocaust, and immigrated to the United States after the war. The exhibition utilizes Beba’s story along with artifacts drawn from the YIVO archives and library to present aspects of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during the Interwar period, the destruction of the Holocaust, and the trials of refugee immigration.
The exhibition has four different levels of information:
Level 1: Beba’s story – the surface level information/main content of each chapter
Level 2: Content boxes – additional context boxes are available throughout the exhibition that provide the historical context of the time and help to set Beba’s story within the broader historical moment.
Level 3: Artifacts – each chapter has a selection of artifacts (documents, videos, photographs, objects, scholar texts) that supplement Beba’s story and provide different examples and broader historical context of the topic being addressed
Level 4: YIVO Resources – throughout the exhibition we link to other YIVO resources including the YIVO Encyclopedia, online classes, and recordings of lectures appear throughout the chapters, allowing visitors to learn about an issue in greater depth and to engage with other YIVO resources
It is important to note that the main worry was that the interactive experiences had to be aligned with the content being displayed. It was important for us to design interactive experiences that are at service to the content by delivering it more effectively rather than hindering it. An example of creating experiences driven by archival content is the exhibition chapter on immigration after the war. It was evident from the documents we found in the YIVO archive on Beba’s immigration that the process of immigrating to the United States as a refugee in 1946 was a very difficult and trying experience. We wanted to emulate this. Therefore, we created a detective game around Beba’ immigration story and archival documents that mimics the immigration process in which a visitor must get a series of questions correct to move on (and if not, they would be stuck and need to try again, just like an actual attempt at immigrating). And, as the immigration process to the United States has only become tougher over time, we also explain what would likely happen if Beba tried to immigrate to the U.S. as a war refugee in 2020, and the most probable answer would be that she would not make it. We not only created an experience that effectively explains archival documents – we also connected it to current issues.