Case Study on Co-Creation and Crowd Sourcing: History Unfolded

Case Study on Co-Creation and Crowd Sourcing: History Unfolded
See the site!

Project Description 

History Unfolded is a project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, DC that focuses on answering the question: “what did American newspapers report about Nazi persecution during the 1930s and 1940s?” (About This Project).  To find answers, the USHMM utilizes crowd sourced content derived from archived newspapers.  Citizen historians perform the role of content developers and are cultivated from the participating public through a website.  Armed with straightforward instructions they collect primary source content that is submitted to USHMM via a website portal.  The data will, in turn, inform the exhibition development process of a new exhibit that is planned to open in 2018 featuring Americans and the Holocaust (About This Project).

Using a website and linked social media pages, History Unfolded invites the interested participants to become citizen historians by introducing 32 specific topics on Holocaust-era events, all of which are available for research.  Primary research on the topic follows, using newspaper archives to find evidence of reporting in the United States. Tools are provided to help participants learn how to locate archived newspapers, conduct primary research, and download articles, cartoons and more.  As content is located and submitted, USHMM staff review it for accuracy and when approved, upload it to a growing website data bank for the public.

Critical Assessment

History Unfolded  has effectively and successfully gathered content on all 32 featured topics and engaged participants in the United States from all 50 states, amassing a sizable body of content. “As of September 30, 2017, 1,799 participants from across the country had submitted more than 12,200 articles from their local newspapers. The articles were published in newspapers located in all 50 states and the District of Columbia…” (About This Project).

Becoming a citizen historian is relatively easy, offers a greater sense of the world around us and, offers a robust interaction with the USHMM.  I became a citizen historian, locating research and submitting an article around the topic: Hitler announces Nuremberg Race Laws, September 15, 1935. This process of adding research to crowd sourced content can make one feel they are part of an expanded community; a community that is around the USHMM.  Some like Karlene Hanko might say this is success. She wrote in What Makes a Great Museum Experience and How Technology Can Help: “the museum is less about filling in the gaps in their current understanding and more about having their sense of the world reshaped and expanded” (Hanko).  Kathleen McClean in Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World describes true interaction as “an exchange of some sort, a reciprocity that creates new knowledge and insights” which in turn, develops “a conversation… which can help museums create more meaningful relationships with their visitors” (McClean, 70). History Unfolded has created true interaction as it engenders new knowledge and insights for the citizen historians.

The USHMM is seemingly making excellent strides to crowd source content and in turn allow true participation in exhibition development.  It will remain interesting to see how this content will shape the final exhibition when it opens in 2018.  Will this exhibition—one that surely engaged its public in the planning process—know its public so well that it does a better job engaging the visiting public? Daniel Spock in “Museum Authority Up for Grabs” suggests it might, when he said: “To engage the public is to know the public” (Spock, 8).

History Unfolded is creating relevance for participants through numerous intersections: topical, geographical, cultural and more.  Nina Simon, in The Art of Relevance, shares: “Relevance is a key that unlocks meaning.  It opens doors to experiences that matter to us, surprise us, and bring value into our lives (Simon, 25).  Bronx High School of Science student Audrey Lang shares on the website the impact the project had on her when she said “part of why this was interesting to me is I am Jewish…. and, once I was doing research myself on questions, I started asking my grandparents those questions and it was really interesting what I was able to find out and had never really thought to ask before” (Starting Conversations).

Engagement in this project is limited to a participant public who has the means and access to conduct primary research.  This suggests that those who are doing this research represent an advantaged segment of the public and not the general public.   Access to online newspaper archives can cost a fee, is generally harder to access online for the general public (rather than a college or public school student) or, requires transportation to nearby libraries. This may create a bias in who participates in the study.

Participation requires a working understanding of the Holocaust.  Novices or younger people may not have the perspective to fully appreciate the 32 topics.  Similarly, those who participate through a class where involvement is required may be researching content that is not truly reflective of personal interest or relevance and instead, directed to fit curriculum.  USHMM should cautiously make assumptions when making inferences about what people seek for content relative to what topics were researched.

Opportunities for Improved Engagement and Relevancy 

Spock states, “if you invite people to really participate in the making of a museum, the process must change the museum” (Spock, 6). Given this, History Unfolded may wisely choose to allow all content accepted by USHMM to not only exist in the website data bank but to also become clearly integrated within the new exhibition.  This will showcase the impact which participating people had upon the museum’s end product and in turn, promote the development of a narrative that the USHMM’s public are shapers of the products (or exhibitions).

On a broader note, History Unfolded can expand its relevancy by connecting historic events and media reporting through World War II (WWII) to that of today.  The contemporary pubic is bombarded by television reporting, newspapers, and social media that includes Twitter, Facebook and more.  How does media shape our thinking about events? How does reporting in WWII share similarities or differences with reporting on issues today? From modern day propaganda to our President using Twitter to share content unfiltered content, Facebook to newspaper reporting, there are many opportunities for USHMM to explore this untapped area of relevance and meaning-making between the 32 holocaust-era events and today. Creating more relevancy through this lens of a t”hen-now perspective” the USHMM may connect to an even broader audience.


History Unfolded is an innovative project doing many things exceptionally well around audience engagement, relevancy, interaction and more.  While there are areas of concern such as the real issue that citizen historians will represent a advantaged population and not a general population and, that it could broaden its framework for creating relevancy through then-now parallels in media coverage, it is a project of note.  For those museums looking for engagement, relevancy and community connections, this project is exemplifying best practices on many levels.

Works Cited

“About This Project.” History Unfolded, US Newspapers and The Holocaust, Accessed 25 September 2017.

“Events.” History Unfolded, US Newspapers and The Holocaust, Accessed 25 September 2017.

Hanko, Karlene, et al. What Makes a Great Museum Experience and How Can Technology Help? Slover Linett/ The Field Museum.  2014.

McLean, Kathleen. “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?”  Letting Go? Sharing Historical   Authority in a User-Generated World. Ed. Bill Adair. Bill Adair Paperback. 2011. 70-81.

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Museum 2.0. 2016.

Spock, Daniel. “Museum Authority up for Grabs.” Exhibitionist. Fall, 2009.  6-10.

“Starting Conversations.” History Unfolded, US Newspapers and The Holocaust,  Accessed 25 September 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s