The familiar tale of Noah’s ark has three central elements: Noah, a boatload of animals, and a monumental flood. For a new children’s gallery opening this month at the Moshe Safdie–designed Skirball Cultural Center, in Los Angeles, architects, a puppet maker, graphic designers, rope-course experts, sound technicians, and expert fabricators were called upon to give physical form to the apocryphal story. The result turns each of the tale’s tropes on its head.
Here the flood isn’t unleashed by an angry Old Testament God; instead it’s created by the visitors, who operate an ingenious “conduct-a-storm system” that uses old-fashioned toys to produce wind and lightning noises. The ark is never seen in its entirety because the visitor is climbing around inside it, and the animals are found-object constructions—flamingos sprout fine-tooth-comb feathers, zebras sport keyboard manes, and tribal-masked sheep have stringy mop-head bodies. Finally, wise white-bearded Noah doesn’t even make an appearance. “We felt it was important that the visitor experience this as if they were Noah,” says Alan Maskin, a principal at Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects (OSKA), the Seattle-based firm that designed the gallery. “They create the storm. They help the animals—make them meals, put them to bed at night.”
The Skirball’s focus is Jewish heritage, but the curators, led by director of education Sheri Bernstein and exhibit developer Marni Gittleman, wanted to make the gallery widely accessible despite the story’s Old Testament roots. “There are more than five hundred different flood narratives that come from almost every culture—Alaska, Africa, China,” Maskin says. “We saw this as the five hundred and first narrative. There was some editing. We pulled the parts and pieces that reinforced the values of the Skirball. We don’t focus on the flood. It’s more about the animals working together, living together, and coming together for survival.”
Sweeping wall murals in dark, stormy colors depict realistic-looking animals in silhouette, all traveling toward the ark. The natural palette creates an atmosphere far removed from the primary-colored plastic that often marks a children’s museum. There is no explanatory text, no obvious direction—only the occasional atmospheric note lit up on the floor: “Wind whispers, coyotes call.” “Explore. Journey together.” And at the end of the voyage: “How can we build a better world?”
OSKA’s and the curators’ goals—to build a space for children that wasn’t glaringly childish and retell the Noah’s ark story so that it focused on the value of working together—were only possible through collaboration. “We were looking for a partner to get on the boat with,” Bernstein says. “OSKA was the unanimous choice. They reflected a whimsical and global sensibility. We knew we didn’t want something full of electronics and button-pressing. We wanted people to see how things operated.”
To achieve that, OSKA acted almost as producers, pulling together the graphic-design firm Somelab to do murals inspired by Indonesian shadow puppets, and Brooklyn-based puppeteer Chris Green to craft animals. Sound designer Tony Palermo consulted on the acoustical effects for the storm. And most essentially, the fabrication firm Lexington helped figure out how to build a wooden ark, complete with rough edges and rope baskets, that would make parents feel safe. It was an epic journey: the gallery took five years and $5 million to complete—far longer than Noah’s 40 days and 40 nights.