The American Museum of Natural History's new show "Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit" is dramatic on two accounts. First, it is a fascinating compilation of photos, clips and artifacts that give us insight into the life and culture of Vietnam. Also significant is the timing. It comes when the United States, in defiance of much of the world and many Americans as well, is looking toward a military invasion of another country to solve a perceived problem, just as happened in Vietnam, ending in a debacle. The situations are not the same, but time has impressed upon us how different things can look years after the toll of casualties and physical destruction. We have never really known much about Vietnam, and this exhibit that continues through January 4, 2004 is an eye opener. It is a cultural liaison under the auspices of one of our great museums, and it should serve to make us do some further thinking about the rebuilt country.

Much of the exhibition is devoted to fostering an understanding of Vietnamese customs, including marriage rituals, funerals, traditions, religion and other aspects of life. The photographs and video clips give us close-ups of what Vietnam looks like today, both in the cities and in the countryside. There is background information about development over a period of about 2000 years. Some of the textiles you can see are exquisite, and the same can be said for many of the ceramics, masks and sculptures. The various items included reflect much about the country and its people. For example, three large turtle puppets represent a legend of a hero's sword having been retrieved from a lake by a giant tortoise.

The exhibition has been jointly curated by Nguyen Van Huy, director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, and Laurel Kendall, curator of the Museum's Division of Anthropology. In addition to the show, a series of events has been organized, including lectures, panel discussions and films. There is also a parallel exhibition called "Discovering Vietnam's Biodiversity," consisting of 35 large-format color photographs dealing with plant and animal life.

In conjunction with the show itself, it is possible to sample Vietnamese food at a marketplace that has been set up, as well as make purchases of Vietnamese products. There is much to experience in the new attraction, which succeeds in giving a feeling that cuts across the years and makes one more aware of the country that will forever be linked with the United States in view of the tragic war. This exhibit is a much happier link. At the American museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street. For information on programs and scheduling phone: 212-769-5100.

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