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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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There’s an app for visiting the Holocaust museum

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A visitor uses a mobile app during a visit to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.

MONTREAL — History is converging with modern technology to raise awareness of the Holocaust, especially among younger people.

The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) has launched a mobile application for the iPad and Android tablets that’s designed to enhance visitors’ experience of the museum.

The app can also be used as preparation for a visit or as a virtual tour.

Three different options are available to download at no cost.

A general tour is numerically co-ordinated to each display in the exhibition, which commemorates and educates about the Holocaust largely through the personal stories of survivors, most of whom live or lived in Montreal.

Visitors can follow sequentially or zero in on areas that interest them. A map of the museum’s two levels is provided, and the user can keep a record of what he or she has seen already by typing in the numerical code.

They can consult the app to get more information on each item displayed, more background and photos on an individual, including video of them speaking. Audio commentary is provided throughout.

Many of the items are personal belongings donated by survivors or their families, about which there is much more to tell than can be included in the texts accompanying them, said MHMC museum and collection co-ordinator Julie Guinard.

“The supplemental information makes these people more three-dimensional,” she said. “Objects alone may not mean much, but when a connection is made to a real person they do.”

The app is also a practical tool. The pages of a book on view can be flipped through, for instance, by swiping the tablet screen.

Similarly, the secrets contained in “The Heart from Auschwitz,” which has proven to be one of the most effective teaching tools especially among younger children, are revealed through the app.

Donated by survivor Fania Fainer, this little cloth-covered folded cardboard heart was a birthday gift to her by fellow female inmates at the death camp. Made from scraps, the heart’s folds conceal the wishes the young women wrote.

With the app, the heart can be unfolded and the inscriptions within translated from the Polish, Russian and other languages with a touch to the tablet screen.

The museum can only display a fraction of the MHMC’s holdings, which has now reached more than 10,000 items, including documents. Most of that is conserved in off-site, climate-controlled storage, Guinard said.

The other tour options offered are more specialized, focusing on the experience of children and teens, Jewish as well as Roma, Polish and German, and the theme of “Deconstructing Genocide.”

The latter is a guide to understanding how the Holocaust and other mass atrocities can take place.

“They do not happen overnight,” said Guinard. “It is a process that begins with propaganda, with the use of prejudice and the polarizing of minorities.”

The MHMC’s goal is to sensitize the public to all forms of hate and racism, and the peril of remaining indifferent in the face of them.

The children and teens tour resonates with the thousands of students that pass through the museum’s doors annually, Guinard said. They get a sense of what life was like for Jews their age before and during the war, as well as after immigrating to Canada.

Sometimes their only shred of normalcy was hanging on to a beloved possession, such as the doll that’s on exhibit in the museum. The app tells a lot more about the toy than the text that accompanies its display.

There are full English and French versions of the app, whose development was funded by the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications.

For those who don’t have their own device, the MHMC loans mini iPads free of charge to visitors.

“So far, it has been really well received,” said Guinard of the app, which was officially launched in the fall.

“Teachers at a conference we held got really into it. Some said they would use it in the classroom for preparing students before they came here.”

The MHMC thought the app would appeal mostly to 18-35-year-olds, but Guinard said all ages seem to have taken to the technology with ease.

The museum continues to expand its use of computer technology. Interactive, touch-screen maps and timelines are slated to be added over the next few weeks.

“Instead of a static map, visitors will be able to scroll through the chronology, from the time a ghetto was established to its liquidation, for example, or to follow the progress and retreat of the Allies and Nazis across Europe.”

Guinard stressed that even though the museum’s holdings are already vast, it continues to encourage survivors or their descendants to donate objects and record their testimonies.

Even the most mundane items may help transmit to people today the history of the Holocaust as experienced by real people living in their city, she said.

Although they may not be displayed – in reality or the virtual world – they are made available to researchers and sometimes loaned to other museums in Canada, Guinard added.

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