Many heritage institutions broach topics and themes that have the potential to be emotionally difficult for visitors. The holocaust, wars, slavery, residential schools, and numerous other topics are addressed by heritage organizations across the world. Physical displays, archival records, and digital material all have the potential to be triggering – especially if the topic being addressed is emotionally sensitive or has a personal connection to patrons.
How do heritage organizations broach collections that contain material which may be considered triggering? Careful consideration should be put into displays, contextual information, and the general presentation of material. Ideally organizations will have established policies for handling this type of material and include members from the impacted community in the design process to provide guidance.
In addition to careful display planning many heritage institutions which deal with sensitive material have health support on staff. Health support workers can have a variety of training, but typically they have some experience in social work or mental health counseling. Health support can be invaluable for patrons who are triggered by material in a heritage institution.
Even organizations which cannot afford to hire a health support person full-time should look into providing all their front line staff with basic health awareness training. This training should touch on possible triggers, how to identify people who have been triggered, techniques for approaching and talking to someone who is emotionally triggered, and coping skills for dealing with sensitive information.
Heritage institutions are gateways to the past. It is crucial that staff are aware that this gateway can open up to memories which are not always pleasant. History needs to approached respectfully and patron care is essential to respectful presentation of the past.