When I visited the Pentagon Memorial for the first time last weekend, I was struck by the cohesive simplicity of the memorial, the way every design element has meaning that helps the memorial speak for itself. The benches, which evoke the shape of airplane wings, are arranged in order by birth year. Each bench’s direction reflects whether the person died in the Pentagon or in the airplane on September 11, 2001. On this autumn day, the red leaves were brilliant, and the United States Air Force Memorial could be seen in the distance.
The atmosphere at the memorial was quiet – until a busload of (what looked like) middle school students arrived. Some seemed subdued by the place, while others shouted to each other about something having to do with cell phones. Groups of friends posed on the benches while adults clicked cameras and smartphones.
At first these youngsters’ behavior made me shake my head, but then it occurred to me that they may not have even been alive when terrorists crashed a plane into the Pentagon. These kids, either not yet born or just babies on 9/11, seemed disrespectful in the perception of someone who lived through it.
I did not live through World War II, but there are many people alive today who did, and perhaps my behavior at the WWII Memorial on past occasions has seemed disrespectful to older visitors. Friends and I continued our conversations when we arrived at the memorial, and we have sometimes photographed each other posing cheerfully, or even goofily, next to the names of states to which we have a personal connection, such as where we grew up and where we went to college.
I may be comparing apples and oranges. The historical context of WWII and 9/11, and the way each lives in the nation’s collective memory, are not the same. Each time I have gone to the WWII Memorial, there were plenty of other visitors in a lighthearted mood. Nevertheless, analyzing my own behavior as a memorial visitor made me slower to judge the middle school class at the Pentagon Memorial.
How, then, can educators instill a sense of solemnity in young visitors – not just because an older person may be present, but because the memorial itself represents something serious in the minds of visitors of all ages? The Pentagon Memorial, which incorporates pertinent facts into design elements rather than an exhibit providing background information, might not be enough to inspire a respectful attitude in its younger visitors who are less familiar with the memorial’s story. Thus, a pre-visit lesson to provide context and elicit empathy would be beneficial.
There are plenty of places in the DC area where visitors can engage with multifaceted exhibit about September 11. I remember my time working in the 9/11 Gallery at the Newseum, which contained a combination of objects, text, newspaper covers, and video footage that required us to keep a supply of tissues in the space at all times. Often I saw adolescents enter the exhibit poking each other, talking loudly, and playing with their phones. They left in silence, their faces looking a little bit longer than before.
I have worked at a school where we taught three-year-olds “museum manners.” What about memorial manners? What do they look like, and how can they best be brought out?