June 21, 2007
The Skirball's new Noah's Ark exhibit encourages kids to explore universal values through the timeless biblical story
"Mommy! We need more food!"
From way up in the rafters of Noah's Ark, I hear my son calling. He has climbed a net ladder to reach the second level, where he is eye-to-eye with boa constrictors fashioned out of air-conditioning conduits and a wise old yak made of dozens of rag mops. I grab a handful of wooden grapes and eggs from a ground-level bin and set them into a cloth basket hooked up to a hand-operated pulley.
To 8-year-old Ezra, the pre-opening event at the new Noah's Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center is a novel and memorable play experience, with all the sorts of things kids love -- noisy cranks and pulleys to operate, to play with and to discover.
While fun is high on the list of goals for the fanciful and compelling world of Noah's Ark, opening to the public on June 26, curators believe a couple hours aboard the ark can also help kids and the grownups they bring learn about the importance of collaboration and the effect your actions can have on your world -- all with the underlying epic theme of how to weather a storm and find safe harbor.
Of course, little of that is what Ezra is thinking about when he digs the food out of the ascending basket and tosses some to his 10-year-old brother. The boys skirt around several kids tying strips of fabric onto a giant rope nest and scurry across a wide, netted-in plank that spans the width of the gallery.
Ezra can't resist a quick tug on a rope that makes the African elephant with a coiled rope trunk and mini disco-ball eyes trumpet loudly. When they reach a platform on the other side, my sons send the food down a tube, and within seconds Ezra has scurried down the net ladder to cook it in a hearth and lay it out on a table, which other kids have set.
Whether they have absorbed the message or not, my kids have just learned something about working as a team, about providing sustenance, about building a home and about getting reactions from their environment -- not by pushing buttons, but by using manual power.
Most of the kids who visit this $5 million, 8,000-square-foot new exhibit will already know the Noah story. And some kids, upon leaving, will be able to articulate its message of the need for community and cooperation in good times as well as bad. But even those who can't explicitly point to those lessons represent success, as far as the Skirball's curators are concerned.
"If they leave here just feeling that they had a great time and got to do something fun with a family member or made new friends, or had the confidence to climb on something really huge, then they have gotten what this is about," said Marni Gittleman, exhibit developer and head of Noah's Ark. "It's all about going back into the world and having a little something change in yourself, a little spark turning on and being motivated to make the world a better place."
With the remarkable artistry of the ark's more than 300 whimsical occupants, all of which are life-sized and handcrafted from reused materials, Noah's Ark is at the vanguard of the growing field of children's museums. Working with architects from the firm of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen in Seattle and New York-based puppeteer Chris Green, the Skirball has taken the best of the well-developed field of experiential learning and overlaid it with a program that respects kids' sophistication and demonstrates a commitment to intergenerational interactivity and a focus on values.
Five years in the making, Noah's Ark is a permanent addition to the Skirball Cultural Center installed in previously unused space. Skirball leaders are hoping the exhibit -- whose flood story, they point out, can be found in many cultures -- will draw in families of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. With its underlying Jewish values, the exhibit is a natural fit to showcase the museum's interest in promoting diversity and democratic values.
Since well before the center opened 11 years ago, Uri D. Herscher, founding president and CEO of the Skirball, had been thinking about a children's exhibit. He zeroed in on the Noah's Ark story seven years ago, after viewing Skirball trustee Lloyd E. Cotsen's multiethnic ark collection.
"My needs as an adult have not changed a lot since I was a child. I still look forward to family warmth, I still look forward to community, I still look forward to shelter from the elements," Herscher said. "I think that's why we've found that Noah's Ark has become a real draw for adults. They bring their inner child needs and they find them expressed in this exhibit."
Who's Driving The Ark?
I hand my 5-year-old daughter an upside-down drum with a long metal coil trailing from the bottom.
"Shake it," I tell Neima. She gives it a tentative wobble. "Harder."
As the coil begins to vibrate, it echoes loudly -- and then gets louder. Her eyes widen as she realizes she is holding thunder in her hands, a noise that so impresses her brothers they are soon clamoring for a turn.
To our right, kids vigorously pump two old-fashioned well handles, causing water to rain into a vertical glass case, where a small ark lifts upon the accumulating waters. A little boy turns a wheel to whir the wind, another cranks a generator in a tube to spark a lightning storm, and a mother and daughter hold a large, flat drum filled with ball bearings to create the sound of rain.
To make the storm truly come alive, at least five or six people need to be working together.