Take the time to honor the sacrifices made by members of the armed services during wartime with a family outing to the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. Located in the Six Corners neighborhood, this popular museum is exclusively dedicated to art produced by veterans of Vietnam and other wars, providing a truly unique perspective on their experiences that you just won’t get in a history museum. Some of the imagery might be too intense for your littlest ones, but if your kids are middle school-aged or higher, drop by and help them see the world through the eyes of an American soldier.
As you enter the handsome red brick building, you’re immediately confronted by a massive sculpture from the current exhibit, “Surrealism and War.” This floor-to-ceiling installation, titled The Earth Lies Screaming, was created by Korean War veteran Jim Leedy and is made of 3-D bones and skulls jutting out of the wall. Your children might recoil from the grim portrayal, but you use this as a chance to explain the difficulties veterans face upon returning home after they witness the atrocities of war.
There’s so much to see here that a guided tour is essential. A museum volunteer–often a veteran–will guide you through the halls and galleries, sharing facts about the artists as well as a few personal wartime memories. Take advantage of this chance to ask questions about the experience of going to war, and how creating art can help with the transition back to civilian life.
If your kids have learned about the Vietnam War in school through Tim O’Brien’s famed collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, bring them to the museum’s permanent interactive exhibit, which is a visual companion to the book and uses artifacts, fine art, and photography to illustrate the narrative.
After everyone has thoroughly rummaged through the P-38 can openers, dog tags, Kool-Aid packets, and canteens detailed in the story’s introduction, head to Occupation, an interactive work by Ehren Tool. In this living exhibit, Tool personally produces ceramic cups about and for veterans in his temporary studio inside the National Veterans Art Museum. He has made over 14,000 cups to date, and he’ll fashion one for your family while you discuss the deeper meaning behind his project.
As you leave, look up at the permanent Vietnam veterans memorial on the entryway’s ceiling titled Above and Beyond, which is composed of more than 58,000 dog tags–one for each of the servicemen and servicewomen who died in Vietnam. Though the sight is emotionally draining, you feel somehow inspired and soothed by its delicate details and quiet, swaying motion.