Highlight 2: Noah’s Ark, Skirball

Highlights intro & index

Noah’s Ark: Immersive, physical storytelling

Noah’s Ark at the Skirball Center is one of a series of highlights from my time in the US, but it doesn’t fit into the digital box at all. In fact, it’s the antithesis of digital interpretation, and an almost wordless experience.

The Skirball is a striking complex on the hills overlooking Los Angeles. It celebrates Jewish heritage and its connections with diverse cultural perspectives.

Skirball, LA, 2015

Skirball, LA, 2015, with the Noah’s Ark banner on the left

Noah’s Ark is the core family-focused, interactive exhibition. For Wellingtonians out there, think Te Papa, Junglerama, and a contemporary art gallery all rolled into one. The exhibition opened way back in 2007 – the result of a collaboration with Olson Kundig Architects of Seattle and other internal and external experts – and 8 years on, it’s still a source of inspiration.

For those not so sure about the Biblical basis, this is a refreshing take. Noah’s Ark isn’t overtly religious at all. Instead, it foregrounds the underlying values of the story, which are common to all cultures: overcoming adversity, cooperation, and survival.

The marketing video gives a good sense of the experience:

Face to face

Enter the orientation zone. Here, educators give you an intro – face-to-face interaction is key. They explain that we’re all Noah in this experience. We all have storms that we need to weather, and we all – together – have to keep the boat afloat.

It’s especially nice to be welcomed by a pair of kiwi with brushes for legs and boxing-glove bodies – tough little brutes. Brilliant.

Pair of kiwi in Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Pair of kiwi in Noah’s Ark, tough as old brushes and boxing gloves

Pure artistry

The artistry is really what sets Noah’s Ark apart.

In the first room, you meet a bunch of diverse, quirky animals. These are stunning art works in their own right, all made from recycled materials – old stuff fitting for an old story. As Vice President and Director of Education Sheri Bernstein tells me, ‘All these animals are made from different bits and pieces from everywhere, just like each of us.’

Zebra, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Zebra, Noah’s Ark

They’re also entirely hands-on. Spin, ding, twang, rattle. It’s immediately clear that this isn’t your typical children’s museum of plastic stuff in primary colours. The aim here was to create something that people of all ages would explore and appreciate.

A boy in Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

A wee boy gets straight into it, Noah’s Ark

Deer with neck made of keys, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Deer with neck made of old keys and rulers, Noah’s Ark

Here’s a polar bear made from bathtub and bucket.

Polar bear, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Polar bear, Noah’s Ark

Peep through the teeny tiny hole in its belly …

Through the hole in the polar bear's belly, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Through the hole in the polar bear’s belly, Noah’s Ark

And watch that sneaky crocodile.

Crocodile made from a violin case, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Crocodile made from a violin case, Noah’s Ark

Do it yourself, together

Downstairs the storm begins – and you create it. Wind, pump, shake. Make wind, water, and lightning.

Kids make the flood, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Kids make the flood, Noah’s Ark

Making lightning, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Making lightning, Noah’s Ark

Words projected on the floor, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Words projected on the floor, Noah’s Ark

Anything high-tech is hidden; the overall sense is organic, and you’re in control. There are no instructions in sight, but everything feels intuitive, and both kids and adults are interacting. The sparse projected text is poetic rather than explanatory.


In the next room, the animals get to know each other, and you can help. Here’s the adventure park-type experience. Clamber. Crawl. Swing. Slide. Get Grandpa to help you haul up a bucket. Many of the activities work better if you do them together.

Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Noah’s Ark

Look after the animals – feed them, put them to bed.

Gorillas, the latest addition to Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Gorillas, the latest addition to Noah’s Ark

Keep an eye out overhead.

Owl, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Owl, Noah’s Ark

Puppets made by Brooklyn-based artist Chris Green roam the space. The hosts hardly speak – they’re there to encourage a connection with the animals. Even as an adult, I’m surprisingly willing to suspend my disbelief and bend down to stroke them.

If you’re wondering whether any collection items are included, the answer is yes, but they don’t take centre stage.


The final space is more reflective and makes connections to children’s lives outside the museum.

The final reflective room, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

The final reflective room, Noah’s Ark

There are low-tech and high-tech options to contribute. Add a leaf to the family tree.

Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Family activities, Noah’s Ark

Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Collaborative tree, Noah’s Ark

Or, via a laptop, make a pledge about how you’ll help to build a better world, and see it projected in the space.

Visitor pledges, Noah's Ark, Skirball, LA, 2015

Visitor pledges, Noah’s Ark

Noah’s Ark is a bold, beautiful experience. Rather than prioritise cognitive learning objectives, it recognises that emotion and magic are what spark learning, and that doing beds it in. And as for whether it’s successful? School visits for the year book out in one afternoon. Impressive.

Thanks to Rich Cherry of the Broad for recommending I visit, and to the very generous Sheri Bernstein for showing me around.

Six big ticks
Emotional connection, social connection, physicality, less is more, orientation, real stuff

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3 Responses to Highlight 2: Noah’s Ark, Skirball

  1. Pingback: Highlights intro … & 6 boxes to tick in museum storytelling | MUSE-UM … Musings on museums, storytelling, multimedia, and more

  2. Brad Larson says:

    Hi Frith — great to see your blog, and find this entry on the Noah’s Ark! I did the piece at the end projecting the visitors’ image/pledges onto the horizon. That was with laptop/projection technologies almost 8 years ago, so could easily be expanded on with more portable tablets and wider projection today. But the general idea of a facilitated format to highlight visitors’ aspirations merged into the environment is one that stands well with time (and will likely be updated). Looking forward to reading more of your blog!…



    • Hey Brad, ah hah! Yes, I’ve seen more recent, bigger examples with newer technologies, which can allow for a poetic presentation too (I think one was at the National Aquarium in Baltimore … must sift through all my photos and notes), but the basic principle is the same. Very effective. Great job all round on Noah’s Ark! Let’s keep in touch.


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