On December 26, 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake created a devastating tsunami that struck 12 countries around the Indian Ocean. Over 250,000 people lost their lives and over 2.3 million were left homeless.
Three months after the tsunami, I visited Thailand to conduct a research project and interview 250 survivors. During a follow-up study in March 2006, I discovered that many residents did not have a good understanding about the warning signs of a tsunami, how to evacuate, or how tsunamis form. It was then that I had the idea of building an educational museum in Khao Lak, an area especially hard hit. A museum could educate the public about tsunamis and help people move forward with their lives by emphasizing hope, resilience, and the strength of human spirit.
A business owner in Khao Lak made a space available for the museum, and he offered to oversee the museum's daily operation. Because individuals and organizations around the world aided with the recovery, we named the museum the International Tsunami Museum.
To provide a way for students to participate, I developed an independent study project in which students designed educational exhibits for the museum. Through this project, students learned how psychological research findings can be applied to promote education, mental health, social awareness, and compassion.
Activities and Exhibits
At the beginning of the independent study course, I presented an overview of theory and research on disaster preparedness and cross-cultural responses to traumatic events. During subsequent brainstorming sessions, students suggested potential topics for the exhibits. Once we agreed on a final set of topics, the students and I conducted literature reviews, drafted text for the exhibits, and located relevant video clips, photos, and other graphics. The students then presented what they found, and the group and I provided ideas for improvement.
Next, the students submitted revisions that incorporated this feedback, and I gave each exhibit one last round of editing before asking students who spoke Thai to translate the material from English to Thai (the exhibits appear in both English and Thai). Finally, a talented graphic designer at my university assembled the text and graphics to create professional exhibits. Here is a list of the exhibits we used:
- Earthquakes, Tectonic Plates, and Tsunamis (describes how earthquakes form and create tsunamis)
- The Effects of the Tsunami on the Environment (summarizes how the tsunami damaged underwater and land areas, including water well contamination)
- Rebuilding Livelihoods and Communities (describes how the tsunami affected people's lives, including special challenges facing women and children)
- The World Becomes One (lists more than 60 countries and 170 organizations and businesses that provided aid)
- Working Together for Recovery and Reconstruction (double exhibit on relief and recovery organizations such as UNICEF, the Red Cross, and World Bank)
- What Are the Warning Signs of a Tsunami? (presents the environmental signals that a tsunami may be coming)
- The Tsunami Warning System Established (overview of efforts by more than 26 countries to develop a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean)
- Personal Stories: Care and Compassion Around the World (highlights the efforts of individual citizens who took action to help survivors of the tsunami)
A Note on Funding
Although exhibits, museums, and archives can often be created inexpensively for local purposes or for posting on the web, the International Tsunami Museum was a relatively ambitious project that required seed funding. This support was secured through a generous $5,000 grant from the Center for Cross-Cultural Research at Western Washington University.
Among other things, this funding allowed me and four students to visit Khao Lak, Thailand, in December of 2006 to set up the museum. The work included painting the walls, building wood frames for the exhibits, hanging the exhibits, installing track lighting, and other tasks. After 12 days, the museum opened for visitors on December 21, 2006.
Evaluating the Museum
The museum had more than 3,000 visitors in the first week. As the following comments suggest, the response was overwhelmingly positive:
"Thank you for providing an educational approach to understanding this world tragedy."
"I am very impressed with the museum, and it will educate locals and tourists. Great work!"
"The museum is interesting and visiting it is a positive experience."
In addition, one afternoon we surveyed 38 visitors (an 85% response rate) using 4-point scales that ranged from 1 ("not at all") to 4 ("very much"). Mean ratings exceeded 3.5 on self-report items assessing whether people felt the museum increased understanding about what causes a tsunami; warning signs of a tsunami; how to evacuate; how tsunamis affect ocean, land, and society; and worldwide aid. Visitors also reported that the museum was interesting and inspiring, and that their overall impression was positive.
Helping Local Schools
Schools in the Khao Lak area are struggling to meet student needs and provide meals and supplies for the children. Because visitors to the museum can leave a voluntary donation, we arranged for these donations to help the local schools. For example, museum donations are being used to buy mattresses with mosquito netting to protect kindergarteners from dengue fever when they take naps. The tsunami had contaminated the water well of one village school, so donations are also being used to purchase one year of safe drinking water for the school. Providing support to local village schools is an additional way that the museum helps the community.
Student Evaluations of the Project
Students unanimously praised the museum project. They reported that the project enhanced their critical thinking skills, interest in and enthusiasm for research, and sense of social responsibility. They learned firsthand about theory and research, cross-cultural issues, and how to apply research to help people who experienced the fourth deadliest disaster in history. Some students even stated the museum project would remain a highlight of their lives.
Adapting the Project for Other Uses
Archives and museums related to natural disasters can lay the foundation for future classes to update and expand the material in important ways. Apart from natural disasters, though, this project can readily be adapted for use with other topics, and exhibits can be displayed in locations other than a museum. For instance, depending on the time and resources available, students might develop exhibits to educate school children, college students, or the public to promote self-protective behaviors such as choosing healthy foods, coping with stress, or avoiding smoking. Exhibits on these or other topics might be displayed in high schools (e.g., cafeterias or hallways), colleges (e.g., dormitories, hallways, or galleries), or other buildings (e.g., waiting rooms).
Of course, even when projects do not require travel or funding, they can be time-consuming and necessitate advanced planning. In my experience, however, the result is worth the effort and represents a meaningful way to teach about psychological research while contributing to the community.