Last week, NPR Ed rounded up our favorite children's museums — places dedicated to letting kids learn in kid-friendly exhibits. That got us thinking about a different kind of museum: the ones that teach about the toughest episodes of history. How do you explain what happened during the Sept. 11 attacks to a child? What about the Holocaust, or the Oklahoma City bombing? We asked leaders from three memorial museums around the U.S. how they approach teaching their youngest visitors about tragic episodes in history.
National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York City.
"We keep it in very simple, concrete terms," says Noah Rauch, education director at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. To an 8-year-old, Rauch might say, "four planes were taken over by 19 men. They were flown into important buildings — two of them were here. Almost 3,000 people were killed. And then people came from all over the world to respond to the attacks in different ways."
For young audiences, that last part — how people came to help — is most important. Artifacts throughout the museum are key: There's the huge steel column — the last to be removed from Ground Zero — on which workers, first responders, and victims' family members signed their names and left messages. There's a flag commemorating the 14 cows that members of the Maasai tribe in Kenya gifted to the U.S. There are quilts and murals donated by people from around the world.
"You can't control what happened," Rauch says, "but you can control how you respond to it." That, he says, is the central message in these educational programs: "It's as much about 9/12 as it is about 9/11."
The museum provides drop-in activity stations where young visitors can make art. Rauch says it's a good way for parents to stop and check in with how their kids are processing their feelings — sometimes with the help of an educator.
"[The children] go right into the art experience, and we feel out with the parents what they're interested in talking about," he says. "We can model what it means to talk about this in an age-appropriate way, but the parents are there to help [tell us] what they expect from the program."
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.
There's a lot about the history of Nazi persecution that you might not know. The Nazis and their collaborators didn't just target Jews, but people with disabilities, mixed-race Germans, and the Roma ethnic group. So explains the main exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., a deep dive into that history. It's painstakingly detailed, taking special care to tell the stories that usually fall by the wayside.
But downstairs, the children's exhibit focuses on just one story: that of a boy named Daniel. Daniel is a fictional character, but his story is based on those of real-life Holocaust survivors. Visitors start out in a full-scale model of Daniel's house, which is full of normal kid things: cookies, toy trains, a bike. Daniel narrates the story through pages from his diary scattered around each room. In the next part of the exhibit, the Nazis are coming to power. "No Jews Allowed" signs appear on storefronts and benches, and Daniel describes how his classmates and teachers make fun of his Jewish identity. "Have you ever been punished for something you didn't do?" he asks.
When Daniel's family is forced to move into a ghetto, the surroundings grow darker, scarier. Instead of cookies and cakes, Daniel has to eat moldy turnips. But in their one-room apartment, Daniel and his sister Erika find ways to have fun: visitors peeking under a bed will find a secret box of trinkets.
"Kids like discovering things," explains exhibition specialist David Bobeck.
"They like hiding things," he says. "It gives [visitors] a sense that even though Daniel and Erika were experiencing these terrible events, they were still doing things that normal kids do."
The exhibit ends just outside the gates of a concentration camp. In a voice-over, Daniel explains that while he and his father survived the concentration camp, he never saw his mother and sister again.
Daniel mentions that millions of people perished during the Holocaust, but he doesn't go into detail. And for this younger audience, Bobeck says, that's OK: "We really just suggest that [the concentration camp is] the end place without getting into the fact that it's a killing center."
Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, Oklahoma City
In teaching kids about the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum takes a uniquely tech-savvy approach. At the museum's Uncover-Discover Lab, the story functions as an entry point into STEM learning. Middle and high school students crowd around large touch-screen tables to examine evidence in a mock forensic investigation like the one the FBI undertook in the aftermath of the bombing.
Many historical remembrance sites prefer to keep the Pokemon Go craze out of their facilities — but not Kari Watkins, the executive director at the Oklahoma museum. She embraces the game as a tool for engagement: "It allows us to get people who would never come here otherwise," she says.
Of course, Watkins says, the story of the bombing is difficult to tell. But she says that the students who come through the museum today are more accustomed to seeing images of violence than kids were in the past. "Twenty years ago, terrorism wasn't on the daily news," she says. "I didn't see my country in war until I was a college graduate; my kids have not lived a day in their lives without their country in war."
How old is old enough?
What about the main exhibits — the ones meant for adults? At the museum built to honor victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, the main historical exhibit has an age cutoff — they recommend only kids older than age 11. An advisory group suggested that age, Noah Rauch says, "because there is this shift in thinking from concrete to more abstract, and from your local, lived experience to something more global."
So if there isn't a guide, how can parents tell when their kids are ready for those exhibits? It's a good rule of thumb to tie museum visits to what kids are learning in school, says Harold Koplewicz, head of the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to improving children's mental health. Some students may not learn about the Holocaust in historical context until middle or high school, he says.
Regardless of age, Koplewicz says it's important for parents to talk to their children whenever they do learn about traumatic events. "Very often, we find that if kids don't understand the whole story, they'll fill in the blanks," he says. "And the story [they come up with] is even more frightening than the reality."