With the publicity surrounding the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, parents and teachers across America -- and perhaps around the world -- will be wondering whether children and the museum are an appropriate mix. This is an important question.
When I served as educational consultant to the museum, the first question that the museum director asked me was, "At what age would the museum be appropriate for young people?" Before I could respond, I had to first understand the museum's message -- the proposed content and format of its exhibitions, plans for school programs and programs for the general public, its publications and its public face.
I wondered how walking through the museum would differ from meeting a survivor at a friend's house or watching a film or reading a book on the Holocaust. Every year, tens of thousands of young people read The Diary of Anne Frank. Countless others watch Holocaust-related movies on television and study the Holocaust in school. Some states mandate the teaching of the Holocaust and offer printed curricula and teacher training seminars. How would the museum be different? Would it paint a more vivid picture, a picture too explicit, emotional or disconcerting?
The museum opening commemorates 50 years since the 1943 Uprising in the Nazi-controlled Warsaw Ghetto. In 1940, Emmanuel Ringelblum, a university-trained historian and social activist spearheaded an underground movement. He persuaded teachers, scientists and others living in the crowded ghetto to capture their experiences in writing. He buried this secret archive (diaries, documents, poster, drawings) in three milk cans. None was discovered until after World War II. One can is on view at the museum.
Ringelblum's diary and archive chronicle a world unknown to most Americans today. These milk cans are a powerful symbol for the museum, which contains thousands of objects, large and small -- toys made in ghettos; a German schoolhouse desk at which children learned race science; drawings made by prisoners in hopes they would someday reach the outside world; lullabies written to quiet children whose fears were all too well-founded; posters, books and other tools of propaganda that held a particularly powerful hold on young people; the stuff of everyday life, the ordinary and extraordinary.
Museum staff went on artifact hunts across Europe, the former Soviet republics and the United States to collect tens of thousands of authentic pieces of the past.
These objects have outlived the people who once gave them life. Their legacy is a reminder of the past, present and future. Their message is all around us. There is not one day when a major newspaper story does not reflect the period which has come to be known as the Holocaust. The basic elements still ring loud and clear: prejudice, persecution, exclusion, immigration barriers, government-sponsored brutality or lack of government intervention, human rights abuses, public indifference, ethnic cleansing.
Educator Neil Postman and other experts argue that children are accustomed to explicit images from watching television. Should we then assume it is all right to expose young people at an early age to this gruesome and vivid period of history or should we not expose them to the Holocaust because they are no longer able to distinguish between reality and the world of television?
Learning together is critical. Friends and I recently took our five-year-old children to the G-rated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III movie. The previews were packed with fast paced violence, gruesome images whizzing across the screen set to loud voices and discordant music. The pace, noise and images were too overwhelming for me to absorb, but did not seem to bother the children. I was happy that we were watching it together, just as parents should watch television with their children so they can discuss what is happening and how the children interpret it.
Parents cannot shield children from disturbing images or themselves from the hard work of helping children understand. Children often need help making connections, for example in distinguishing between a violent act and its consequences.
The museum has designed an exhibition especially for children who may be too young to see the other parts of the museum. But age is not the issue. We are not all the same. We have varied backgrounds, histories, experiences, learning levels, interests and knowledge. Children at some Jewish Day Schools are introduced to the Holocaust in first grade. I know teachers at Christian schools who look for any excuse to include the Holocaust in history or current affairs classes. Does a child with a familial connection to the Holocaust have the same capacity to understand as a Vietnamese boat child? The Vietnamese child may have a better understanding.
If a child exposed to the Holocaust Memorial Museum is stimulated to ask more questions, then the museum has accomplished something. If children begin to think about their attitudes toward others who are different, then an invaluable seed has been planted. If children begin to wonder whether inaction by individuals, groups and governments has moral consequences, then the world may be moved.
The message in the milk can is clear: Bring your children to the museum.
Marjorie Share is a Washington-based consultant to museums, foundations and corporations.