Recording Cultural Genocide

Archaeological project website

Recording Cultural Genocide – Using cutting-edge technology, we uncover the truth about cultural genocide and mass killings: to ensure that the stories of all who were victims are shared and to demonstrate where racial hatred and intolerance can lead.

Project details

Recording Cultural Genocide: Problem Statement

“How do we digitally preserve the culture of those who were persecuted by the Nazis, in a way which allows their personal experiences to come through?”

Before the Holocaust, Jewish cemeteries were at the heart of Jewish communities. The Nazis saw them as physical and symbolic expressions of Jewish culture. Executing their ambition of complete racial annihilation did not therefore end at the literal lives of the people they persecuted, it extended to removing all traces of their existence from history.

The goal of Recording Cultural Genocide was to employ a range of technologies to uncover, preserve and share the stories of the effected victims. Lead by a team of specialists from the Centre of Archaeology housed at Staffordshire University, public engagement was a critical element of this overall goal. A website would be needed to effectively house and share both the materials collected and their contexts, which is where I came in.

  • Needs:
  • Unique website frontend
  • Accessible content management system
  • Information structure strategy
  • Website management training

Final website previews

Project Strategy

The Centre had a fixed budget that needed to cover redesign, development, training and hosting. This budget was ambitious even without considerations of a custom visual design. Nevertheless, a bespoke aesthetic was deemed critical to the team’s goal of establishing a tone that was truly representative and respectful of the subject matter. I therefore broke the strategy into four key stages:

  1. Research and planning
    Clarify the diversity of media to be presented on the website, determine suitable content and visual structures.
  2. Design
    Establish the site tone through colour palette, typography and approach to image use.
  3. Implementation
    Develop a custom HTML5 and CSS3 WordPress Theme, iterate in response to user feedback.
  4. Validation
    Test the website across numerous devices and browsers.

Research and planning: Putting the people first

The team and I were immediately on the same page in terms of how the content needed to be framed – around the people.

The extent of the atrocities performed by the Nazis cannot be overstated, but it’s important to remember that the associated numbers represent real individuals. Those people had lives, families and future’s irrecoverably changed, and the same can be said of their broader community. Preserving those people’s stories was a key deliverable for the entire project and because of this, it became a critical point of direction for the designs.

I tend not to worry about the software I’m using to map out content structures unless specifically dictated by the client. In this case, the Centre of Archaeology were happy for me to not share the work until the style and tone was close to the intended final product, trusting in my approach. As a result, my initial layout sketches were all done by hand, facilitating fast iteration toward something I was confident would meet all their criteria. I likewise colour coded elements that would have a ‘personal’ component (be it a quote, image, or reference to a specific individual) so I could quickly assess how much would be on a page at a given time.

My primary goals here were to determine how content would be structured across the site, and to identify key places for the personal elements to be integrated.

Design: Layering the aesthetic

With these rough frameworks in place, I began layering aesthetic elements and assessing which partnered best with the proposed layouts.

There were no pre-existing brand guidelines, so I took visual lead from the Centre of Archaeology’s logo, determining a colour palette that was warm, inviting but also consistent with their other brand elements.

The same was true of typography, wherein I pivoted toward a pair of fonts that didn’t feel out of place with the organisation’s identity, but were likewise thematically suitable for the content.

First Impressions

While the site itself isn’t especially large by any means, there is enough that it could become overwhelming or confusing without a coherent narrative structure guiding the user experience.

This is never a simple task because you can’t be sure (particularly on websites which are a completely fresh build) what the entry point for visitors will be and accommodating all options can be complex.

In this case, we knew the vast majority of visitors would be following links to the homepage or sent their directly. We therefore structured all content above the fold to be minimal on most devices, with a very simple text introduction and video in the background to help convey the scope, and type of materials visitors could expect to find.

Recording Cultural Genocide homepage preview

Variety in presentation

This principle remains true across the rest of the homepage, with content of gradually increasing complexity and variety as visitors scroll down the page, being complimented by aesthetics that are very much tailored to that content.

For example, after lots of content is displayed following the initial introduction, I thought it best to pull back visually for the banners emphasising the Personal Stories and Behind The Scenes. On the one hand, they focus attention on these specific areas for visitors who might be interested in those alone. On the other, they breathe some space into the aesthetic following a section which is comparatively dense with information.

Recording Cultural Genocide
Recording Cultural Genocide
Recording Cultural Genocide
Recording Cultural Genocide
Recording Cultural Genocide

Implementation: Responsive WordPress Theme

Data from some of the organisation’s other websites suggested that a high percentage of visitors were on mobile devices. No surprise, given we’re no longer living in 2006.

As the site makes use of large open spaces and clear content blocks, adapting to the various snapping points was relatively simple. Critically, they allowed us to maintain the aforementioned ‘human element’ despite the reduction in screen real estate.

Through WordPress, I was able to provide the organisation with complete control over all text elements and imagery, empowering them to really tailor the narrative and presentation of content on each page.

Mobile previous of Recording Cultural Genocide
Because mobile visitors are so high on this site, responsive design was vital
Recording Cultural Genocide website tablet preview

Conclusion: Stories preserved in time

It’s easy and somewhat stomach churning to talk about being ‘honoured’ to be involved with a project. Stomach-churning not, it’s absolutely true in this case and the responsibility I felt to deliver a high quality solution exceeded the monetary remuneration.

In the years that followed, we’ve seen consistently high ‘average time’ rates on the story pages compared to the likes of the homepage, about etc. This is consistent across desktop and mobile devices. Alongside direct feedback from website visitors, this speaks to the success of the design approach and the engagement those pages are creating.

If I could go back and do anything differently, some AB testing and alternative designs for the sections linking to other stories would’ve been worthwhile. I think we could’ve potentially reduced the bounce rate on the story pages by encouraging users to view other stories, via a more accessible, engaging design.

That being said, overall both myself and the client have been very happy with the results.

Recording Cultural Genocide and Killing Sites in Jewish Cemeteries

Using cutting-edge technology, we uncover the truth about cultural genocide and mass killings: to ensure that the stories of all who were victims are shared and to demonstrate where racial hatred and intolerance can lead.

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