The Holocaust, propaganda, and fake news explored with virtual reality

Visitors at the launch of the National Holocaust Centre's Eye as Witness exhibition at the South Ham

The National Holocaust Centre's The Eye as Witness exhibition is a travelling interactive display previously seen at the South Hampstead Synagogue Centre - Credit: David Parry

Donning Virtual Reality goggles, visitors walk into a photograph taken in the Warsaw Ghetto to see the photographer in action – and what was left out of the frame.

It's part of an interactive exhibition which immerses viewers in photographs and testimony about the Holocaust at the Jewish Museum. The Eye As Witness explores the political and moral motives for recording the Holocaust – to encourage critical thinking on racism and fake news today.

The Warsaw photo was produced by the Nazis, so through whose eyes are we seeing the past?

Images from The Eye As Witness exhibition at South Hampstead Synagogue

The National Holocaust Centre's The Eye As Witness exhibition originally launched at South Hampstead Synagogue in 2020. - Credit: David Parry

Professor Maiken Umbach created the VR exhibit with Nottingham University's Mixed Reality Laboratory after researching photography during the Nazi era. She points out that many images of ghettos and concentration camps used on TV and in museums were taken by the perpetrators of the Holocaust to make Jews appear subhuman and stripped of dignity.

"The urgency of taking a fresh look at the darkest moment of human history cannot be underestimated," she said. "We have relied too much on Nazi propaganda photos to visualise the horrors of the Holocaust. Focusing on the photos and testimonies of victims helps us understand issues that are sadly becoming increasingly pressing in the modern world, such as antisemitism, racism, fake news, and prejudice.”

Images from The Eye As Witness exhibition at South Hampstead Synagogue

Nottingham University's Mixed Reality Laboratory and historian Prof Maiken Umbach created the VR exhibit which lets visitors step inside a photograph taken during WWII - Credit: Courtesy of Nottingham University Mixed Reality Lab

Marc Cave, director of the National Holocaust Centre & Museum, which is behind the exhibition, said while it was "an excitingly creative use of technology to reconsider the past, its purpose is chillingly contemporary".

"When you see an image or video posted on Twitter or Facebook today - of a victim of war or member of a minority group - ask yourself who recorded it and why. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then fake news is 1,000 times more sinister in photographic form. This exhibition invites critical thinking. It asks you to understand the visual cunning of the Nazis and how it helped permeate and legitimise anti-Jewish hate — and to think critically about the same propaganda techniques being used on social media today by left and right alike”.

Images from The Eye As Witness exhibition at South Hampstead Synagogue

The Eye As Witness exhibition sees visitors don VR goggles and step into a photograph taken in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust - Credit: David Parry

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While photographs taken by victims of the Holocaust are scarce, some on display were taken in secret and, alongside written testimony, offer a different perspective on events. The exhibition also features the National Holocaust Museum's The Forever Project which uses interactive technology to ask survivors hundreds of questions.

Frances Jeens – who after two years as interim director has been confirmed as director of the museum in Albert Road, Camden Town – said: “I’m so pleased this will be our first exhibition in my role as director. The exhibition reflects our values in supporting academic research, creating space for discussion, and using technology to bring stories to our audiences.”

The Eye As Witness runs from April 24 until September 18. A special candle lighting and curator's talk for Yom HoShoah takes place on April 28. Visit 

jewishmuseum.org.uk/exhibitions/the-eye-as-witness-recording-the-holocaust/