Enlightening Encounters: Understanding Children’s Experiences at Difficult Heritage Sites

  • What do children think, feel, and do when they visit sites associated with human death and suffering?
  • Can exhibits cause children to experience distress? 
  • How do museum professionals strike a balance between protecting children and telling history as it happened?
  • What are the best ways to help children understand an act of terrorism?

Stop by my office on a Friday afternoon, and you will find my undergraduate research team members scribbling ideas on sticky notes, eating cookies, making phone calls, and busily preparing for our upcoming trip to the Johnstown Flood Museum and National Memorial.  This multidisciplinary team, which includes doctoral students (Rebecca H. Price and Laura Burns), faculty members (Charlene A. Trovato and Laurel Chiappetta), many alumni, and community members, explores the experiences of children visiting difficult heritage museums and memorials. We work closely with museum and memorial staff, studying the questions above that many other researchers have overlooked.

The group’s research takes us to war memorials, Holocaust museums, terrorism-related memorials, disaster sites, and cemeteries. The team first analyzed children’s memorial tributes at a 9/11 memorial, then expanded its research to include observations of young tourists and analyses of their visitor comments.  Lastly, the team expanded to include over 150 adolescents as co-researchers on school trips. These teenagers record their own data through conversations with their peers, photographs, audio recorded notes, and handwritten journals.

As our team’s publications reveal, very young children often explore sites through play and express happiness, reflecting their incomplete understanding of death. Older children show considerable understanding of human suffering, expressing empathy for surviving families as well as emergency responders. Adolescents express many emotions following their visits to memorials and cemeteries, while also offering practical evaluations of their visits and suggestions for improving tours or exhibits.

This emerging research has led to new theoretical conceptualizations, innovative research methods to empower young co-researchers, guidance for educators and parents planning travel, and information that benefits museum professionals and tour guides.  For example, to assist the Flight 93 National Memorial with its vast oral history collection, the team recently partnered with Professor Eleanor Mattern in the School of Computing and Information and her students. 

Currently, several team members serve on the Friends of Flight 93 Education Committee, to assist the National Park Service with new projects such as children’s curriculum and cell phone tours for teen visitors to the Memorial.  The team also shares its work through presentations here and in Europe, publications, and its Facebook page: FLNI Pitt.