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.
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.
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.’
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.
Here’s a polar bear made from bathtub and bucket.
Peep through the teeny tiny hole in its belly …
And watch that sneaky crocodile.
Do it yourself, together
Downstairs the storm begins – and you create it. Wind, pump, shake. Make wind, water, and lightning.
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.
Look after the animals – feed them, put them to bed.
Keep an eye out overhead.
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.
There are low-tech and high-tech options to contribute. Add a leaf to the family tree.
Or, via a laptop, make a pledge about how you’ll help to build a better world, and see it projected in the space.
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