'Noah's Ark,' an ambitious new exhibition, is now afloat

The interactive installation at Los Angeles's Skirball Cultural Center aims to bring cultures together.

The Santa Monica mountains that rim this city are a rapidly disappearing strip of urban wilderness, one special to Angelenos. When the Skirball Cultural Center was built here more than a decade ago, it carried not just the burden of its own mission to investigate Jewish issues in modern life, but to give something back to the community. The center is doing both with "Noah's Ark," a new 8,000-sq. ft. permanent installation designed as a family destination.

This "Ark" sprawls over an entire, indoor/outdoor wing complete with a 350-seat amphitheater and garden of "mist fountains." The experience is defined by what the designers call the central, universal themes of the story: storms (life's challenges), the ark (the "boat" that carries us through them), and dry land, complete with a rainbow (hope and a new life in a renewed world). The design team did not create it as a religious exhibit, but more of a hands-on exploration of a civilization's rite of passage. The point is to show humanity's interconnected and shared experience. Hundreds of similar flood narratives appear in cultures all over the globe, says Robert Kirschner, vice president for special projects, pointing to a glass case containing dozens of arks and parading animals crafted by artisans from around the world. "We hope to use it as a way for diverse members of our own community to see the values they have in common," adds Mr. Kirschner.

Created expressly as an interactive environment, everything conveys a message through hands-on activity. In the storm room, visitors can crank up their very own electric storm with two stories of water and static electric towers. The looming ark, which towers between the storms and dry land, has open sides which children can help "construct" with removable planks. In the rainbow room, children write their own messages of hope, which are then displayed on the walls, next to an undulating rainbow.

These themes play out in even the tiniest details. Many of the 186 species of animals that hang, swing, gape, and growl through the space are constructed from recovered materials, often junkyard debris – an iguana is created from a backward handsaw, an alligator's tongue is made from the wooden scroll that sits atop a violin. The deer's rump is actually (groan), a John Deere tractor seat while the zebra's hindquarters are spinning air-conditioning turbines. "This is a story that many people know," says Shari Bernstein, education director, to a group of schoolchildren and their families. "What we're trying to say here is that on this planet, we are one large community, and if we hope to survive, we must work together." Whether it's a mop head, a croquet ball, or a baseball mitt, the exhibit is, well, awash in unexpected items functioning as arms, legs, heads, eyes, and ears.

Significantly, this ark has no biblical figure. No Noah, anywhere. But, says puppeteer Chris Green, who designed and crafted many of the creatures on display, he is still present. "We are all Noahs," says the veteran craftsman whose credits include the well-known Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, Vt. "You are called on to take care of all the living things in this world and take them all to safety," he says, adding, "Every single person who comes through this is being asked to take on that level of responsibility."

The installation embodies a longstanding Jewish tradition of interpreting texts, known as a midrash. "This is an interpretation that opens the meaning to the widest possible audience" says Kirschner.

It's a goal close to the Skirball's core mission, namely to "explore the connections between four thousand years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals" and "to welcome and inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity in American life." An exhibit depicting diverse groups cooperating in pursuit of a common good, "is the story of Los Angeles," writes Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in an e-mail. "I do not think we can underestimate the demand for the kind of quality, educational family activity the 'Ark' will provide."

Nearly everything within a child's reach is meant to be touched or petted (the delicate animals are hung or displayed out of range). The younger children may not understand everything, but when an overhead projector beams a light message onto the floor that says, "journey together," they can certainly grasp that, says Melinda Blum, a visitor whose son, Jonas, sits in the rainbow room studying the ark. "He doesn't necessarily grasp the big messages all at once, but we'll use this as a way to talk about big ideas at home later," she says.

Jonas nods and smiles, but after a moment, he has found the question he wants to discuss. "When do we sail, Mom?"

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