Deflating myths about the aging process

A new museum exhibit explores social attitudes about growing old, and puts a human face on aging.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Aging is not a topic many people like to think about. Older individuals are often seen as pushed to the margins of society, misrepresented in the media, and their contributions undervalued.

An interactive museum exhibit may help change these misperceptions. And not a moment too soon. Seniors 80 and older are the fastest-growing age group in the United States, Japan, and Europe. By the year 2100, 5 million people will have reached their 100th birthday, compared with an estimated 70,000 today.

"Secrets of Aging" recently opened at Boston's Museum of Science in response to a visitor survey that ranked aging as the No. 1 topic of interest. The show not only explores longevity, but celebrates the increasing wisdom and varied experiences of elders.

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Developed by the museum with the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative, the show features a variety of hands-on exhibits, interactive programs, videos, and live performance.

The exhibit offers a great deal of scientific and medical research on the physical process of aging, as well as the effects of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

As you might expect, it presents many of the conventionally held opinions about human aging. But it also stretches beyond this point of view and seeks to change some of the negative perceptions of the subject.

A variety of booths and games show how aging can change an individual's perception of sight, smell, taste, and other sensory experiences. The interactive t'ai chi ch'uan exhibits allows visitors to experience the gentle Chinese martial art form. Visitors can try some simple tai chi moves by matching their shadow to the movements of a silhouette projected on a blank screen.

The most affecting aspects of the show are those that explore the emotional and sociological impacts of aging, helping to put a personal face on the subject.

This was reflected in the comments of visiting student Clay Ciccariello, who summed up the exhibit, saying, "It helps me see that you're not that different when you are older."

Sprinkled throughout the exhibit are eight life-size 3-D figures that speak as visitors walk by. Each has its own distinct personality, imparts a different personal statement on the process of aging, and acts as a virtual tour guide for the exhibit.

Visitors are invited to look into mirrored portholes that allow one to peer through another's eyes and imagine what it would be like to be another age, another person. There are exhibits that explore different social circles in diverse cultures, showing how a society's perception of age can both define and constrain. One area focuses on centenarians - who they are, their effect on society, and some myths of longevity. (The documented age record is still held by Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who lived to be 122.)

Another cluster includes videos of children in conversation with their grandparents and a photo essay that extols some of the positive attitudes that contribute to full, active, and pleasurable lives. One of the more provocative of the interactive exhibits allows visitors to select from among a number of celebrity videos - from people as diverse as Walter Cronkite and Maya Angelou - and choose from a menu of preselected questions to ask them about aging, such as, "What lesson has life taught you?"

For example, humorist Art Buchwald says he thinks less about dying than about his funeral, for which he hopes "everyone will get the day off and work very hard on their speeches."

Feedback from visitors has been positive, says Jan Crocker, the exhibit's project manager. The museum even received a letter asking for a list of questions posed to the celebrity interviewees so the person could interview her 90-year-old grandmother. "We're really getting families to talk to one another about aging," Ms. Crocker says. "Our hope has always been to get that multi-generational conversation going.... We want people to develop a sense that aging is about living, about how we choose to live, which shapes who we are in old age, and the range of diversity in how we age is huge."

One of the most compelling aspects of the show is the touching "Journey with Me: Stories of Growing Older," a video presentation developed by Roberta Cooks in conjunction with the intergenerational Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.

Ms. Cooks aims to create a piece "where people could linger on the emotional impact of the experience of aging," and the video's combination of powerful and poignant life stories with interpretive movement shows how physically vibrant and expressive a person can be at any age.

A play presented three times a day explores how our experience of aging is often shaped by our health, attitudes, and sense of community. The 20-minute, two-person "Aging Puzzle" was created from oral-history interviews, and the vignettes allow actors to embody a range of characters who reflect on the process of growing older.

"The public is seriously uninformed about aging, sharig many misconceptions," says the museum's president and director, David Ellis. "We hope visitors can see aging in a new light, as a normal part of a life span." In fact, the overall message of the exhibit is that aging is a universal human process.

Although much in this exhibit may reinforce society's tendency to view aging with apprehension, it also helps promote a different conception - that growing older can be a growth in experience and understanding, an evolution of self that warrants honor, respect, and celebration.

* "Secrets of Aging" continues at Boston's Museum of Science through Sept. 4, then tours to five other sites over the next three years: Columbus Science Institute, Columbus, Ohio; California Science Center in Los Angeles; The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia; Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Fort Worth, Texas; Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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