Showing My Kid a Torture Room
Things I’ve learned from visiting museums and cultural sites with a preschooler
Our family is currently travelling, trying to get a glimpse of some of the world before our son starts school and getting away from daily life becomes harder. So far we’ve visited nine countries, countless cities and a lot (a lot) of museums.
It’s what you do, right? Visiting the key cultural sites of the area and museums which tell its history are an important way of understanding where you are, and paying your respects to the people who came before you. Small Child has been trotted round museums (and, let’s be honest, gift shops and cafés) since he was a baby, and I’ve worked in education long enough that I’m pretty good at navigating them and love the chats which our visits can prompt.
Some spaces are shiny and clear and designed for under 5s to press buttons and run around safely. Some are crumbling castles with sheer drops to one side and some are monuments to recent conflicts. Some are easy plods around, enjoying experiments and learning how the world works.
Some lead to difficult conversations about humanity, and cruelty and why some buildings we walk past have bullet holes in them.
Here are five things I’ve learnt from visiting museums with a three year old, and how they’ve helped me think about history in a new way.
1. Small children are curious about people.
History is, in the main, people. It’s people who discover, it’s people who travel, it’s people with power and people without (although it’s often difficult to find their stories). Entering buildings which explain about people who live very different lives to a middle class kid from Scotland might seem like there is an unpassable void between them and him but — after all — people are people. Children are children, whether they were Vikings or born in World War 2 or living in 18th century Spain. Hearing about people and the choices they made is endlessly fascinating to small children who are still working out who they are and how to behave.
Often when we visit somewhere there’ll be a lot of dates and facts and statistics; I try to look for the people. Find the faces in the paintings and talk about their expression, why they had to do what they did and what you could have done if you were in their position. Saying something is 178 years or 1,178 years ago is slightly meaningless when you can’t even remember your last birthday. Saying that this servant boy had to live in a kitchen and wouldn’t have been able to go to school…that means something.
2. History is biased. It’s my job to try and balance it.
I’ve been really shocked by a couple of places we’ve visited. And yes, I realise I sound like the worst kind of pearl-clutching white person, unaware of the injustices of the world, but I’ve been really surprised at the angle taken in many places when the history of the area is being retold for modern day visitors.
Winston Churchill probably didn’t actually say “history is written by the victors”, but it’s still true for most places on earth. Whether it’s hearing about the noble crusaders (violent invaders), the savage Muslims living in local villages (people living their lives peacefully down the road from the wrong castle) or the brave European adventurers who came back with (stolen) treasure, there’s been a confident whitewashing of the past in many places we’ve visited.
I am not a historian. But I’ve learnt the value of standing in front of a fabulously dressed mannequin of some white dude and asking my son what he thought it felt like for the people whose land he invaded.
His answers, as you can probably guess, have always cut to the heart of the importance of thinking about different sides of the story. I’m not in any way suggesting that we don’t need to know about the leaders and rulers who shaped the world: just try and take a moment to think about those who got trodden on by their big old golden boots.
3. Time makes more of a difference to me than him.
History is filled with brutality, but I definitely feel the punch of injustice more when it’s in recent memory. I feel removed enough from the Romans, or the Aztecs to learn about their history, punishments and invasions in a detached way. I am much more likely to sob and be angry when learning about tortures which happened in the 20th and 21st century. For me, it’s because I can see the ripples of these acts still causing waves in the world we live in.
That difference of time doesn’t mean as much when you’re three. I learnt that when I thought I was showing him an interesting thing about a dead Egyptian mother and child from thousands of years ago, which was to him still “a dead Mummy and her baby”. One wobbly lip and a lot of hugs later, I’ve become a bit more alert to delivering the latest news from Ancient Egypt.
4. Stories are the best way to communicate.
The best museums know this, and tell visitors about how people lived, or how things work, through stories and narratives which are easy to digest and remember. Where those aren’t provided, but we have the bones of facts, we’ve taken to creating stories about how palaces were built, how a travelling salesman would have felt when they saw it for the first time, and how tired the stonemasons must have been after a long day on the gargoyles.
Some of our stories have been retold and twisted over many bedtimes but the heart of the message remains: the importance of trying to understand who and what came before you.
5. You will need to decide where your lines are (and understand what a privilege it is that you can do that).
I really did show my child a torture room. We recently visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: an important place which stands testament to a very recent conflict, including explaining the ongoing effects of Agent Orange. It was, as an adult, overwhelming and a lot to take in.
While we were outside, Small Child noticed some things in the corner of the yard.
“What are those?”
“They’re bombs, love.”
“Are they for hurting people?”
“That’s what they were designed for, yes. But these ones don’t work any more, and so they’re just in this museum to remind people that it’s not good to hurt people.”
There was a long silence. Then more chat, which ended up with us shaking hands on an agreement to try and not hurt anyone.
Inside there were exhibitions which we had really interesting talks about, such as the international protests against the war and what you can do when you think something unfair is happening. And there were photos, of course, of dead bodies. Of a woman with a knife to her throat. Of a child begging a soldier not to hurt her Daddy. And, in the yard, were the ‘tiger cages’ which were used to hold prisoners in unimaginably inhumane conditions.
I didn’t show him most of it. We did talk about the war, and how people were hurt but I decided that he wouldn’t understand that more, or get more empathy, from seeing a photo of a dead body. I know that there are parents in the world who would give anything to be able to shield their child from death. I know I’m lucky to be a distant observer to so much tragedy. I know that the best thing I can do is instil in my child a sense that the past is an important thing to learn from and, within those stories, seek out the kindness. Find the places where people helped, where doctors worked, where teachers were brave and where the lost were found. Acknowledge the past without dwelling on details which would only cause more hurt, and wouldn’t help understanding.
I’m still learning where my line is.
As we left, we walked past the tiger cages.
“What were they for, Mummy?”
“Well, you know the war we were talking about? They were used during that to keep people in.”
“They don’t look nice.”
“No. No they weren’t. Here are photos of some people who were kept in there, talking about it after they got out. They said it was horrible.”
“I don’t like it either.”
“No, that’s fair. Shall we go?”
“Yeah. You shouldn’t hurt people, should you?”
“No pal. You should really try not to.”
Thanks for reading! I’ve written a few other pieces which you might enjoy…
Where To Go When You’re Feeling Sad and Lost
Or…why I always try and know where the library is.