Telling Difficult Stories

Today, we visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I had visited about 6 years ago, but I was excited to see what I may had missed previously and any new additions. I arrived early to the museum and an exhibit caught my eye. “Daniel’s Story” was an exhibit located on the first floor of the museum. The exhibit was aimed at children, but I was eager to see how museum staff presented the Holocaust story to a young audience.

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Diary image in “Daniel’s Story” exhibition

A short film began the exhibit and then visitors walked through Daniel’s life, scene by scene. Handwritten diary entries were placed in each room and helped tell the story. Daniel’s story began with happy memories and scenes from the family kitchen, home, and community.  Then, the entries got darker as the exhibition progressed and the scenery switched to the ghetto and concentration camp.

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Daniel’s suitcase, after being forced into the ghetto

This really fit in wonderfully with our group projects since the entire exhibition was a mode of storytelling. It also did so primarily through objects and written text. Sounds were also utilized. Happy and pleasant sounds of a child helping his mother in the kitchen were at the beginning of the exhibit. Darker sounds, like terrified children and chaos, began to play after the Nazis came to power. At the end, there was an eerie silence as the hallway exit space narrowed, forcing visitors to leave single-file. It seemed symbolic as I could picture Jewish men, women, and children lining up in this manner into cattle cars, in the ghetto, and at the gas chambers.

I thought the storytelling was really appropriate for the audience and touched hard topics without being overwhelming for the children. While I really enjoyed the “Some Were Neighbors” exhibit, I didn’t think it would be a suitable place for families with young children to learn this story. I also thought that a warning by the shooting video should have been included in order to protect young minds from graphic images. Still, I was pleased that the museum had formulated a great exhibition space aimed at children.

NMNH: A Kid’s Playground

The National Museum of Natural History is truly a kid-centered museum. The walls are covered in bright colors and interactive displays. A large whale hangs high up over the heads of visitors while a giant polar bear looks on from the periphery. The length of a giant squid takes up nearly half of a gallery space. As we were shown around the museum, kids bustled around us shouting things like “I wanna see the shark!” and asking questions like “Do whales live in the ocean?”

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A large polar bear looks on from the Oceans Hall

What struck me at the museum was that the NMNH not only provided scientific information, but sought to inform the choices of the public. Many panels told visitors explicit steps that they could take in order to preserve our world as seen below. The photo below shows such a panel in the Oceans Gallery. This approach was even seen in the museum’s cafeteria where trash cans were labeled as “compost,” “recycle,” and “landfill.” I like museums that provide practical information in addition to more abstract and general information.

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Panel in the Oceans Hall that provided visitors with practical steps to protect our earth

In many instances, the museum used great visual resources to help drive these points home. I was drawn to an oyster exhibit found in the Oceans Hall. A brightly colored panel with great graphs told the story of the Chesapeake Bay’s dwindling oyster population. As this is the main focus of my museum, I knew most of the information. However, actual oysters were utilized in the small exhibit that helped teach a subject that many kids might not be familiar with. These approaches seemed to be successful since the museum was packed full of families with young children and school tour groups.

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Oyster exhibit in the Oceans Hall