Lost Memory: Archiving an Online Auschwitz Exhibit

Márton Németh

April 16 is the Memorial Day of Hungarian Victims of the Holocaust. The Blinken OSA Archivum opened its Auschwitz 1945–1989. Reconstruction exhibit in 2004 on this day; the exhibition was on display for two months, but was quickly followed by an open-access virtual version (only in Hungarian) the same year. However, this online exhibit became unavailable in 2021 for technical reasons. Since our next exhibition, opening this autumn, will be a continuation of the 2004 reconstruction (more detail at the bottom!), it became timely to restore the earlier online exhibition.

Forrás. [Source., or Boiling point] is a blog series by the Blinken OSA Archivum staff at the Hungarian news website 444.hu. Márton Németh, Digital Archivist at the Blinken OSA Archivum, raises awareness of the importance of digital heritage protection and web archiving. His post unveiling the recently restored Auschwitz 1945–1989. Reconstruction online exhibition originally appeared on osaarchivum.444.hu on April 16, on the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Day.

“Our exhibition aims to present the tragedy not from Hungarian history, but of the Hungarian historical consciousness.”
Opening page of the Auschwitz 1945–1989. Reconstruction online exhibit. Visit the (Hungarian) exhibition here!

Our digital world has, by now, permeated every segment of personal life and society. The culture mediated and stored on the Internet is much more volatile and ephemeral than the paper-based culture of the past. More and more people warn that if we fail to do something for the long-term preservation of at least part of our born digital culture, a new dark age may come; the events and processes of today, which take place primarily or exclusively on the World Wide Web, will be inaccessible and incomprehensible from the future. Meaningful descriptions of IT environments that can be revived and interpreted centuries from now are needed. It is necessary to solve not only the archiving of digital objects, but also the preservation of “X-ray images” of current hardware and software architectures. Already today, the instability of online resources is a growing problem in the case, for instance, of scientific references or their integration into education; the deterioration of hyperlinks and the changes in their content make the World Wide Web unreliable.

The living web is a present-time medium. It is not possible to archive it in its complete, ever-changing, and complex structure. What can we do to preserve the social, historical processes and cultural phenomena appearing on the Internet? We can provide the World Wide Web with a time dimension by capturing it in snapshots that we can archive. The Internet Archive has been operating since 1996, taking snapshots of various slices of the Web. Instead of saving entire websites, they focus on main pages and the more significant elements beyond. Today, about 40 web archives, some experimental, are maintained in more than 30 countries. These are brought together by the International Internet Preservation Coalition (IIPC), which also provides support in software development and joint projects.

Opening page of the Auschwitz 1945–1989. Reconstruction online exhibit in a browser today. Visit the (Hungarian) exhibition here!

Public collections have an inescapable responsibility. UNESCO already issued its Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage in 2003, which, in the context of the challenges discussed above, presents the responsibility of libraries, archives, and museums in preserving digital cultural heritage as a key element of national preservation policies, in addition to the creation of an appropriate legal environment. Web archives run by libraries preferably operate under legal deposit acts, with their collection primarily comprising “published” web content intended for the public. Libraries build curated thematic and event-based collections complemented by metadata; national libraries also “harvest” the national web space, i.e. they save it at regularly and automatically. Web collections can be included in catalogues and national bibliographies, and they can provide stable references to web sources. Due to copyright reasons, the archived material is only partly open-access, and made available partly on library workstations.

The tasks of museum web archiving include preserving web-based works of art and applied arts (and keeping them in a presentable state), archiving the internet presence of artists and other well-known people, building thematic collections, and supporting historical research. Archives preserve online content that is not intended for the general public, such as forums, personal blogs, photos, videos, social media pages and channels, closed groups, institutional and corporate internal websites and documents. Another important task of national archives is preserving the websites and other online records of government and state administration bodies.

At the Blinken OSA Archivum, we, too, have faced the challenges of web content obsolescence. Since the mid-1990s, the Archivum has been creating virtual exhibitions from its exhibitions organized in Budapest, making them available online. However, as we can only rely on current software and hardware architecture, the web pages often become technically obsolete, even completely unreadable, locking away their valuable content. Keeping original content accessible is a twofold task. On the one hand, old infrastructures and the software running on them must be brought back to life in accordance with the technical standards of their time, using, however, up-to-date secure hardware and software tools—this is the emulation of the original environment, which also preserves the way the content was presented. On the other, these virtual exhibitions, beyond emulation, also need to be embedded in today’s modern IT environment, so that they can be easily accessed on new devices equipped, for example, with high-res touchscreens.

“In the 56 days following May 15, 1944, 437,000 Jews were deported from rural Hungary. About 430,000 were taken to Auschwitz. The last transport arrived at Auschwitz on July 11. Of the 1,1 million Jews brought to Auschwitz, 40% was Hungarian. In addition to Jews, Hungarian Roma were also deported and murdered in Auschwitz.
Every tenth victim of the Holocaust, and every third victim of Auschwitz were Hungarians.”

Excerpt from the Auschwitz 1945–1989. Reconstruction online exhibit. Visit the (Hungarian) exhibition here!

At the turn of the 1990s and 2000s, it was the Flash format that mostly guaranteed the publication of uniform media content independent of browser type; displaying multimedia elements and creative media had no serious alternative at that time. Since then, however, the multimedia world has made much progress, and platform-independent, easier-to-use formats have appeared. Flash was slowly abandoned by its owners (the Adobe company), and eventually its use became obsolete for technological and privacy reasons. Technologically, because platforms that are easier to embed and have smaller file sizes and hardware/software requirements have appeared. And from the point of view of privacy, because in the meantime (partly due to lack of development) more and more security vulnerabilities were discovered in the Flash Player. The ability to play Flash content was removed first from the Apple ecosystem, and then Adobe rolled it out of the Windows world. As a result, even though websites produced with Flash are in place, basic desktop browsers and mobile apps cannot open them on their own, making content practically inaccessible.

However, a software called Ruffle can be applied to safely display content. Although this program does not support all versions of Flash, fortunately the online exhibits of the Archivum were created with compatible versions. Of course, numerous multimedia elements no longer meet today’s needs in terms of resolution and appearance: they must be made available in a new form without altering their content. As a first step, we have restored our 2004 exhibition Auschwitz 1945–1989. Reconstruction by emulating its original Flash environment. Thus, the virtual exhibition is now available once again in its 2004 look, with a user experience that may feel unusual, somewhat clumsy today, but is, as far as media archaeologyl is concerned, authentic. At the same time, the redesign and modernization of the interface (including responsive design) has begun: from September, the virtual exhibition will be available both in the original and an updated version.

Authentic user experience: Flash imitation of an archival container in a browser today. Visit the (Hungarian) exhibition here!

The peculiarity of the situation is that the exhibition that we restored was, too, a reconstruction of previous exhibitions. The aim of the 2004 exhibit, available again from today, is to “reconstruct the first two official Hungarian Auschwitz exhibits, which opened on site during the time of Communist rule in 1965 and 1980, respectively. The two exhibits, in line with the official historiography, retroactively replaced the Jewish inmates with communist anti-fascist resistors in the camps; the Jews had been killed in Auschwitz, and their traces were lost subsequently.” The reconstruction of the online version of the 2004 exhibition took place in preparation for the Archivum’s upcoming exhibition. Opening this autumn, the exhibit Commissioned Memory: Hungarian Exhibitions in Auschwitz, 1960/1965 (curated by Daniel Veri) will present the monumental fine art collection commissioned for the 1965 exhibition, as well as the art pieces of an even earlier exhibition from 1960, which was not yet known back in 2004. These materials have been completely forgotten by now, and have not yet become part of the history of Hungarian art or Holocaust remembrance.

The exhibition Commissioned Memory: Hungarian Exhibitions in Auschwitz, 1960/1965 will be on view from September 14 to December 3, 2023, at the Blinken OSA Archivum’s Galeria Centralis; the related volume will be published by CEU Press in 2024.

Enterior of the Auschwitz 1945–1989. Reconstruction exhibit in 2004 at the Archivum’s Galeria Centralis (on Nádor Street, at the time). Visit the (Hungarian) exhibition here!