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Research sheds light on how children interpret ‘dark tourism’

A portrait of Mary Margaret Kerr

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 this week is a somber reminder of the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Thousands of people — including many young children — will visit 9/11 memorial sites in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Mary Margaret Kerr, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education and Pitt's Department of Psychiatry, has long been curious about how children make meaning of such events. For decades, she has led crisis teams responding to tragedies such as school deaths, accidents, natural disasters and the TWA 800 and U.S. Air 427 aviation disasters.

Her team now works to improve children and youth experiences at tourism sites associated with death, human suffering or difficult heritage. In the travel industry, visits to these locations are known as “dark tourism.”

Dark tourism is a multibillion dollar industry. Every year, millions of tourists from around the world visit the historical grounds of famous war battles, natural or human-caused disasters, prison camps, concentration camps, infamous deaths and assassinations, and mass atrocities.

Kerr is not opposed to children visiting many of these destinations. However, she said, it can be problematic when exhibits and explanations are not designed with children in mind.

"Developmental psychology tells us that children have different understandings of death at different ages," Kerr said. "We cannot just consider them to be little adults. For example, a very young child may arrive at a somber memorial to lives lost but have no idea what it's about because their concept of death is not yet fully developed. Also, children explore sites in ways that are different from adults. They often play, touch and violate what adults may consider solemn rules of behavior for a memorial or dark tourist site."

Along with Philip R. Stone of the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom and Rebecca H. Price (SCI ’06) Kerr is the lead author of a new paper, “Young Tourists' Experiences at Dark Tourism Sites: Towards a Conceptual Framework,” which appeared in the Tourist Studies journal in June 2021. The paper is among the few publications on childhood experiences at dark tourism sites; prior research has primarily concentrated on adults.

"This work has direct relevance to the 9/11 attacks because it was from those attacks that this work grew," said Kerr.

"We were invited by the National Park Service to help them explain the Flight 93 attack to children who visit the site with their parents," Kerr explained. "So we convened a multidisciplinary team of educators, an art therapist and applied developmental psychology students to examine the drawings, toys, letters and notes that children left behind or sent in. By studying those tributes, we began to better understand how children made meaning of the 9/11 attacks."

The result of this collaboration is the Flight 93 National Memorial's Junior Ranger program. It offers activities that encourage children ages 6-12 to explore the site through looking, touching, writing and drawing. Students from the Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School at Pitt field-tested the original program.

One of the most innovative aspects of the research is that five generations of Pitt students, as well as youth from different schools, continue to participate “We still have Pitt alums who began their work with us in 2013. They welcome and mentor our youngest colleagues who are 12 years old,” Kerr said.

Youth researchers from Mechanicsburg, Ohio, have even designed and conducted research for the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

Enhancing educational experiences

In their paper, the authors developed a new conceptual framework to encourage researchers to pay attention to children's experiences, too. "Historically, researchers have overlooked young tourists, so we wanted to provide a guide," Kerr said.

Research on the framework began with archived tributes at two 9/11 sites then expanded to include thousands of children's comments at museums, memorials and monuments. To gain firsthand input from young tourists, the researchers also traveled with more than 300 youth co-researchers to dark tourism sites in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. The work also incorporated feedback from site managers, tour guides, museum interpreters, parents and educators.  

The model describes different aspects of a child's experience that researchers and others might consider. These factors include what young tourists know or believe before they tour, what kinds of exhibits and interpretation they may see and react to and how their interactions with staff and other visitors influence their visit.

"We're excited about this new conceptual framework because we think this research can benefit schools taking kids on field trips. Hopefully, it will also assist tour companies and memorial site staff to design appropriate exhibits, presentations and resources," said Kerr.

As the nation reflects on the impact of 9/11, Kerr said it is important to consider how children think and feel when they visit historical sites associated with death and dying.

“It’s crucial to get this right because children visiting these dark tourism sites today were not alive when many of these events happened,” Kerr said. “So we want to be sure that they have a meaningful experience and understand these important events in our history.”