Jewish Journal


March 29, 2007

The Skirball brings critters closer to the people at its new ‘Noah’s Ark’


Noah's Ark and some of its inhabitants fill one of the galleries in new $5 million addition to Skirball Cultural Center, scheduled to open June 26. Photo by Grant Mudford. Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center.

Noah's Ark and some of its inhabitants fill one of the galleries in new $5 million addition to Skirball Cultural Center, scheduled to open June 26. Photo by Grant Mudford. Courtesy of Skirball Cultural Center.

Where can a family go in Los Angeles -- with toddler, tweener and grandparent in tow -- to whip up a huge storm, repair leaks, build nests, feed animals, climb ropes and resolve to improve the world, all while being inspired by artistry both grand and fanciful?

Beginning June 26, they will be able to visit "Noah's Ark," the Skirball Cultural Center's $5 million, five-years-in-the-making, new addition to its galleries.

The 8,000-square-foot permanent installation, which is nearing completion, expresses Skirball founding president and CEO Uri Herscher's long-cherished dream to create a specifically child- and family-friendly experience that embodies the center's foundational values.

Believing that "the best way to direct lives is to begin with youngsters," Herscher says he originally intended the Skirball's 1996 debut at its Sepulveda Pass site to include an experiential, family-oriented installation. But try as he might -- and he did -- he wasn't able to convince others. In retrospect, he said, "I wanted to create a utopia, but I wasn't very clear about it."

Fast-forward five years. Under Herscher's helm, the Skirball has garnered praise for expressing its mission of being "a tent of welcome" through innovative multicultural performances, exhibits, family programs and classes. And Herscher, a passionate believer in the power of stories, at last found the vehicle to embody his original vision -- the story of Noah.

Like the inhabitants of Noah's Ark, "most of the people on this earth are born into stormy seas, born into struggle," Herscher says. "To get to safe harbor, you must go through a journey, a voyage." For Noah, that voyage takes place on an ark "built for a community that includes all the creatures on this earth."

Surviving the flood, the ark's inhabitants are greeted by a rainbow and a dove, symbols of hope and renewal.

Although the Skirball installation was inspired by the Torah's story, it takes "a particular story and makes it universal," Herscher says. In fact, Noah is just one of more than 500 different flood narratives -- many of which are also represented in the exhibition -- found among cultures around the world.

Entering the installation through a dimly lit mezzanine, visitors are surrounded by the sounds of animal calls and distant rain and thunder. Large animals, partially constructed of "repurposed" materials, invite interaction: spinning the turbine-ventilator torso of a zebra, or peeking into dioramas in the claw-footed-bathtub body of a polar bear, revealing a smaller polar bear -- this one stranded on an ice floe, thus conveying the exhibit's environmental message. In turn, these interactions invite identification with the animals, as visitors -- perhaps especially children -- begin developing a kinship with their newfound friends.

Subtly, the journey on "Noah's Ark" begins to be seen and experienced not just as the animals' journey, but as ours, as well.

Beyond the mezzanine, visitors step into an enormous space to face the exterior of the ark. A floor-to-ceiling apparatus -- created by Foley theater artist Tony Palermo -- invites visitors to "conduct a storm" by pumping water, rotating a crank to generate wind, and manipulating gadgets to produce thunder and lightning. Small animals can be loaded onto the ark, two by two, on a 10-foot- high ramped conveyor belt. Boards of various shapes and sizes can be slid, puzzle-like, into empty slots on the ark's unfinished hull.

"We're really interested in having children realize that they can do things, they can make things happen -- if you turn this handle, something rotates," says Sheri L. Bernstein, Skirball director of education. "It's a broader social message, but on a more immediate level."

Herscher likens the ark to Los Angeles: a diverse community, where all must find a way to live together with a common purpose -- "to bring civility to this earth."

The story of Noah, the story of the Jews, the story of the United States: for Herscher, each is "a cheerleader story -- gathering the exiles, and giving them a home."

And it is the fundamental "story" that Herscher hopes all who visit "Noah's Ark" -- or any part of the Skirball -- will absorb.

Herscher calls himself "the concertmaster" of the project, who "took all these unorthodox views and approaches, and tried to make them into a symphony." The designers were the Seattle firm of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, which consulted with famed Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, the Skirball building's designer, in conceiving the project.

The firm's Jim Olson, who created the ark's form, and Alan Maskin, project designer and art director, in turn called upon scores of specialists -- puppeteers, sound engineers, educators, builders, artists, ropes-course designers and more. After years of planning, designing, building and testing, this communal effort has produced an adventurously vibrant, dramatic and playful experience that manages to teach values without being didactic or pedantic.

In designing the layout for the installation, Maskin said he "took the narrative and actually laid it out on the ground ... it's spatially lined up exactly the way the story evolves." Thus, the five galleries encompass three zones that embody the central themes of Noah's story: storms (challenges), arks (community and shelter) and rainbows (second chances and hope).

In all of the "zones of activity" throughout the installation, collaboration is encouraged. "You can get some of the effect alone, but you can't get the whole effect," Bernstein says. Even if you do work a piece alone, what you do affects what another person is doing, reinforcing the message, as Bernstein says, "that we all have an impact on one another."

Animals are displayed in nooks and crannies at various heights, representing the diversity of animal life and offering visual puzzles and whimsy: kiwi birds with boxing-glove bodies and paintbrush legs; a large stag with a bulging chest composed of rows of keys strung together, two pitchforks for antlers and a rear end that's a John Deere tractor seat; and a chicken whose torso looks suspiciously like my long-ago misplaced copper-clad tea kettle.

For Maskin, the "visual rewards" of discovering everyday materials in the stationary animals, many of which he designed, are another way of meeting the "challenge of getting people engaged before they even realize they're engaged." He says his use of found objects also reiterates another underlying message: "Transformation is the basis of everything -- it's the foundation of chemistry, cooking, design. In the animals ... children can actually recognize the pieces, which reinforces the lesson of transformation." Chris Green, an artist and puppeteer in Brooklyn who designed the "kinetic" animals -- those with moving parts as well as puppets that will process through the galleries -- "incorporated elements of the culture where the animals are prevalent," in order to respect the cultural integrity of a people and their customs, Bernstein says.

Green's Asian elephant, for example, has a trunk made of bamboo steamers and legs made of Thai bronze rain drums. The wide-ranging international origins of the animals are also intended to spark dialogue about diversity -- and engender identification -- among Skirball visitors.

While drawing from a pool of varied talent for "Noah's Ark," Maskin also used his own eclectic background, which includes the study of early childhood education, art, and design. His previous work had led him to reject time-worn assumptions about what appeals to children, as well how to involve families.

"Adults have certain projections about what children will or won't like -- that they'll like primary colors, or be afraid of dark, large pictures," Maskin says. But we believe children respond to a wider palette, and have found that shadows and silhouettes intrigue them ... children see them as a puzzle to be solved."

Inspired by this knowledge and by the tradition of Indonesian shadow puppets, Maskin hired the design company Somelab to develop the boldly silhouetted landscape and animal murals seen throughout the exhibition.

Many of the materials are also a departure from the primary-colored, synthetic-looking materials typical of children's spaces. Atmospherically lit and filled with wood, ropes, reused tools, mechanical parts and household items, the ark has a slightly subdued, more natural, almost earthy aura. Earthy, and earth-friendly: most of the wood is FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified, many additional materials are organic and, of course, the re-purposing of everyday items is a conspicuous example of creative recycling.

"For years the only visual rewards in a children's museum were for children; but we wanted to design for all ages and levels," Maskin says.

Many of the tasks are designed to be best performed with others -- and sometimes specifically with a taller "other," thus drawing in adults -- to encourage parents and other family members to team with children. Maskin believes this collaborative problem-solving helps create powerful bonds in families and produce lasting, meaningful memories for children.

The need for collaboration is especially apparent inside the ark. In the first gallery, the animals cautiously huddle with their own kind; in the second, they intermix, engaging "in the business of getting along together and taking care of each other," Bernstein says.

Activities in these spaces include tossing bean-bag "food" into animals' mouths that must be propped open by a second person; climbing up to and repairing nests; filling a small-scale ark with supplies; reading storybooks filled with different flood stories; and disposing of "10 kinds of scat," sure to be a highlight for the 10-and-under set.

The broad selection of activities in these zones, as elsewhere, while designed to promote creative problem-solving and cooperation, also provide opportunities for "all different types and ages of learners," Bernstein says. "Some are more gross-motor oriented, some are into smaller things, and some are more musical."

As visitors exit a second ark zone -- by walking beneath a lion and a lamb nestling together above the doorway -- they emerge into the last interior space, a "rainbow" room. Against the backdrop of a wall-sized mural of blue sky, a projected rainbow repeatedly appears, disappears and reappears. Tables and chairs of various heights and sizes will be filled with ever-changing activities. Community organizations can use this for theme-related projects . For example, on some days visitors will be able to plant seedlings with TreePeople. "We are partnering with organizations that do real things in the community," Bernstein says, "so that you can extend the messages and the actions beyond what we do here."

The flexibility of this room will also mean that on any given day, visitors might find a storyteller, a small-scale performance or perhaps a parade of animal puppets. Just a few steps away is an outdoor amphitheater, which will also be used for workshops, performances and overflow activities. Across from the amphitheater is a garden that will soon be home to a 40-foot- long, mist-emitting rainbow sculpture, along with comfortable areas for families to gather, relax and regroup before they leave to re-enter the "real" world.

But after this allegorical journey, that re-entry might be a challenge -- especially for Herscher, who readily admits to being very connected with his "inner child." With a playful glint in his eye, Herscher confesses: "If I thought I was having a bad day, I would only allow myself enough time to get to the ark, and my day would be transformed. You cannot have a bad day on 'Noah's Ark.'"

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