Background: The Katyń massacre occupies a significant place in history, but only a few people visit the locations where the victims of the massacre are buried—not everyone can travel to Russia. Through Katyń Pro Memoria, a virtual guide of the memorial complex, we want to present the resting place of more than 4,000 Polish POWs in the fullest possible experience.
We wanted the site to present the human dimension of the massacre, giving the full name of every person executed by the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) and buried in the Katyń forest. Visitors learn about the history of the victims by reading a short biography, and then they can pay personal tribute by lighting a symbolic virtual candle in her or his honor.
Larger picture: The site was part of a campaign to honor the victims of the massacre by lighting virtual candles of remembrance for each person killed in Katyń. It was carried out on social media, on the website, and through an organized event for institutions and historians interested in the subject.
Design core: The lighting of the virtual candles. Seeing the biography of every victim. Navigating the monument, getting to know about the massacre through the landmarks and their histories. Hearing the testimonies of the victims, witnesses, historians and politicians read by renowned actors.
On the design side, the symbolic, graphic 3-D forest and illustrations; the films shot on site; and the simple, somber design.
Favorite details: We managed to tell a tragic story with a solemn, serious tone, but at the same time, we kept the narrative engaging. It offers something more than the Wikipedia page on the Katyń massacre. We created the concept of lighting a virtual candle, and it turned out to be a fulfilling and important part for the victims’ families. The number of lighted candles surpassed our expectations: Our strategy assumed the minimum of 5,000 candles and a dream level of 50,000. We managed to reach the minimum level within hours. Currently, the count shows more than 65,000 candles lit.
Challenges: The 3-D elements were performance heavy. And the unconventional interface proved to be challenging based on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, but we resolved this by creating an alternative lightweight version of the content.
Time constraints: It would have been nice to have more time to fine tune the interface and performance issues, but we managed to accomplish most of our goals. We work in a semi-agile way, so we focused on delivering the main features in an acceptable form and moving onto the next ones rather than perfecting them early on. This let us develop most of the key elements quickly.
New lessons: Almost everything was new! This was our first 3-D interface. We created navigation patterns that we hadn’t tested before—some of them were completely new. We created our first interactive videos.
Navigation structure: The narrative is set in a symbolic forest, because this crime was committed—and then hidden from the world—in a forest. The space is metaphorical, so to not be too literal, we designed the site with a simple, graphic style. We wanted to create an experience that is a little overwhelming and a bit inconvenient so that the tragic story was not too easily glossed over.
That was the reason we chose not to offer a “Skip Intro” button. First, visitors must slowly move through a forest while a few sentences spell out the truth of the massacre. In the symbolic forest, we show key landmarks of the Polish War Cemetery in Katyń presented through five sections: the Entrance, the Burial Mound, Graves, the Altar Area and Death Pits. Beams of light scattered through the virtual woods lead to voices hidden among the trees. They carry sad testimonies of the past: documents, letters and memories.
Through a second narrative level, visitors go beyond the forest to watch interactive narrated films that show the cemetery in real life. Additional information about the massacre and the burial site are woven into the films, available to users upon clicking the mouse.
Special navigation features: The main interactive animation is unique in its approach to navigation through the content. We also created a version of the site’s content designed especially for visually impaired users that involves an alternative navigation system.