United States Holocaust Memorial Museum | History Unfolded

Eric Schmalz

Citizen History Community Manager, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

David Klevan

Education Outreach Specialist, Education Initiatives, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

100 Raoul Wallenberg Place SW Washington, DC 20024-2126 United States



American Alliance of Museums / EdCom Award for Excellence in Programming 2020


History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust




The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, founded in 1993, is located on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The museum is a living memorial to the Holocaust. Through its education and research, the museum works to inspire citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.

As a national institution that receives federal funding, the museum has a mandate to teach the lessons of the Holocaust in relation to United States history. In the early 2010s, the museum embarked upon an initiative called Americans and the Holocaust. The initiative focuses on the Holocaust as an American story, exploring what officials and individuals in the country knew about the Nazi threat between 1933 and 1945, as well as how they responded.

While in previous years, the museum developed a special exhibition and then programming and resources around it, a group of staff wondered “What would happen if we launched a program first that could potentially contribute research for the forthcoming exhibition?” This gave birth to History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust. The team modeled this national citizen history effort after successful citizen science projects, as well as the museum’s earlier citizen history work.

History Unfolded’s citizen historians learn about various event topics from 1933 to 1945, research local newspapers on microfilm and online archives, and upload information about their findings to the project website. Though students are a primary audience, anyone with internet access can contribute. While receiving valuable information is an essential goal, helping to engage students and develop their historical research and analysis skills is equally important. Such a philosophy of weighing research and education goals equally has generally been a new approach for history museums exploring community participatory initiatives.

Overall, History Unfolded has been a great success. The project has met the museum’s initial research and data collection goals. The museum has received over 45,000 articles from each state, DC, and Puerto Rico. The database includes pieces from the Black press, Jewish press, college newspapers, and articles written in about a dozen languages. The museum has used project materials in the Americans and the Holocaust special exhibition, online exhibition, traveling exhibition, lesson plans, and a number of programs. The project team expects the database and research datasets to be useful for scholars in the decades to come.

History Unfolded has also been successful at reaching the museum’s education goals. Hundreds of secondary school and university classes have participated. Holocaust survivors have contributed findings and assisted by reviewing submissions. The History Unfolded team conducted a formal project evaluation of student motivation, learning, and skills with an outside evaluator. The results strongly suggest that students are learning more about the Holocaust, developing their primary source research and analysis skills, and becoming more motivated by working with a national institution.


In part as a result of these accomplishments, History Unfolded received the American Alliance of Museum’s 2020 Excellence in Programming award. The judges were impressed by the project’s evaluation results. Judges also pointed out the program’s importance, given the increase in antisemitism in America.

One of the successful components of the project has been the “research sprint”. In a typical research sprint, a hosting institution, such as a library or archive, invites members of their community to research their collections and contribute findings at the same time. These events usually last several hours, and may include presentations by local experts. If the event takes place more than once, some volunteers may become regular attendees who cultivate community within the group. The History Unfolded community manager has also organized virtual sprints by encouraging all volunteers to contribute specific research from wherever they are for a week or longer.

Another reason for the project’s success has been due to strong institutional support. History Unfolded is the first citizen history effort at the museum directly connected with an initiative, with a clear purpose and dedicated funding. The hiring of a full-time community manager to oversee the review of submissions, assist educators and students with research, and to advance the project in general has been critical to attending to volunteer needs and fostering a sense of community. Numerous students and adult “power users” have mentioned how motivating and rewarding it is to receive personalized, timely feedback from staff at the museum.

One of the greatest challenges of the project is connecting volunteers with newspaper collections. Access varies widely by and within regions. Many newspapers are still not digitized, and local libraries may have few if any microfilm readers for their patrons. Online collections are either restricted by locale or behind paywalls. The COVID-19 pandemic has made visiting libraries, archives, and historical societies difficult or impossible.


Despite these challenges, educators have worked with newspapers directly to gain access to their historical archives. In some cases, students have handled original newspaper copies. The History Unfolded team created a listing of known newspaper collections, has encouraged educators to contact libraries, and has helped coordinate research sprints with local institutions. Consequently, more educators are finding ways for their students to access newspaper collections, especially online via local libraries.

The project team has also faced the challenge of being responsive to the changing needs of community volunteers, and how to scale up resources as the project grows. The original project team included a lead, education lead, historian, and community manager who could handle almost all the submissions. In the past three years, it has been necessary to train a group of volunteers and contract workers to take on the bulk of the review. This additional staff support is the project’s major expense. Enhancements to the website are regularly needed, but the museum’s in-house web team can only devote time to improvements on an infrequent basis.

Finally, setting up the project timeline and looking towards the future has been a challenge for the team. How and when should the museum stop collecting data? When all possible material has been explored? This endpoint is satisfying from a research perspective, but would be likely impossible to reach. Originally, the project was to end when the exhibition opened, but the two year lead time between project launch and the exhibition’s opening meant the project was just entering maturity then and many educators were still finding out about it. But if the organization places an artificial end date to the project, will there be a plan in place for how to continue to welcome the support of volunteers, including some who invest years in the endeavor?

Organizations considering similar programs should start with their objectives and see if citizen history is a good way to reach them. Project proposals should include a realistic timeline for marketing and initial growth. In History Unfolded’s case, the project would have likely contributed even more research to the special exhibition if it had more than a two year lead time. Projects will likely need to include more money for future years if the endeavor is successful. Organizations should also consider what the anticipated long-term plan for participants is, including if other participatory projects will be available for volunteers once the program concludes. In short, find out what your audiences need, start small, scale up, and be prepared for the future.


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