Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Noah's Ark at the Skirball: Art and Experience

Today Orinda Group CEO, John Lamberson, informal learning specialist and professor Leah Melber and I visited an exhibit that I had believed to be a temporary art exhibition. Banners went up around town this spring announcing the new exhibit with close-up shots of gorgeous folk art animals, often made from recycled or re-purposed materials. I love this kind of aesthetic so I was dying to see the exhibit and learn about the artist. Well, it turns out that the artists were primarily a puppeteer and an architect, and what I had taken to be a temporary art exhibition was actually a permanent exploration and discovery center for children. The funny thing is, in the end, I probably enjoyed it even more because of that.

The deep secret of museum professionals, particularly those who go into the field of collections, is that one of the most compelling reasons to work in a museum for us is that we get to touch the stuff. In my days as a registrar and working in collections departments, I routinely (but gently) reminded visitors of all ages to look with their eyes only, meanwhile relishing the fact that I would be going back into storage later to care for the same sorts of artifacts forbidden to the visitors--care that would necessitate the handling of those same objects.

Before we entered the exhibit, a docent gathered a group of us together to explain about the exhibit. One of the children in the group supplemented the docents lecture by informing us, as I'm sure she herself had been reminded countless times, that the art was for looking at, but not touching. The docent smiled and shook her head. "That's true for the rest of the museum, but here in Noah's Ark, we want you to touch everything!" So I could touch the beautiful carved animal heads I had been coveting? Awesome.

Noah's Ark opened at the Skirball Cultural Center on June 26, 2007 after five years of planning and to the tune of $5 million. I believe it is worth every penny. The team assembled to create this three-part experience incorporated specialists from all kinds of backgrounds, including a ropes course expert, a sound effects specialist and, of course, the puppeteer whose found-art animals made me swoon.

The exhibit is divided into three distinct areas: The Storm, The Ark and The Rainbow. In the entryway we were introduced to a motley assortment of uneasy animals including crocodiles with violin case jaws, zebras with organ key manes and an elephant with drums for feet, nervous at the approaching storm.

Descending a staircase, we entered a vast space where we could create the violent storm, turning rotors to power a tornado of leaves, to summon thunder and lightning and to bring the rain that would ultimately float a miniature version of the ark we were about to enter.

In this area was also the outside of the ark itself, only partially built in some sections, so we had a lot of work to do, finishing the construction of the ark with puzzle pieces and loading foam animals up a hand-powered conveyer belt into the belly of the ark. We also discovered that we could manipulate some of the larger animals; turning a crank resulted in the howling of a wolf and there was a giraffe whose head swayed by the swinging of our arms. We were delighted to discover that the puzzle pieces for constructing the ark were kept conveniently in the pouch of a kangaroo.

Upon boarding the ark, we discovered a wonderland of activities with delightful hidden touches everywhere; attention to detail was clearly a priority for the development team. The tasks inside the ark itself mostly consisted of feeding the animals and cleaning up after them. A zoo keeper-esque trash bin on wheels was filled with brooms and realistic looking scat. Faced with a floor full of unique looking piles, one woman stopped and commented, "I have some just like that in my backyard. Not sure if it's the coyotes or the deer." The kids didn't seem to care; they were just happy that they could play with a mess.

The task of feeding the animals was trickier, however, as some of the animals were high up in the rafters, requiring elaborate food delivery systems involving pulleys and tubes and even climbing. This is the area that required the expertise of a ropes course specialist. Despite the fact that we had been assured that everything was designed to hold even the most grown-up of weights, we opted to stay on the ground while the kids climbed rope ladders and skirted along ledges to make sure that the birds and the sloth at the top of the ark got fed.

The final room was largely empty with a rainbow projected on the wall and a lone dove with an olive branch in tow soaring above arts and craft tables back down on earth. 1960s-like "happenings" also occur in the Rainbow room as staff members periodically bring out instruments and invite visitors to join in an impromptu jam session or other communal activities.

Community and interactivity are two of the strengths of this exhibit and, in fact, they are largely the purpose behind it. Many of the interactive elements require cooperation from two or more people. Even the numerous cranks, levers and pulleys--built for durability--are hard enough to require two sets of small hands instead of just one in order to trigger the responses. The sense of wonder and serendipity evident in the faces of the visitors also aids in the shared experience as strangers exclaim to one another about surgical tubing hedgehogs or the fact that there are definitely more than just two rabbits--but you know how bunnies are.

Noah's Ark at the Skirball is one of those rare examples of an exhibit that actually succeeds in uniting aesthetics, interactivity and a storyline. It both edifies and inspires and while it is aimed at children, there is much that adults can appreciate as well. At it's core, Noah's Ark is about people coming together to save themselves, each other and the planet.

An interview with the key members of the Noah's Ark development team,* explains the principles behind the exhibit and how they tie in with the Skirball's mission "to explore the connections between four thousand years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals...[seeking] to welcome and inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity in American life." The only text in the exhibit consists of a few words in each gallery projected in white light on the floor, urging visitors to "Journey together," which fits the final part of the Skirball's mission perfectly: "Guided by our respective memories and experiences, together we aim to build a society in which all of us can feel at home."

As they say, however, a picture is worth a thousand words. I loved this exhibit but these photos give a better sense of why I loved it so much. Better yet, if you are in the LA area, just go see it for yourself.

* including architects Alan Maskin and Jim Olson of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, Exhibition Developer Marni Gittleman, Director of Education Sheri Bernstein, Vice President of Special Projects Robert Kirschner, puppeteer Chris Green, Sculpting Department Manager for Lexington Dave Connor and Skirball Founding President Uri Herscher

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