TRAVEL AND TOURISM doesn’t always involve comfortable topics of conversation. No matter where we go in this world, nestled close to the heart of a destination is an undercurrent of controversy, whether cultural, physical or spiritual, temporary or permanent.
The Anchorage Museum’s newest exhibit, “Body Worlds Vital” opens Friday, September 28th, and already, a stream of inquiries are flying from the keyboards of concerned parents who want to know, really, if such an exhibit displaying bodies at their most vulnerable is appropriate for children. It’s a good question, and one, I believe, is almost impossible to answer with a blanket “yes” or “no.”
Human beings are unique in so many ways beyond that which we see with our own eyes, not unlike those individuals part of the Body Worlds Vital exhibit. Each of us, from birth, possesses different levels of curiosity, comfort, and tolerance for things we experience. What is fascinating to one will not necessarily be so for all, even among members of our own family or age group. When I was 17 I visited Dachau, a former German Concentration camp located just outside the city limits of Munich. While many of my peers quietly toured the barracks and read the many testimonials and descriptions of the horrors conducted at the site, I looked for lasting signs of humanity among the crunchy gravel walkways and dusty concrete crematories. A flower growing here, a name scratched on a wall there. I spent the three hours crouching low, feeling, smelling, listening. I cried at the foot of a blooming cherry tree. My point? All of us came away with something of value, but none of us through the same method. Would I have still gone if I’d known how terribly difficult it would be? Am I a better person for having stood on the grounds of atrocity? Absolutely.
At last year's Mammoth and Mastadons exhibit, viewing the baby mammoth who was stuck in the muck and died...
Tackling controversial subjects while on vacation, or simply as a family outing in your own community, is one of the toughest calls a parent must make. Fortunately, however, a quality facility or attraction will provide parents with valuable information regarding exhibit content, age-appropriateness, and intended goals. But here’s the kicker: It’s your call. Only you know your child, his or her personality, level of sensitivity, and maturity. Still not sure? Below are a few other points to ponder before you buy tickets or say “yes” to a school field trip:
• Know the goal and mission of the exhibit and/or attraction. Most exhibits are part of a larger organization (like the Anchorage Museum) with specific outcomes designated ahead of time. Look for family/child guides to help facilitate discussion. If you don’t see the background information on an exhibit, ask. Same goes for your child’s school, if he or she will be visiting on a field trip.
• Make a connection between what your child will see or do, and his own life/body/world. In the case of Body Worlds, organizers want kids to see the value of a healthy lifestyle - no smoking, regular exercise and nutrition. Children are interested in something that relates to their world, so place them squarely in the middle.
• Be there. Attend if you can, even if it means taking time out from a busy schedule. Some kids naturally need more adult support than others, but all kids, whether they verbalize it or not, would appreciate a familiar face during an uncertain experience. Your reaction will be their reaction, in a sense, so make sure you are always appropriate and respectful.
• Make no expectations. Your child may walk into a room and burst into tears; or, she may become so intrigued that the forest disappears for the trees. Keep options open, be supportive, and offer a quiet exit and comfortable ear should things become too intense. For patrons of Body Worlds who decide after entering that the exhibit isn't for their family, the Anchorage Museum will issue a refund immediately after entry.
Should you allow your kids to experience the difficult sights, all age and maturity taken into account? You bet. Life isn’t always beautiful or fun. Painting a real-life picture about aspects of living, dying, or suffering can be a powerful lesson, taught by you.
Need more information about Body Worlds Vital? Visit the Anchorage Museum’s website and click the exhibit icon.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to family travel and outdoor recreation in Alaska. She lives in Anchorage with her husband and youngest son.