Inside Noah’s Ark

By Chanan Tigay

Published June 18, 2007, issue of June 22, 2007.
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Two by two they’ve come, birds and beasts and lizards of every imaginable kind, to board the gigantic wooden ark now docked inside Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center.

There’s the rooster wrought of shiny red cowboy boots; the kiwi crafted from a boxing glove; the alligator melded from a car tire and a violin case, and the deer whose rear is a John Deere tractor seat.

The animals — 186 species in all — have been carefully crafted and groomed, and now they are gathered together in and around the ark that is the centerpiece of a new interactive educational exhibit. The installment, inspired by the ancient flood story of Noah’s Ark, opens to the public June 26 — just days after the release of Tom Shadyac’s film “Evan Almighty,” which stars Steve Carell as a congressman who is commanded by God to build an ark.

“I think this story is as relevant today as it was during Noah’s time,” said Uri Herscher, Skirball’s founding president and CEO. “We human beings continue to yearn for shelter, for community, for a better world, for a symbol of hope.”

He added: “The ancient flood story communicates a cogent message that our world desperately needs at this time. We must collaborate to survive and thrive, learn from the past and appreciate the gift of new beginnings.”

Five years and $5 million in the making, the exhibit, Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, was designed by the Seattle-based Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects in consultation with renowned architect Moshe Safdie. It brings together hundreds of cleverly designed, handcrafted puppets and figures — along with examples of Noah’s ark-themed folk art from around the globe — in an 8,000-square-foot gallery where children (and adults) are encouraged to play, climb and build. In the process, they can glean life lessons from the biblical flood story, which is told through guides, snippets of information beamed onto the ground from projectors and the very progression of the show itself: from the storm near the entrance, into the ark, and then, finally, out onto dry land.

After visitors enter, they step into the “conduct-a-storm” area. There they create thunder, rain and wind with low-tech mechanical sound devices and instruments. The pitter-patter of animal footsteps plays on speakers overhead. Nearby, coyotes — among the first animals to sense a rising storm — stand at attention. This section, Skirball officials told the Forward, is meant to teach children about meeting such challenges as those posed by the storm.

Following the storm, visitors enter the ark — a beautifully crafted vessel chock full of animals, along with nets, ladders, climbable rafters and even plastic animal dung — where they can haul beasts aboard, help the animals unpack and settle in, feed them and clean up after them. After this, they are able to work with them, and with each other, to make sure the voyage is a smooth one. The ark section, the Skirball officials said, is meant to teach about finding shelter and a sense of community.

Upon exiting the ark, visitors enter a large room in which a rainbow is cast from end to end. A dove, olive branch in mouth, hovers above. This section represents the creation of a more hopeful world.

“They’re the same sorts of themes the museum as a whole focuses on, that we’re trying to get across in a different way,” said Sheri Bernstein, Skirball’s director of education. “How we survive together in the ark of life.”

Just outside the galleries, there’s a 350-seat amphitheater for outdoor performances, along with an arroyo garden with wooden bridges and a rainbow-mist installation. The exhibit’s lead architect, Alan Maskin, said that his firm had never before designed a children’s museum. In conceiving Noah’s Ark, the architects researched such facilities and worked to challenge certain design preconceptions they noticed. for example, Maskin said, it was noted that most are designed exclusively from the child’s vantage point. But the architects wanted equally intriguing site lines for adults.

Furthermore, he said, the very popularity of the flood story posed a challenge for the design team.

“We knew that the story had a wide factor of recognition. Even kindergarten-aged children recognized it,” he said. “We ultimately came to realize that some people related to the Noah’s Ark story as a fact, yet others approached it as a metaphor or parable. For some it was a great children’s story, and for some it held a cultural identity. We knew we had to design this exhibit to include all of these perspectives and beliefs.”

And that’s not all. In the course of their research, Skirball staff and the designers learned that the Noah story was just one of some 500 other flood narratives from cultures around the globe.

“Almost every culture had a similar myth — a flood, a Noah-type character, animals, a boat and a new beginning,” Maskin said. “These narratives, while largely unknown to most of us, also addressed the values the Skirball wanted to present for children and families.”

The Skirball, a large facility that houses a museum and a theater, and offers community and cultural programming, is compiling a book that includes the flood stories of other cultures to be featured as part of the installation, which was paid for by a dozen major gifts and numerous smaller donations.

Most of the exhibit’s animals (many of which have moving parts) are created from recycled materials and other everyday objects — from bicycle parts to croquet balls. Some of the puppets are even made from items that designer Chris Green found on the street in New York. The show also includes a near-life-size elephant and giraffe.

Green said he designed 46 different animals for the exhibit. Among them are 29 different species. Of these, 21 are endangered.

“When you learn that, after seeing them and enjoying them, there should be a sense of, ‘Well, what am I going to do?’” Green said. “That’s the question left from the exhibit. It challenges people.”

Herscher hopes it will challenge quite a lot of people.

“We’re not looking at monetary returns,” he said. “My hope is that every child in Los Angeles and beyond will find Noah’s Ark at the Skirball a destination.”

Chanan Tigay has reported for Agence France-Presse, United Press International, The Jerusalem Report and JTA, among other publications.

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