Visualizing Decimation: Sarah Maravetz and Gillian McCallion’s “Liquidation” at the Holocaust Museum

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In a darkened room, eight strings of white LED lights hang from a jagged, geometric shape overhead. The white glow pulses like steady lightning and every second, the level of light descends like water down a column, until each string sits empty and dim. 

The piece “Liquidation,” up now at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through July 31, represents the history of the Lodz ghetto, a section in the Polish city of Lodz where Jewish and Roma people were forced to live and work during World War II. The geometric shape that hangs from the ceiling outlines the border within which people died from sickness, starvation, and suicide. Many others were transported from Lodz to concentration camps, and the ghetto was “liquidated” in 1944, when its remaining 74,000 residents were sent to Auschwitz. The lights signify the population over time. The pulses mark each month. 

While much of the Holocaust Museum is text- and artifact-based, “Liquidation” visually represents the decimation of a community through a broad, almost impersonal lens. Such memorials are chilling, but offer an opportunity to confront a gruesome history even when the impulse could easily be to look away. 

The installation was designed by Sarah Maravetz and Gillian McCallion, and originated as an assignment while the two were enrolled in the Master of Professional Studies program in Information Visualization at MICA (since renamed Information and Data Visualization). The Holocaust Museum had provided the program director, Heather Bradbury, with population data from the Lodz Ghetto, and their class was instructed to use any visual medium to tell its story. 

The two started on individual projects, but their instincts and ideas naturally led them to work together. In 2017 they completed a four-day residency at the museum, and ultimately collaborated with the Special Projects and exhibits staff to create the installation now on display. While neither works in the arts full-time—McCallion is Creative Director at the International Youth Foundation and Maravetz is Associate Director of Data Analytics at Northeastern University’s Khoury College of Computer Sciences—they were driven to blend art and data in order to share those untold stories in an engaging way. 

I talked with them on the phone about the challenges of missing data, the importance of visual storytelling, and the relevance of concentration camps today.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length. 

Sarah Maravetz and Gillian McCallion, “Liquidation”

Nora Belblidia: How did you two come to work on this project together?

Gillian McCallion: We were both really drawn to the fact that one of the biggest stories to come out of the data was that so much data was missing. The absence of data was really as much the story as the presence of any data because, quite simply, people just didn’t know what happened to so many folks during the Holocaust. 

We were both drawn to that piece of the narrative but then we both ultimately came up with prototypes that were physical installations rather than anything online or in print. So it made sense for us to work together and share ideas and kind of combine thinking and challenge each other a bit more. I think both of us felt that the collaboration really produced something much deeper, and much stronger than either of us might have done individually. And frankly it was just fun to work together. 

Sarah Maravetz: One of the things I have enjoyed most about this is that it’s been a collaboration from start to finish. The data that they gave us originally was what they call citizen historian data. They actually had volunteers help do research at the museum and so there was collaboration just in collecting the data, and then after Gill and I worked together and created the initial prototype, there was more collaboration with [the Holocaust Museum’s] exhibition staff and curatorial staff who actually built the prototype that’s up on display right now. 

Tell me a little more about the missing data part because that seems like a fascinating element and also one that would be common with these types of horrific acts. How did you approach that missing piece and how was that ultimately represented in your work?

GM: You look at the data sheet and you see the empty cells but even though the cells are empty, they still represent a life. So we were a little uncomfortable with this notion of creating something that didn’t acknowledge, and in some way memorialize, the people who hadn’t survived the Holocaust. The fact that so many people just disappeared and there wasn’t any way to trace where they had been shipped to or how long they may or may not have survived when they were sent to wherever they were sent. It was pretty important for both of us to not just create something that made it look as if people had never existed in the first place, but that they had existed, and these empty spaces represented real lives. 

What kind of data was missing exactly? Was it just that you didn’t necessarily know what had happened to an individual person?

GM: Yeah, [the data] tended to stop. There would be a name, there would occasionally be a date of birth, maybe somewhere they had lived at some point, maybe when they were first moved in to the ghetto or where they had come from when they arrived in the ghetto. But then after that, there were very few dates of deaths, very little geographic information in terms of where these people ended up. Their stories stopped with them being sent to the ghetto. 

SM: The original datasets we were given, I think one was a timeline of just basic events and one was a roster of employees who worked in the factories there, and then another was a roster of students who attended the school there. So that was the starting point—these were people we knew lived there because we had their ID numbers and we knew that they were a student or an employee at some point. But even that information was missing a lot of people, and it really spoke to the fact that there was record-keeping, but a lot of it was destroyed or not kept very well on purpose, and that, to us, focused the story that was missing or between the lines.

GM: We discovered that a group of I think mostly men living in the ghetto just took it upon themselves to record. Obviously there were births and deaths in the ghetto, there were suicides in the ghetto, and they quickly began to note people who would die of starvation and they would record numbers. That information was ultimately published in a book, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto. 

Going through that and looking at the various other pieces of information data that we were able to dig up with the helpful staff at the Holocaust Museum, we could pool together certain assumptions. We had documentation that said, “On this particular day 4,000 people left the ghetto” or “On this particular day 8,000 people left the ghetto.” Or sometimes there was “On this date there were X hundred thousands in the ghetto” and then two weeks later there were this number.

By trying to cross reference those, we could put together a rough timeline of the rise and fall of the population within the ghetto. Large numbers of Roma people were gathered from all across Europe and shoved into the ghetto as well. Overcrowding was just a horrendous problem. So there actually were more people being pushed in initially rather than just the numbers going down, so tracking the rise and fall of the population within the ghetto itself was the specific narrative we chose to focus on. 

Sarah Maravetz and Gillian McCallion, “Liquidation”

What was your personal reaction when combing through this data? You’ve shared a little bit about the lack of data and wanting to memorialize each individual life, but did anything else surprise you besides the lack of data? Any particular stories or discoveries you remember?

SM: There’s actually quite a lot about the Lodz ghetto that is fairly well-documented. All of us also did supplementary research so that we could understand what was happening. There are some really beautiful stories of resistance that are documented from that time period and I think, in being given an assignment like this, a lot of us were sort of reticent to dive in to it. It was a difficult emotional thing. But there were very personal stories and there were a lot of details. I was surprised to know there was so much information and there was so much documentation about it. That being said, we tended to go the opposite way without telling any distinct person’s story or any personal stories. I kind of viewed it from a wider viewpoint. 

GM: There was a school for the children initially in the ghetto and there are records of books that the children put together. The holiday messages that the children had written really brought home the fact that these are just regular kids in the way that our own kids might want to make a card for their school teacher. That normal daily life was trying to be maintained. 

To Sarah’s point, the more you read, the more you think of the resilience of the folks that were in there. You read their individual stories and it’s just mind-blowing. Even the group of men that decided to keep this diary of what was coming and going. I can’t imagine the point at which they would have really known what the purpose was or what the value was in saying, “This is the number of people who died today.” But they did it anyway because they felt that it was important. And that kind of thing I think is something you can relate to even in this period of history that we’re in now. 

Definitely. And what was it like to approach this subject since it was assigned to you? Did it align with your own original interests? Did it change how you approach data visualization or change what you wanted to pursue in the future?

SM: It’s an incredibly difficult topic and I think that we were energized by approaching it in a different way and making something that was maybe a little bit beautiful and very emotional, and not what you think of as a traditional Holocaust Museum exhibit, which would be a lot more text- and history-based.

Because it was just a proposal, we didn’t really expect anybody to ever make it in real life. When you’re given that freedom it’s energizing to say, “Well if I could make any exhibit I wanted about this topic what would it be?” This is a really difficult topic and it involved dealing with it in a delicate way and thinking about people’s reactions and the right way to do it, but also maybe we can do it in a new way and try something different. 

I’m glad that you brought up the museum itself and the experience working with them since often museums get lumped into two categories. Either it’s an art museum that shows creative work, or it’s a history or science or cultural museum where the focus is more so on education. And the latter category is obviously where the Holocaust Museum lies. Where do you see the lines blurring between those two categories? Or needing to be blurred?

GM: I think that’s a really important point actually. The folks we worked with at the Holocaust Museum were so open and so creative. A couple of the folks we worked with had actually come from art backgrounds, so I think we were able to connect immediately, almost like a shared language. 

From the data perspective, you know data can be pretty cold and clinical and in some ways that’s the intent of it. You’re not necessarily supposed to bring your opinion to it. But I think that where we blurred the line was that we weren’t just communicating numbers, we were in some ways communicating our own reaction to learning about those numbers. 

As Sarah said, having the freedom to think as big as we wanted, as if there were no limitations, was both freeing but also somewhat challenging. Particularly when you’re dealing with the data set such as the one that we were working with, there is such a privilege in being allowed access to it in the first place, let alone being allowed to brainstorm how best to engage people in the story of the Holocaust in a different way. I think that’s what the Holocaust Museum is trying to do through this, they’re looking at new ways of telling stories. 

Yeah, and I think these visual representations do engage your brain in another way and can be more impactful than, say, an Excel spreadsheet. But I was wondering if you could comment on why you find these visual representations important and what, to you, do they communicate that straight facts don’t?

SM: I think of it as conveying information in a different language. One of the things you learn when you’re studying information visualization is that you’re always looking for the story. What story does this data tell? And how can you get a personal engagement from the viewer? And to me, that’s somewhere in between art and information. The way to talk to people that catches them visually first and makes them come in and learn more. 

“So many people just disappeared and there wasn’t any way to trace where they had been shipped to or how long they may or may not have survived … It was pretty important to not just create something that made it look as if people had never existed in the first place, but that they had existed, and these empty spaces represented real lives.”

Your work reminded me a little bit of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which is a memorial to the victims of lynchings in the United States. Basically, it’s 800 hanging steel blocks and on those blocks are the names of victims. And that work is much larger, but I think with both the memorial and your piece, there’s a visual representation of this absolute magnitude of loss and terror. I was curious about what works inspired you when creating your piece. 

GM: In Budapest, on the Danube, is a spot where a group, maybe 15, 20 people of all ages—women, children, men—were lined up facing the river and executed in such a way that their bodies would fall straight into the river. And the memorial is just a line of brass shoes along the riverbank, different sizes and styles, where these folks would have stood. It really allows you to imagine what it might have been, where you’re almost literally standing in someone else’s shoes. That was such a simple idea, just being in the exact spot. 

All those sorts of environmental pieces can be leveraged to engage the viewer in ways that I’m not sure you could if you’re looking at a screen or looking at something on a piece of paper, or even hearing the story. That made me think about the environment and, from our perspective, the room that [“Liquidation”] was in became important so that we could mirror that sense of being squashed into somewhere hot and dark and kind of sweaty with too many people. Just really trying to engage all of those different emotions and senses and feelings. 

What I couldn’t get out of my head was just how many parallels there are to our present time. Now, we do have camps of migrants at the border and ICE raids where people are disappearing. I’m wondering if you were thinking about that when you were making this piece, if that was even happening when you first started this project?

SM: It wasn’t in the news really at that time. But there was definitely—because this was June of 2017—there was definitely a movement towards xenophobia and we were quite aware of that while we were spending our residency in the museum, that this is how it starts. 

GM: We did subsequently have more conversations around what you were saying, that this just seems more and more timely. Unfortunately there are just so many parallels with what’s going on here in the US on the border right now, and not on the border even, other places, just as a result of xenophobia. It has seemed to parallel that to some extent. 

What do you hope people take away from “Liquidation”?

GM: I think that might actually have changed for me at least in the intervening couple of years from the original concept to the realization of the prototype. Initially we were aware of the changing political climate and the implications of that. At that point I may have said that I’d like people to connect with what happened on a much more personal and deeper level, but now I do feel there’s an extra degree of urgency to the conversation. 

I would hope that we could encourage not just vigilance but deep thought on where the parallels are between what happened in the early 1940s in Europe and what can and does happen today. It’s just vital that we’re paying attention and that we’re responding and that we’re maintaining these issues as part of the public discourse, that it’s not considered something that happens to somebody else but that it’s something that we’re all responsible in this democracy. This is something that has the potential to keep happening unless we’re really vigilant and all play a part in being physically engaged in looking out for folks around us and paying attention. 

SM: Yeah, I think that there’s a sense that if the things that are happening are not exactly what happened during the Holocaust then it’s not the Holocaust. There’s sort of nitpicking of semantics—”Well this isn’t technically a concentration camp.” How do you teach people that history and make them understand what happened in the Holocaust but also make them recognize the similarities to what’s happening right in front of them? 

I think the museum actually does a great job of that if you go through the permanent exhibit, but I hope that our work connects with people on an emotional level that makes it seem more personal to them. I feel like maybe it’s another chance to get through to people and make them understand that this isn’t just in the long-ago history. 

Yeah, I think also the fact that we’re living in this contradictory time where it’s the Information Age and we have all this data available at our fingertips but then it’s also the era of fake news. I’m curious about your approach to data. Why is it important to you?

SM: It is an interesting time. We’re collecting more and more data. Companies are collecting data passively constantly, and there’s not really a real structure for talking about the ethics about how you use data or vet it or make sure it’s true. There’s a lot of education programs like the MPS in Information Visualization that do a good job talking about how data can lie. You have to look out for signs that people are kind of fudging the data or changing the chart and how you can detect that. Just like in journalism they teach ethics and they teach journalistic integrity, there needs to be that in data collecting and data visualization. 

GM: I’ve been very encouraged, as I’ve gotten to know a community of data visualizers more, just how important and how much transparency is talked about. I think it could be not just talked about but prioritized. There’s space in our education system for basic classes on how to spot data fudging. We almost want to be told what to think by people we’ve decided we align with and this responsibility for actually looking at the facts ourselves seems to have become very much second-rate, if it’s there at all. 

Beyond journalism school and data visualization programs, just generally as consumers, I think it’s very incumbent on us to pay attention to the data ourselves. Most things, when they’re published, the source is cited and that’s great, but how many of us actually check whether or not the conclusions in the article align with what the data actually says. I’m certainly guilty of that. I’d love to see more of an awareness of that, a more questioning public. 

“Liquidation” is currently on view on weekdays only at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through July 31. 

Photos by Joseph Hyde. Top image: Gillian McCallion and Sarah Maravetz.

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