When Teaching Becomes Tricky

When I enter a museum – I can put on one of two hats. I can be the budding museum professional my graduate program is preparing me to be or I can suspend my disbelief and morph into a casual museum visitor. One allows me the freedom to examine exhibitions with a critical eye and the other lets me sit back and enjoy the ride. Before I entered the halls of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. I knew that I wanted to explore the space unburdened by a flurry of emotions. It was my first time visiting, and I really wanted to analysis what all the hype was about without getting too invested.

Fortunately, that was not the case. I managed to maintain my composure throughout the main exhibit spaces and thought I was home free, until I stumbled upon Daniel’s Story: Remember the Children. Watching parents and their families follow one Jewish boy’s experience in Nazi Germany prompted many emotions and made me wonder: how do we deal with heavy issues such as the Holocaust in a way that children can connect to? I had not seen any adults crying in the main exhibit space but saw many distressed children trying to understand what happened to Daniel. As I followed this fictitious child from his home to a ghetto and concentration camp, I wondered what roles museums play in helping facilitate difficult discussions within families.

The Hall of Remembrance, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Daniel’s Story: Remember the Children, a special exhibition designed for children ages 8 and older, aims to engage a multi-generational audience and further communication about the Holocaust between parent and child. [1] But are kids more ready to have these conversations than their parents are? Parents want to protect and shelter their children from the harms and evils of the world – so I can imagine that taking on a subject as loaded as the Holocaust does not come easily. In my mind, it’s akin to having the sex talk – parents can build up difficult conversations so much that communication is overcome by fear of the unknown. Parents don’t know how to start the dialogue. Kids want the facts. Daniel’s Story gives parents a tool to explore a rather large and emotionally charged topic with their children in a safe and monitored environment.

Together, families can explore a chronology of events from pre-Nazi Germany to the Jewish ghettos to the Aushwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Visitors can walk into Daniel’s house from before the war, experience the streets of Germany as he would have, journey with him to the work camps, and follow pages of his diary as it explains the events taking place. The environment is multifaceted and features audio, video, text, photographs, historic objects, and interactives. Visitors learn from the start of the museum experience that Daniel survives to share his story with them. Museum exhibition designer Darcie Fohrman explains on her website that the exhibit is “sensitive to young visitors, telling children what they will see before they see it.” [2] In this way, the difficult topic of the Holocaust is outlined, explored, and able to be processed by families.

After visitors learn that the American soldiers liberated Daniel and his father from the concentration camp but we not able to save Daniel’s mother and sister, they are led to a reflection room. In this space, children can write letters or draw pictures for Daniel and families can sit to talk about the subject matter. The exhibit gives no inclination to why the Jews were hated so much, so the letters posted around the room reflect everything from encouragement for Daniel to questions not yet answered. How is a child supposed to make sense of something so complex? What responses can parents give? Daniel’s Story does not provide all of the answers, but its interactive nature and thought provoking premise helps bring parents one step closer to educating their children about the truth.

[1] http://www.darciefohrman.com/projects/daniels-story

[2] Ibid

2 thoughts on “When Teaching Becomes Tricky

  1. Excellent post, and one that I think raises more questions than it answers. I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum twice, but have not had the chance to go through Daniel’s Story yet. It is difficult to balance the passing of information with not overwhelming or scaring young children. They still need to know, but you also don’t want to traumatize them. I don’t think there is an easy answer, but I think the Holocaust Museum is probably one of the better examples of presenting such a difficult topic to young visitors.

  2. Great post! I went through “Daniel’s Story” during a school visit to the Holocaust Museum my sophomore year of college. I was excited to stumble on the exhibit on my visit, as I had read the book on which it is based as an 8th grade student.

    Fast forward to this year and I am in my first year teaching 8th grade social studies. While my curriculum does not include teaching about the Holocaust, my students read “The Diary of Anne Frank” play in reading class and have been captivated by this complex and difficult history. Between a grade-wide field trip and student interest, conversation has trickled into my classroom, as well.

    As we begin to study slavery in Antebellum America, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, I am noting similar interest from my students in these difficult topics. Gripped by a human connection to such atrocities, students want to be challenged to deal with these tough issues. While I am working with a young adult population, I’ve found that by openly addressing these challenging questions and issues my students are more engaged and connected to the content.

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