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Friday, April 13, 2012

New ECHO Exhibit Gets Under Your Skin

Posted By on Fri, Apr 13, 2012 at 5:39 PM

click to enlarge BECKY THARP

A nationally renowned anatomical exhibit opens tomorrow at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, but you’ll want to read this before you take your kids to see it.

Our Body: The Universe Within displays actual human bodies with various functional systems exposed for viewing. The cadavers are preserved using a polymer impregnation process, rendering the specimens strangely plasticized and thankfully odor-free. I attended an advance press tour to get a peek at the displays. My take-away? You and your kids can learn a lot from this exhibit — if you’re not too squeamish.

This exhibit is the largest in ECHO’s history, and it’s the first in the museum’s newly expanded space. I’ve visited many times with my two boys, but this is ECHO as I have never seen it before.

Our Body differs from a typical ECHO exhibit in a few key ways.

click to enlarge BECKY THARP

First, Our Body is generally marketed to adult audiences. Though ECHO emphasizes its all-ages appeal, the museum’s traveling exhibits are typically geared to a much younger crowd. The recent Grossology exhibit, for example, posed deep questions such as “what makes a fart smell?” and “how are burps made?” It was a big hit with the under-15 crowd. Our Body will appeal to a more varied and sophisticated audience. Wander through it, and you won’t just learn about human anatomy; you’ll find yourself pondering mortality, and where the lines between scientific exploration, art and respect for dead bodies should be drawn.

Second, previous traveling exhibits have been open to all visitors to the museum. Not so Our Body — this one requires an extra cash investment in addition to general admission. Regular tickets to the museum are $9.50 for kids and $12.50 for adults. Admission to Our Body bumps the ticket price up to $17.50 for kids and $22.50 for adults.

Finally, where Grossology was an open-doors, come-and-go-as-you-like experience, Our Body requires timed ticketing. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed into the exhibit at regularly scheduled intervals. A trip to see it involves a bit more planning than your usual ECHO jaunt. On the plus side, this arrangement resolves crowding issues inside the exhibit space and allows time for quiet reflection, careful observation and answering questions from curious kids.

I went to the exhibit wondering if I would bring my two boys, who are 10 and 6. After having perused the scene, I think I will — if they want to see it. Jim Marila, the exhibit’s installation manager, who travels with it all over the country, says that bringing a child to this display is a personal decision best made by parents who know their kids.

Marila also noted that the kids’ responses vary in surprising ways. He says that very young children, under 6, tend to enjoy the exhibit for its artistic display and seem untroubled by the deeper questions it raises. Kids ages 6 to 12 are more likely to be a bit more disturbed by it and aware of the living people who once inhabited those bodies. As kids mature past 12 though, they tend to regain the appreciation of the exhibit as art and begin to see the value in the science of peering underneath the skin, according to Marila.

click to enlarge BECKY THARP

Whatever the age of your child, it’s wise to have a conversation about Our Body at home, before you arrive at the door. The experience of standing beside a body of a man with his own skin draped like a hide over his arm is definitely something you should prepare for.

It’s important to note that while the exhibit is sizable for the museum, it’s also totally enclosed; there is zero chance that you will come face-to-face with a cadaver unless you choose, and pay, to do so. Fans of regular museum attractions can rest assured that all the ECHO classics — the water table, turtle tanks and playroom — are unchanged and will continue to be available for patrons to enjoy, with or without body-viewing.

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