"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. The idea of the need for collaboration -- between siblings, among kids who don't know each other, as well as between kids and adults -- is one of the key messages of Noah's Ark.
"Whether it's something they can articulate at that moment or something that hits them later on down the line, they will realize that sense of self-empowerment, that idea that it was easier to team up with somebody," said Gittleman, who worked to develop the concepts from day one.
The storm also points to another of the ark's distinctive features: the open-endedness of activities. While at many children's museum installations kids push a button to make a specific thing happen, here the storm, with all its conductors and elements, never sounds the same twice.
And in a not-so-subtle twist on the religious underpinnings of the story, there is no Noah or God represented here; instead the kids control the environment and determine the path of the story.
"What they have done is create a really rich environment where kids and families can create experiences that maybe were not intended by the designers and the educators," said Marianna Adams, a consultant on Noah's Ark through the Maryland-based Institute for Learning Innovation. "What I love about the space is that there are no labels, no text, no instructions -- you just figure it out because it is so visually compelling."
Awe and Wonder
Yair, who is almost 11, has spent the evening at Noah's Ark on a self-styled scavenger hunt.
"I think these were basketballs," he says, as he collapses onto a huge, cushiony tortoise with rust-colored skin. He found a sheep made of a bicycle seat with handlebar ears and valve eyes and a crocodile made of upholstered rollers (also good for collapsing on). I point out a rooster made of a red cowboy boot sitting happily next to a hen made of a copper teakettle.
Our debate about whether it's a hedgehog or a porcupine, and whether it's made of tubular pasta or some kind of rubber tubing, continues into the car and on the way home. (It's a hedgehog, and it's rubber surgical tubing, I find out later.)
For our two hours there, we can't stop looking at the surprisingly expressive animals. We have the sense that we are inside a living work of art.
"When you walk into the space, it is about awe and wonder, about discovery," said Adams, a Noah's Ark consultant who researches "free choice learning."
"Some people say that isn't learning, and I think in our culture we don't necessarily value the sense of awe and wonder -- we always want learning to be functional, 'will this help my test score?'"
Museum learning has been recognized as an effective supplement for formal learning or a spark for children's emotional or intellectual growth since the first children's museum opened more than 100 years ago in Brooklyn. In fact, the field of children's exhibits is the fastest growing in the museum world. There were 38 children's museums in the United States in 1975; today, there are about 250, and another 80 in the planning phases, according to the Association of Children's Museums in Washington, D.C. The 57,000-square-foot, $58.5 million Los Angeles Children's Museum in Hansen Dam is scheduled to open in June 2009, after the original downtown site closed in 2000.
While adult museums generally revolve around objects, children's museums focus on the audience, whether the museum's goal is to impart knowledge, such as the California Science Center, or to give children a unique experience, such as Kidspace in Pasadena.
"It's a powerful experience to be in charge of what happens next," said Esther Netter, CEO of the Zimmer Children's Museum, located at the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. "In a world that is understandably adult-supervised and adult-driven, and managed by their authority and time and safety constraints, to be in an environment where the time is yours, the safety has already been considered and you are in charge of the choice activity -- it makes the learning that much greater," Netter said.
The Skirball has taken the idea of a child-focused exhibit to the next level by undoing some of the preconceptions that have long defined juvenile spaces.
The fact that architects Jim Olson and Alan Maskin of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen had never before designed a children's museum might be what allowed them the freedom to abandon conventions, such as the use of primary colors, which they replaced with a rich palette of natural hues.
While children's museum designers have for decades believed that getting down on your hands and knees and seeing the world as a kid is the best way to design, Maskin and the Skirball staff have given kids more credit for being able to absorb a broader visual field, and have placed art elements at every level, from floor to ceiling.
They also included some that are usually considered scary or out of reach for kids -- dark animals silhouetted on the walls, abstract creatures, and puppets that walk around the exhibit aided by specially trained staff members.
The 15-foot-high Douglas fir ark, designed by Olson, invites exploration -- from the packing crates stacked on the floor, to the walls stocked with supplies and animals in cubbies, to the rafters draped with possums, bats, snakes and lions. The space can accommodate about 120 visitors per hour.
And there is subtle tribute to the dimensions of the biblical ark -- from the entry plank to the exit into the final rainbow room, the ark measures about 65 feet, or 50 cubits, though the Skirball forwent the gopher wood prescribed in the Bible and followed a widespread trend among new children's museums of using materials that are both environmentally and socially conscious.
Like most children's museums, Noah's Ark, which is disabled accessible, caters to the diversity of learners -- those who need visual cues have the animals to absorb, the verbal learning comes in the storytelling and the physical activity is everywhere -- from the rock-climbing wall and ball-catching hippo to magnetic pipes for creating mazes and a well-placed hammock.Something for Everyone
Among the progressive thinking for Noah's Ark is the notion that informal learning can be most effective when adults are part of the activity, not simply chaperones.
The quirky animals, for example, make the space appealing for adults. There are also places to sit, and the elements are accessible from varying heights and vantage points. Many of the found objects embedded in the animals are antiques, inviting grandparents or parents to help kids understand what they are seeing.
And the idea of anchoring the exhibit in a story invites everyone to insert himself into the drama.
For Herscher, who was raised in pre-state Israel, the story of Noah evokes his own immigrant experience. The most emotional part of the exhibit for him is the load-in, a conveyor belt ramp operated by turning a wheel, that pulls pairs of foam animals -- which were hand-painted by children from the L.A.'s Best after school program --from the turbulence of the storm into the warmth of the ark.
"When I am able to turn that wheel and make a difference of taking animals who are trying to escape the storm, and having a hand in transporting them to safe harbor, I can translate that into millions and millions of children that I would like to have a part in transporting to safe harbor," he said.
It's a universal experience that goes beyond any single tale, and hearing other flood stories is part of the Noah's Ark experience.
Today on the ark, bells are ringing and drums are pounding, cuing kids to gather for story time. A trained staff member holds about 20 kids rapt as she tells of two Chinese orphans who are ridiculed by villagers when they are instructed by crows to take refuge in a giant gourd because of an impending tsunami. After she finishes, the children contribute their own stories of finding a safe place from somewhere scary, or of instances where adults thought they were making up stories.
In research and focus groups in the conception of Noah's Ark, Skirball staff discovered more than 400 ethnic flood stories, many of them represented in the gallery by the Cotsen collection of folk art arks that originally inspired Herscher.
The animals also symbolize the diversity that Skirball considers core to its mission. The 186 species, as well as the materials used to build them, come form all over the world. And curators are hoping Noah's Ark will attract just as wide an array of visitors, from all of Los Angeles' diverse cultures, as well as international visitors. To that end, the Skirball has invited kids from Para Los Ninos and L.A.'s Best to have regular, funded trips to Noah's Ark.
If ideas about diversity and improving the world are subtexts in the storm and ark section of the galleries, in the final room these connections are made explicit. There animals look back from the ark to a projected rainbow that appears, then disappears, out of a softly lit sky backdrop where birds signal the end of the storm and the beginning of hope.
The room is versatile, with crates and tables that can be set up for art projects, seed planting, or a drumming circle. Off to one side, pictures of kids are projected onto the wall, each accompanied by a promise to better the world.
Kids make the promises -- not to litter, to help the less fortunate, to save animals -- but their hopes for a better world are shared by all.
"All my life, I've attempted to find something that is common to all of us," Herscher said. "There is no human being on earth who does not look for a sense of safety, and there is no human being on earth who doesn't have an ingredient of hope that wishes to be reaffirmed."
Noah's Ark opens June 26 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Tickets are $10 (general), $7 (seniors and students), $5 (children 2-12). Admission is free on Thursdays. Due to high demand, check for availability or purchase advance tickets.
http://www.childrensmuseums.org (Association of Children's Museums)
http://www.ilinet.org (Institute for Learning Innovation)
http://www.zimmermuseum.org (Zimmer Children's Museum)
http://www.childrensmuseumla.org (Los Angeles Children's Museum)
http://www.oskaarchitects.com/ (Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects)
Previously in The Journal: 2006-03-30 The Skirball brings critters closer to the people at its new 'Noah's Ark'