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November 18, 2008
Picture a typical children's museum. You might see primary colors, cartoon-like characters, durable surfaces and materials, and benches for caretakers to sit and watch. It's probably not a place where you would expect to see wood worn to a rich patina, a sophisticated palette or found materials used to create semi-abstract animals.
But the Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish cultural center in Los Angeles, is winning awards for embracing such a design in its permanent exhibit for children and families. The exhibit uses an abstract interpretation of the story of Noah to teach visitors lessons on diversity, second chances and working together.
“We had in mind a more trailblazing notion of how to engage children and families, and how children might be treated with the dignity and the imagination they deserve,” said Museum Director Robert Kirschner. “We wanted an experience that would span the generations and it wouldn't follow the sort of cookie cutter for a childrens' museum.”
Seattle's Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen recently won an award of merit for the project from AIA Seattle. The firm had been looking for a project that would let them create a space for children where sophistication and abstraction took the place of primary colors, chaos and literal lessons, said lead exhibit designer Alan Maskin.
“Kids love to go out on the beach and they want to go out in the woods, and those things aren't cute,” said Jim Olson, lead architect. “Kids are pretty sophisticated.”
An abstract ark
The 8,000-square-foot exhibit is based on the Old Testament tale of Noah's Ark, but it's not a literal telling of the story or a religious exhibit. That was very deliberate, Kirschner said.
“Within Jewish tradition, it is not only permissible, but customary, to depart from the literal meaning of the text and to interpret other meanings from it,” he said. “For our purposes, the literal nature of the text was the last thing we were interested in.”
In the exhibit, there is no God and there is no Noah. The designers and Skirball were confident that children would understand a more abstract interpretation that let them participate in key moments in the story. Visitors work together to create the flood and raise the water levels on a small ark in an early gallery; load a diverse group of animals and help build the ark in the North Ark gallery; and cross over a bridge and then move through a series of ropes-course type areas, helping the animals survive during their journey.
At the end of the exhibit, they move into a rainbow gallery where they participate in a group activity designed to make them think about improving the world. Outside the exhibit, in an arroyo garden designed by Skirball architect Moshe Safdie, MacArthur Fellow Ned Khan created a sculpture where mist creates rainbows for kids to run through.
Designers had some challenges in working with the space Safdie set out for them in the Skirball, Kirschner said. The exhibit is broken into two spaces with a bridge connecting them, Kirschner said, and the designers worked with that artfully by coming up with the two different arks to represent a different value of the ark story.
Olson designed the two arks. Though the design shows only sections of the ark, architects strove to make the ark's proportions similar to the long narrow shape God described to Noah in the Old Testament.
In the North Ark, the wood looks more like lumber and visitors get to help build the ark by placing pieces of wood into areas of its frame. In the South Ark, to show that the animals have already been travelling, the wood is worn and weathered and portions of it look like driftwood, Olson said. Designers worked to choose colors and materials that would age well, Maskin said, like the rich patina the much-loved stuffed animal earns in the book “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
Designers also wanted visitors to have a sense of the hugeness of the ark, so the ark is floated, not touching ceilings or walls, to make it seem larger. There are also mirrors in the ceiling that reflect the space to make it seem bigger. Olson said he used many of the same design principles on the ark that he uses in the functional structures he more typically designs, like designing to create a sense of space, picking materials for their natural beauty and using recycled materials.
“A lot of the principles that I'm really interested in could really apply to this,” Olson said. “It was the perfect place to explore the ideas; it was really fun.”
A central design goal was creating an exhibit that engaged everyone. Maskin said research has found that children have the most valuable moments in museums when experiences are shared with parents, caretakers and families. In the Noah's Ark exhibit, designers worked to create scenes that stimulated cooperation. In the storm-making area, individuals can move a giraffe, make the sound of thunder or release water to convey rain, but the sense of a storm is most powerful when all of these things are done at once.
Designers wanted to test whether strangers would really play together in this way, so they created a prototype of the space before creating the final version. Maskin said they made some changes to design when they say how people would really use all of the elements.
“I would recommend that for anything you're doing that has not been done before,” he said.
There are also no benches or other adult areas in the exhibit for adults to passively watch, Kirschner said. On one visit to the museum after it opened last June, Olson, himself a grandfather, saw grandparents climbing up into hideaways within the ark along with their grandchildren.
The museum also wanted to teach lessons of embracing diversity. Animals were designed using found materials and designers avoided overly cute or cartoon animals. Designers made 160 pairs of animals and 25 puppets, including animals from every continent and various cultural depictions of animals. Animals that have “a bad rap” were purposely included, like snakes, spiders and bats. In the south ark area, animals are positioned to show lots of different family types. Unlike the north gallery, where some animals are shown two by two like in the story, the animals in the south ark are in all different family sizes and arrangements, like penguins surrounded by babies who have an armadillo with them, and a family of two roosters.
“Everybody is sort of covered and everybody is considered important,” Maskin said. “There are a lot of layers of discovery where people could see themselves reflected.”
Sustainability and the value of the earth can also be seen in the use of found materials to create the animals, like a bird made out of a horn and an elephant made out of rope. Maskin said children have really responded to the animals and have been sending the museum pictures of animals they've made out of their own found materials.
The museum also wanted to impart the lesson of second chances and the value of learning from mistakes, Kirschner said. On several points of the exhibit, there are different ways to get from one place to the next. If you struggle climbing a rope to a higher place in the ark, there's another way to get there, for example. In the south ark, there are lots of supplies that let kids imagine feeding or grooming the animals in different ways. In the rafters, visitors can climb through a sort of “ropes course” that includes pulley systems to help them work collectively to get through the space.
It's a huge hit
The public's response to the museum has been “fierce,” Kirschner said, “transforming” the museum. The exhibit sold out for the first year and Skirball had to come up with a timed entry system to keep the exhibit at optimal visitor levels. They had to hire more employees to work in the exhibit, and modified their menu and added eating areas for children to their cafeteria.
The exhibit has won multiple awards, including the Excellence in Exhibits Award from the American Association of Museums, the Themed Entertainment Association's THEA Award for “15 Compelling Places in the World,” and the Los Angeles Architect's Award, among others. Architects and museum directors have come from all over the world to visit, Kirschner said.
At the recent AIA Seattle Honor Awards ceremony, awards juror Patricia Patkau of Patkau Architects of Vancouver, B.C., described the exhibit as “incredibly inventive.”
“I don't have kids, I don't know what they are,” she said. “(But) I suspect they might really love this thing.”
Such success has also posed some challenges for the museum, Kirschner said. Because the Noah's Ark exhibit is so interactive, visitors expect to be able to touch and feel objects in the center's other exhibits, and some, like “Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America,” include artifacts and other more fragile traditional museum fare. But they've also realized the value of that interactivity. In a recent Bob Dylan exhibit, an area was added to the exhibit that let visitors play instruments along with Bob Dylan tracks.
“We think it's great and we think even the general public is delighted to have the onslaught of stroller armies in the space,” Kirschner said. “It's everything we hoped for the Skirball Cultural Center, because like the song says, we all know the children are the future.”
OSKA's design team also included project manager Stephen Yamada-Heidner, architect Martha Rogers and Megan Zimmerman. Chris Green designed puppets, Lynx Challenge Courses designed climbing structures and exhibits were fabricated by Lexington. The ark was built by Matt Construction, also the general contractor for the Skirball campus.
Structural engineer was LA's Nabih Youssef and Associates, and mechanical engineer was LA's Syska and Hennessy. Yantis Acoustical Design was acoustical engineer, Candela was lighting designer and Seattle's Somelab was graphic designer.
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Shawna Gamache can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.