Story 04: Where Did the Ideas Come From?

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Death: the Ultimate Taboo Exhibit Topic for Children

Written by Janet Kamien

A few years later, our friend and colleague Kaki Aldrich began a slow and painful descent from a healthy, energetic natural history teacher to cancer victim. Death and regeneration in nature was something she frequently spoke about with kids. Now, she was preparing her own children for her probable demise. She began to conceive an exhibit idea about death and dying, and because she was so sick, I, with the experience of another "difficult topic," was assigned to work with her in 1977. Kaki did die in 1980, shortly after our move to the Wharf. But we had become committed to the idea, convinced that this was another topic of great interest and importance to kids that nobody talked about. However, exploring the topic of death and dying would not be so serendipitously funded.

In fact, we carried the topic around for more than five years. Many funders expressed initial interest and just as quickly turned away. A federal agency, after reading the preliminary proposal whose submission they had encouraged, refused to review a final: it was "really about death" they said and suggested some less straightforward approaches that didn't interest us. Eventually, in 1981, the Massachusetts Council for the Humanities funded the effort, but the internal disagreements that lived on within the museum echoed the original funder concerns. In a nutshell, many people wanted the exhibit to be less straightforward, less "really about death."

As exhibit developer, I did all the usual things one might do to create an exhibit on any topic. I formed an advisory committee, found the resources available in the community, interviewed experts—from grief counselors to cemetery managers—read extensively, and as we had done with What If, tried out potential exhibit material with visitors. The more I learned, the more I pondered, and the more committed I became to the material and to the idea of the exhibit. My own parents had both died young—within the time period of this exhibit's inception—so, like a Method actor, I had this experience and the feelings it had engendered to work with as well.

The most compelling thing though, was the fact that when I revealed to even total strangers what I was working on they almost invariably had the following reaction: first, they expressed disbelief ("An exhibit about death in a children's museum? Is that a good idea?") and second, they told me a story about death. I didn't ask, they just told. The stories were sometimes knowing, sometimes questioning, sometimes fretful and complaining, sometimes guilty, sometimes angry. Most indicated an unvarnished need to talk about this thing called death —to seek society about it. The contradictory nature of these exchanges—"You probably shouldn't talk about this! Hey, let's talk about this!"—was jarring, but it taught me a lot, especially since many of the stories were from the talkers' childhoods. They reinforced for me the need for just the kind of set-aside, timeless place for conversation that an exhibit space can provide. It also told me that the exhibit would need to be straightforward, and I completely shed the natural history "web of life" approach that Kaki and I had begun with.

But, I was still missing the "spine" of the exhibit, the organizational method. I began to see what the parts might be that were in some ways throwbacks to other exhibit efforts of gear, experiences and stories. But I could not see a whole, just a bunch of more or less important parts.

Simultaneously, within the museum, all kinds of forces were coalescing against the exhibit, from maintenance staff to board members. As I had dutifully shared various ideas about the exhibit in staff meetings, I now began to get feedback. Maintenance staff were stocking up on the stuff you use to clear up vomit. Security staff said they would not stay overnight in the building if I put in a coffin. My boss wasn't crazy about a coffin either: if there had to be one, it would have to be shown closed. (So kids could wonder if there was someone inside?! "Oh, no!," I thought.)

A nationally prominent friend of the museum told me to abandon the idea altogether, and if I insisted on it, to tell a story of loss, grief and regeneration in fairy tale or mythological terms. A board member was just as adamant. After all, the subject could be touched upon just as easily by a bit in the natural history space, the annual celebration of O bon, the Japanese Buddhist celebration of ancestors, in the Japanese House. There was no reason to dwell on it. Even my advisory group was balky. An idea for a story about a grandparent dying was no good because the grandparents of so many children die, and such a story might upset kids who'd had the experience. (This was, of course, the very reason to do a story about a grandparent dying—not to upset kids, but because it was the experience of so many.) The idea of a truly beautiful time-lapse film of a field mouse decomposing in nature was bad because it reminded one of my religious consultants that, like the mouse, his mother's body must be decomposing too. Of course there were also exhibit supporters, particularly another board member who spoke up about the appropriateness and need to explore the topic.

By 1982, about eighteen months into development, I had pretty much solved the exhibition's structural problems by digging into developmental theory around how children conceptualize death at different ages and linking this to specific exhibit experiences and themes. But the rest of the endeavor was absolutely falling apart. If I took everyone's advice or even just that of the exhibit's supporters, there would be no exhibit at all, since each aspect, each film or photo, each object, seemed to make someone terribly uncomfortable.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Mike Spock's son Peter died. He and his family went into seclusion. When they came out, Mike and his surviving son, Dan, addressed the staff, told them what had happened, how they were coping and invited conversation. Later, Mike took me aside and told me that the exhibit had taken on a new importance for him, and that I should trust my instincts and come to him for support if I needed it.

Additionally, Dr. Marty Norman, "company shrink," gave me some much needed support. Marty gave all of us, but especially front-line people who dealt with the public all day, regular support through a small on-going consultancy with the Visitor Center. He told me that I shouldn't worry about people "uncorking" in the exhibit. He underlined this by explaining that it is often his role to try and get people to open up over a loss and that for many, it was tough sledding. He didn't think a person who was in buried pain over the death of a loved one was going to suddenly lose control in a public space. Essentially, his message was, "it should be so easy."

I began to understand something vital. People who had had close experiences with the death of loved ones seemed to make one of two choices. They either pushed the experience—perhaps through pain, perhaps through guilt, or perhaps through the lack of anybody to talk about it with—as far away as possible. They didn't want to be reminded, period. Others sought exploration, ideas, conversation as a way to get through the experience and process it. When coupled with mainstream society's fears and taboos around the subject, it was easy to see why some people wanted so vehemently to push it all away, and also easy to see why others were still waiting for somebody who would listen to their stories. Religious beliefs didn't seem to have much to do with these kinds of choices one way or the other.

In any case, Mike gave me the inspiration, the strength, and let's face it, the clout, to create the exhibit as a whole experience. And Marty gave me the confidence that no one would be unhinged by it.

So, with designer Signe Hanson, I persevered. She tried to find a "look" for the exhibit that was neither too cute nor too dour. She also designed an entryway. In the new building on the Wharf, most of our exhibits unceremoniously began as one entered a building bay. But we had learned in try-outs that the worst mistake we could make with this material was to spring it on visitors with no warning. So, Sing designed an entry that forced visitors to consciously chose to go in and clear signage that told visitors what the space was about (See photo inset on chapter cover page).

Though the worries among some members of the staff and board continued, it was clear that this exhibit really was going to happen, and while I attended to specific concerns, like how to actually display the coffin we'd acquired (standing up, open, and very, very empty), I took Mike and Marty's support to heart and followed my instincts. I looked for artifacts in the collection, the community and from our staff, especially for sections that spoke of how we keep mementoes to remember loved ones, or the kinds of things that we bury our loved ones with, a rosary, a bit of Jerusalem earth, ancient Egyptian amulets, etc. In the end, we left nothing out.

Next: How Did We Get Away with It?