Mixing Digital and Physical: The Holocaust Museum’s Handwritten Pledge Wall

05.26.09   By Nina Simon

On a recent trip to DC, an old friend showed me around a new exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), From Memory to Action: Meeting the Challenge of Genocide. It’s a small space that features stories of recent and current genocides and encourages visitors to “take action” via an interactive pledge wall. I’ve seen several museums experimenting with inviting visitors to take action, make promises, and join communities of intentionality (here’s a post with examples from 2007), and the USHMM effort is particularly compelling for some specific design choices made in the development of the pledge wall.

The USHMM pledge wall is notable for its blending of digital and analog technologies. Rather than requiring visitors to key in their pledges via a keyboard, visitors scrawl their promises on special digital paper with pens. The paper is perforated with one section for the promise, which visitors keep, and another section for a signature, which visitors leave at the museum. Once signed, visitors drop the signed paper stubs into clear plexiglass cases that are beautifully lit (see image). The paper “remembers” the location of pen marks on the pledge section, so visitors’ handwritten promises are quickly and magically projected on a digital projection wall in front of the pledge kiosks. The digital projection wall displays a dynamic show of recent pledges as well as statistics on how many pledges have been made to date, and the plexi cases provide a powerful physical representation of all the names and promises that have been made. This case full of real people’s handwritten signatures is reminscient of the haunting pile of Holocaust prisoners’ shoes in the permanent exhibition, providing a hopeful complement to that devastating set of artifacts.

Why require visitors to hand-write their pledges rather than keying them in on a keyboard? It certainly would have been easier for the museum to digitize and project visitors’ entries if they were typed in, and it wouldn’t have wasted so much (expensive, digital) paper. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful.

How do you approach a hard question like, “What will you do to meet the challenge of genocide today?” You can’t just jot off a witty remark or quick reply. Requiring visitors to sit and think and then hand write their response forces them to slow down. Signing a pledge in your own handwriting ritualizes the experience. Adding your slip of paper to a physical, growing, highly visible archive makes you part of a larger community. I watched several visitors as they went through this process, which ends with your card being reproduced digitally, letter by letter, on the large projection wall in front of the kiosks. People were captivated by the slow animation of their pledges being added to the wall, and that slowness sealed a deliberate interaction.

I recently visited the Power of Children exhibition at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which also features a pledge activity at a large installation called the Tree of Promise. In that case, there are two options available – a digital contribution system, in which you type your promise into a computer and watch it digitally “float” onto a screen in a giant artificial tree, and a purely analog system, where you write your promise on leaf-shaped post-it notes. The post-it notes were clearly more popular with the visitors I observed. Part of that popularity stems from the immediacy and accessibility of the activity. But I think it also relates to the personal way we connect to the words we write by hand, which are different from those we type. The digital world doesn’t seem “real” in the same way that pen and paper does, and in the context of a physical, built environment like an exhibit, a post-it can often feel more appropriate than a computer screen.

Which brings us back to USHMM. Their pledge wall bridges the best of both worlds, inviting a personal, physical ritualization of your promise mixed with dynamic digital representation and recombination. It’s a powerful example of the exciting possibilities that emerge when we really understand as designers which technologies are best for different visitor experiences.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. The USHMM pledge cards are complicated. The cards don’t just allow you to make pledges; they also allow you to save multimedia stories on a touch table in another part of the exhibit. While I saw many visitors intuitively and successfully using the cards to make pledges, the table interaction was confusing. Again, the physical reinforcement at the pledge kiosks–seeing the aggregated stubs of signature cards in the plexi cases–helped visitors understand what to do. The table had no comparable physical analog to help people understand how to connect their cards to the multimedia content.

Visitors can take their cards home and review their pledges (and see others’ pledges) on the Take Action website, where you can also make pledges directly via the internet. The system elegantly combines both onsite and online pledges in the digitial display on exhibit and on the web. This makes for a nice combination of printed and handwritten pledges, pledges local to DC and written in foreign languages as well. Because this exhibit is new, the staff don’t yet have data on how many people choose to review their content at home. The USHMM team is aware of the confusions and are working to make the interactivity more intuitive for visitors.

On a conceptual level, I’m curious about what kinds of responses people might have to a question as complex and heady as “What will you do to meet the challenge of genocide today?” Is this really a question that visitors can answer? The exhibit doesn’t provide answers–it mostly provides devastating stories about the challenges. Lots of people made pledges to talk to friends and family about the content, read the newspaper, learn more, or encourage others to visit the exhibit. Some offered specifics, like voting for candidates who advocate taking action on worldwide genocide or pushing their synangogues to provide support for genocide victims. Some responses were more reflective, like “I will never forget.” While I am skeptical about these more aphoristic responses, I respect the fact that different people process information differently. And I do believe that the slow, ritualized, personal design of the USHMM pledge wall contributes to higher effectiveness–whatever your response–than more slapdash talkback opportunities.

The handwritten pledge is an intelligent starting point for creating merged digital/analog participatory experiences. What physical rituals do you find useful when you are sharing a story or expressing an idea? Which physical actions do you wish you could merge with digital story-sharing to create more powerful content experiences?

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