Ethical issues emerge when Holocaust stories are digitalised

Digitalisation is sweeping across Europe. The political ambitions are high, and accessibility and democratisation are keywords. But when it's time to digitalise the cultural heritage of Sweden, ethical issues emerge, especially when it comes to materials considered sensitive, such as stories told by Holocaust survivors.

Charlotte Perhammar

The Jewish Memories collection at Nordiska museet in Stockholm is the largest of its kind in Sweden. Among other things it includes 400 stories from the Holocaust.

But the collection is difficult to access, because it is considered vulnerable.

“It contains 400 stories that don’t get heard”, says Malin Thor Tureby.

Malin Thor Tureby is professor in history at both Linköping University and Malmö University. Her research interests include Jewish history, oral history and cultural heritage. She is currently working at Malmo University and heads the Swedish section of DigiCONFLICT, a research consortium that studies how digital cultural heritage is created and used in Poland, Israel and Sweden.

Professor Thor Tureby’s latest study investigates matters such as the classification of Jewish Memories as vulnerable, and the consequences of this when the material is digitised – i.e. converted from analogue to digital form. In the study, she and Kristin Wagrell from Malmö University show that ethics legislation and the Nordiska Museet’s guidelines for protecting the collection are not compatible with the political ambition of digitalisation.

“There are high hopes for how digitalisation will benefit accessibility and democratisation, but now that the process is under way in Sweden, it’s starting to run into some difficulties”, says Prof Thor Tureby.

These concern practical matters such as economy and expertise, but also ethical problems such as confidentiality and anonymisation.

A vulnerable collection

The Jewish Memories collection is anonymised and confidential. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the museum has not obtained informed consent detailing how the stories may be used, and secondly, the collection is considered vulnerable.

This vulnerability originates in the Swedish ethics legislation, which is aimed at protecting certain groups such as religious and ethnic minorities, and which regulates what sort of information that may be registered. But for Jewish Memories, there is also the matter of public discourse. The collection was created in the 1990s in order to counter antisemitism and racism. Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar

“We can see that the museum wants to protect the contributors from extreme-right and Holocaust-denier groups. This shows consideration, but there is also an ethical problem in making the stories unavailable”, says Prof Thor Tureby.

She and her colleagues have not seen a similar logic, with regard to vulnerability, in any other country. In fact, in Europe, North America and Israel, the opposite has been the case. There, materials have been digitised, and names and stories have been made visible.

“The logic there is that you want to give the people who survived and the people who were murdered their human dignity back, give back what the Nazis took away from them.”

Often it’s the survivors and their families who have taken the initiative to having the stories told. Also in the case of Jewish Memories, Malin Thor Tureby sees that those involved want the stories to live on.

Examples from other countries show that the material can be digitised. But because the participants of Jewish Memories have not given their informed consent, the collection cannot be digitised in its current form.

Invite survivors and their families to contribute to the collection

However there is a solution. Malin Thor Tureby and her colleague Kristin Wagrell argue that the digitisation might be used as a way to transform the collection. This can be done by inviting survivors and their families to contribute to the collection again – this time with informed consent.

“There must be more collaboration between the people who gather the material and the people who contribute with their stories. Many of the survivors are no longer with us, but by inviting their families we can create a collection and make it available in the way that they wish.”

But more research is needed. If a way is found to digitise Jewish Memories, it can be relevant for other materials that are considered vulnerable, such as other collections from and about other ethnic minorities.

“Because what will happen to our cultural heritage and our democracy if some stories cannot or may not be heard?”, asks Malin Thor Tureby.

The article 

"Digitization, Vulnerability and Holocaust collections”, Malin Thor Tureby and Kristin Wagrell, ”Cultural Heritage and Technology”, Santander.

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