Witte Museum Dives Deep into Community Health with Body Adventure

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Parents, get ready to be jealous or join in on the fun with your kids this Saturday when the H-E-B Body Adventure at The Witte Museum reopens to the public.

About three years total of research, planning, and construction and $5 million later, a state-of-the-art center focused on healthy living emerges for kids of all ages.

And by "body" adventure, they really do mean the whole body. Interactive touch screens and exhibits take children – and adults – on expeditions into internal organs, exercise, diet, meditation and, yes, even poop is fair game.

Children giggle and make faces as they pass the latter exhibit, but you can imagine how that experience – and other stimuli gathered throughout the Body Adventure's four floors – will stick with them. At dinner, they'll talk about the South Texas Trail Blaze bicycle simulation that virtually took them down the entire length of the Mission Reach. Maybe they'll ask to go see the real thing. They'll talk about the life-size anatomy table – how weird people look without skin. They might even ask if they can help cook because they saw how easy it is to cook a healthy meal in the demonstration kitchen (though probably not in as many words).

"Learning, having a great time, and seeing that being healthy can be fun – who knew?" said Kate Rodgers, H-E-B vice president of communications. "It can be scary to be first," but it's an important investment.

A child interacts with the anatomy table during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A child learns about the stomach with the anatomy table during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

If it sounds strange for a museum to take such an active role in health education, that's because it is. The Witte's commitment to move the community health needle in a positive direction via the H-E-B Body Adventure is unmatched in the nation. But, wait, museums are for learning about dinosaurs, culture, science, and art – right?

Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott During the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott During the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

"We want to be relevant to the community, we want to be transformative ... Museums are safe havens for learning," said Witte President and CEO Marise McDermott, standing next to the real, preserved intestinal tract on display on the third floor. "The Witte is being called 'the people's museum' because we have a lot of social equity ... with that there's a responsibility for civic engagement."

More than 430,000 people visit the Witte each year, 170,000 of which are school-aged children. Free admission every Tuesday allows the museum to reach even further into different demographics, especially socio-economic levels. About 80,000 children visit free of charge each year.

"Traditional health education (in schools and doctor's offices) clearly is not having and impact," said Leni Kirkman, University Health System (UHS) vice president of communications.

UHS is a sponsor of the Body Adventure along with H-E-B and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas – among other partners. UHS' specific contribution is as POWERpass sponsor. When entering the Body Adventure, visitors enter their first name, zip code, and age to select a digital tour guide or "buddy" and receive a pass the size of a debit card with your name and a bar code. Most exhibits are activated by scanning the bar code and your buddy, one of 12 actual San Antonians that have gone through a three-month healthy lifestyle makeover, appears in short videos and animations offering healthy tips and information.

While the POWERpass serves as a high-tech way to guide children though exhibits – in addition to the plentiful staff on hand to help with scanning and direction – it's also a powerful data-gathering tool. A POWERprofile is created as visitors interact with different exhibits. The "Pick Up Your Pace" investigation station, for instance, records a your walking silhouette to calculate how long it would take you to walk from the top of the Museum Reach to the end of the Mission Reach on the River Walk. (It would take me five hours, by the way. Not impressive. In my defense, I'm loaded up with a laptop and camera bag.)

A family tries out the "Pick Up Your Pace" investigation station during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A family tries out the "Pick Up Your Pace" investigation station during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

This exhibit also records height and weight. Another, the "All About You" station, asks about your eating, exercise habits, and more – all of which is kept completely confidential as each data set is assigned a number. The print-out visitors can get at the end of their stay doesn't include weight or any potentially embarrassing information, only "fun" information like what your favorite snake or activity is. The photo the exhibit takes is also not saved (at least, I hope not).

In the war against obesity, diabetes, and other diseases, data is one of the greatest allies.

"This aggregated data can inform where resources are needed," Kirkman said. "If 8-year-olds are more healthy than 10-year-olds, then we can start to find out why."

Leni Kirkman, University Health System (UHS) vice president of communications during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Leni Kirkman, University Health System (UHS) vice president of communications during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Each floor of the Body Adventure has a designated theme. The basement, "Discovery," sponsored by the San Antonio Children's Hospital, includes a demonstration kitchen and toddler playscape/vegetable jungle. The main floor, "Movement," has, well, the "moving" exhibits like the virtual Mission Reach bike tour and the "You Are What You Drink," a stair-stepper that demonstrates how long different drinks take to work it off. Spoiler alert: soda takes far too long to be a practical option. Upstairs is "Wellness," that's where the all the guts and meditation exhibits can be found. "Serenity," the roof-top, includes a medicinal herb garden, wind chimes, and similar-sounding Hapi drums.

But worry not, SA natives, the old favorites of the former H-E-B Science Treehouse remain; the faux bois treehouse, the suspended bike ride, outdoor binoculars, Mt. Witte rock climbing, etc.

A child looks down for parental reassurance from mid-way up Mt. Witte during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A child looks down for parental reassurance from mid-way up Mt. Witte during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Extensive programming is already planned throughout the year and there's more to come, said Witte curator of anthropology and exhibit researcher/designer Bryan Bayles during an interview earlier this year. "There needs to be a culture shift ... the doctor's office can be a scary context to learn about health and wellness. (The Body Adventure) lets kids make connections between fun activities and how bodies work."

The grand opening ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 24, promises to be quite the big to-do with the expected attendance of Mayor Julián Castro, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and a host of representatives from supporting entities which includes the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, Aetna, The Baptist Health Foundation of San Antonio, Culinary Institute of America, Dr. Dacia Napier, Saint Susie Charitable Foundation, and a host of other partners.

Curator of Anthropology and exhibit researcher/designer Bryan Bayles poses for a photo during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Curator of Anthropology and exhibit researcher/designer Bryan Bayles poses for a photo during the Witte Museum H-E-B Body Adventure media preview event May 23, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

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