June 21, 2007
The Skirball's new Noah's Ark exhibit encourages kids to explore universal values through the timeless biblical story
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.