Death is and endlessly interesting and relevant topic. After all, every human will encounter it one way or another. The common denominator among the many cultural and ideological perspectives on death is the cessation of all biological processes of an organism. But beyond that come rituals, values, and beliefs, all of which are subjective and open to interpretation. This graduation project was about what this subjectivity means for children. Children generally start developing more abstract questions about life and death at the age of 9 to 11. How can we educate children on something that we cannot fully describe and define ourselves?
This graduation project was conducted in collaboration with Nederlands Uitvaart Museum Tot Zover, a museum that aims to encourage people of all ages to reflect on death, mortality, and bereavement. For a couple of years, the museum has had the ambition to increase their impact on children’s death education with an experiential concept that operates outside of the museum walls. This ambition aligned with my own in the overall project goal: I aimed to design the narrative concept of a Tot Zover pop-up exhibition for 9- to 11-year-old children about the subjective aspects of death.
From the project goal, I derived the main research question: How do 9- to 11-year-old children currently learn about the subjective aspects of death and how could storytelling make a positive contribution? Among other activities, I conducted literature research and contextmapping sessions with schoolchildren. I concluded that children currently learn about the subjective aspects of death – now classified as the psychological and metaphysical aspects – in isolation, since the topic is not often discussed. A positive change could be made through storytelling: telling stories to a group of children invites them to share their own experiences, fantasies, and reflections, which promotes feelings of comfort, and which may enrich the perspectives of the listening children.
I used the research insights to form a central theme which the narrative concept should discuss. I defined that the concept should ask children what death means to them instead of teaching them what to think or believe. Children should see that death has many faces and each one may be open to interpretation. Contrary to the current situation, death should not be something the children wish to avoid, but an approachable entity. The concept should present children with a diverse and colorful spectrum of death stories, which may contradict one another or take the children out of their comfort zones.
The theme, using the narrative blueprint called the hero’s journey, was implemented in my design goal: to give 9- to 11-year-old schoolchildren space to: (1) explore death stories, (2) embrace that such stories, in their variety, may be authentic and personal, and (3) explore their own stories. I defined that, through the interactions with my concept, children should feel adventurous, imaginative, acknowledged, and connected.
The criteria led to the design Mijn Eigen Hein, the narrative concept for an exhibition that travels across locations of the OBA (Public Library of Amsterdam). It is a result of an iterative ideation and conceptualization phase, where developing a detailed narrative was complemented by designing the interactables that would bring that narrative to life.
While interacting with the concept, children explore death stories embodied through a collection of 10 Hein masks that represent contrasting perspectives on the subjective aspects of death. They learn to embrace that death can be many things, and that anyone is free to form their opinion. In the climax of their journey, they express their own stories by making their own Hein and add it to the digital collection by scanning it in a presentation ritual.
The design outcome is a storyboard of the children’s learning journey, concept art for the exhibition scenography and prototypes of the learning materials and the collection of Hein masks.
The concept was evaluated with positive results through a prototype test with schoolchildren and through feedback meetings with experts of experience design. I concluded that Mijn Eigen Hein fulfills the design goal. Children understood the story’s moral, and they could use the mask as a canvas for their personal stories. Although it was found that not all children share their deepest ideas, I argued that even those children learn during the journey by hearing their classmates’ diverse stories. The interaction qualities could unfortunately not be evaluated through the test with children, as I found that they do not yet possess the linguistic skills to reflect on their interactions and experiences on the required level of abstraction.
Mijn Eigen Hein has the potential to be a viable way of contributing to death education beyond Tot Zover’s museum walls, by which this project accomplishes its main objective. I would, however, recommend the museum to place the embodiment design concept’s technology high on the priority list. Moreover, Tot Zover will need to attract funding and further develop the narrative with the OBA and possibly other partners if the project is scheduled to launch in September 2023.
In its academic context, the project has generated new insight on the merits of storytelling in death education of 9- to 11-year-old children. More specifically, making use of this age group’s inherent fantastical worldview, although controversial in children’s psychology, proves to make an effective and fitting contribution to breaking the death taboo. If the concept was implemented on a large scale, I could imagine that it would help to shape a generation that is open-minded about other death perspectives and that gives death a healthy place in their lives.