William Seltzer is the recipient of an honor few can match. Late last summer, Seltzer, a senior research scholar in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, traveled to Oslo, Norway, for the opening of the Centre for Holocaust and Minority Studies. The artwork that graced the front of the Villa Grande, the site of the museum and research center, was inspired by Seltzer’s statistical research involving genocide and human rights.
“It was quite an honor,” Seltzer said. “It’s a special honor because it’s one thing for academic groups to say you do good work, but to have an artist understand what you are doing is something rather special. I was very pleased with it.”
Seltzer, a demographer and statistician, said he had no idea Arnold Dreyblatt, an American artist living in Germany, was aware of his work. Among other things, Seltzer has served as a consultant to the International Criminal Tribunal investigating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He has also researched the use of population registers by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the critical role of South Africa’s population registration system and 1961 census in furthering its system of apartheid, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s involvement in the surveillance and round-up of Japanese Americans during World War II.
The artwork, “Innocent Questions,” is about 30 feet tall and made up of three layer-glass panels, the front layer containing etched glass and one of the other two equipped with light-emitting diodes. The diodes form numbers and words that might be on a punch-card recording, such as address, work history and mother’s name.
Dreyblatt has said that he focused on the “personal questionnaire” in population registration systems as the defining element that connects the Holocaust to other genocides of the 20th century.
For Seltzer, the artwork is a reminder of the use of population data systems to target vulnerable populations for human rights abuses. It is also a reminder of the power of statistical data to tell the story of human rights abuses and genocide.
“The point of the numbers,” he said, “is to document the quantitative dimension of what happened. They are useful in documenting these international human rights crimes and they also provide an understanding of how perpetrators make use of data systems.”
By Victor M. Inzunza