Artifacts Display and the Art of Storytelling

Amal Shafek


The online display of Yad Vashem’s Artifacts Collection adapts the storytelling approach. The aesthetics of the main webpage of the Artifacts Collection are noticeably different from the aesthetics of the Museum’s main webpage[i]. In contrast to the clean-cut white background of the main webpage, the light brown background of the Artifacts Collection webpage represents the color and texture of old papers, which emphasizes the authenticity of the objects displayed[ii]. This sentimental design approach would not normally be the choice of most scholarly accredited web archives. For example, the archive of the Artifacts Collection of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has a clear white background. The collection is organized by themes, and informative in a straightforward manner, each icon is linked to a short paragraph with basic historical information and at the bottom of the page, there are several links to related articles and so on[iii].

As historians, we probably appreciate the practical representation of information that is devoted from any sentimental aesthetics. However, against my initial expectations, I find the representation of the Yad Vashem’s Artifacts Collection much more effective in conveying the museum’s message.  As stated in the mission statement, the museum is interested in preserving the memory and the stories of those who perished in the Holocaust. The collection does not claim to be comprehensive, in fact it is deliberately selective (Good point).  The Holocaust is an incomprehensible event, therefore, the Yad Vashem webpage makes it clear that what it offers is only a glimpse of the objects and of the stories they represents. (It would be interesting to explore this further. Yad Vashem as an institution at least at some point had ascribed a particular meaning and interpretation to the events). That is not to say that the collection is not valuable as a research tool, it is undoubtedly valuable, but more importantly, it is unique in its display and language. For example, the naming of the various links of the website are: “Life in the Ghettos” and “Life in the Camps.” Indeed, the collection gives a unique perspective of the “lives” of the victims and the survivors and not merely the stories of their death and starvation.

The language used to describe the Yad Vashem’s Artifacts collection is again, not the conventional language of the professional or academic historical literature. For example, the introduction to the Featured Artifacts describes the content as “fascinating personal stories” and the title of the first object on display is the “Mystery of the Cigarette Box.” However, for scholars of material culture, the personalization of the objects and their stories is not necessarily a disadvantage. After all, the way humans attach to objects varies and the meaning these objects can covey is inherently personal. For instance, the factual information of the “Tehran Children[iv]” story is available at the USHMM. However, the story of the witness Stella and her emotional connection with her teddy bear, Mishu[v], can reveal a much more detailed narrative about the lives of the Tehran Children and their long journey to Palestine.






[iv] The “Tehran Children” is the name used to refer to a group of Polish Jewish children, who escaped from Poland and were transferred to the Soviet Union, and later to Palestine in 1943.