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Animal attraction

A menagerie is aboard the `Noah's Ark' exhibit launching at the Skirball. Life lessons too.

June 24, 2007|Karen Wada | Special to The Times

SMALL and homely, the tarantula is an unlikely role model. That makes it a perfect fit for "Noah's Ark," the interactive children's galleries opening Tuesday at the Skirball Cultural Center in Brentwood. The permanent installation is designed to bust stereotypes about a lot of things -- including what a kid-centric space should be.

"We want to create a new model for a family destination," says Marni Gittleman, the exhibit's developer. "Most things are built around a set of facts like the life cycle of a dolphin. We want to provide an open-ended experience, one built around values such as self-esteem and community building."

The Skirball also wants its visitors to work a little. "We'll ask you to fill in the gaps, to participate," says project director Sheri L. Bernstein, the center's director of education. "The kinds of lessons we hope to convey are best conveyed on a visceral level. Traditional children's spaces use a lot of simulated things and mediated experiences. We depend a lot on the real."

Indeed, you won't find bright plastic or cartoon characters in "Noah's" activity zones, amphitheater and arroyo garden. Everything is tactile and awash in earth tones. The ark and its inhabitants were made of natural materials and re-purposed objects -- cowboy boots, Thai rain drums -- that should intrigue budding artists and engineers alike. High-tech wizardry is shunned in favor of devices that must be pushed, cranked or powered by teamwork and ingenuity. Nothing is pint-sized or segregated by age; families are encouraged to play together, in the belief that shared experiences are more memorable.

Like most children's exhibits, the ark promotes learning through play. Unlike most, it emphasizes what founding President and Chief Executive Uri D. Herscher calls "the basics of character education." This, he insists, is about values, not religion. The galleries were inspired by the biblical account of animals finding shelter from a storm, yet they mention neither God nor Noah and use imagery common to flood narratives from different cultures.

"Our goal is to be a Jewish center that is welcoming to everybody," Herscher says. "The key is to take a timeless story and make it timely. We all face adversity. We all seek safety and, as immigrants or exiles, may go on a journey in search of a shoreline. The rainbow tells us you get not just a chance in life, but a second chance."

Lest such big ideas fly over the heads of little guests, the Skirball has spent five years and $5 million and employed about 200 people -- architects, artists, welders and a wildlife expert -- to make things child-friendly.

In addition, a couple thousand kids have offered suggestions and clambered through the work in progress to test durability and safety and to spot things adults might overlook. Thanks to junior R&D groups, the ark now has a 2-by-2 boarding ramp and addresses questions such as "How do you clean up the poop?"

The boatload of beasts is expected to be the main attraction for visitors of all ages. Among the more than 350 representatives of 186 species are popular favorites as well as the endangered and the misunderstood. Everyone has a story to tell. The lion lies down with the lamb. The penguins adopt an armadillo. And what about that hairy spider?

"Our dear tarantula has a little bad PR," Gittleman says. "However, if we spend time with it we find it is an incredible community dweller. We can learn so much from not only the cuddly cute creatures but the spiky, prickly ones."

Building any exhibit is tough. Building one for children -- especially when you've never done it before -- is tougher. The Skirball offers an assortment of family programs, but most of its museum space is devoted to exploring connections between 4,000 years of Jewish history and American democratic ideals.

"This is a new arena for us," says Bernstein, who notes that the center is preparing for a surge in younger guests by revamping its cafe menu, debating stroller policies "ad nauseam" and training staffers to cope with crying babies.

"As for the galleries themselves, what's so striking, especially given the message of 'Noah's Ark,' is that we had all these voices -- the internal team, the designers, a gazillion specialists -- in a process that was not an easy process," Bernstein says. "We ended up creating a great product, not despite the fact but because of the fact that so many people were involved."

Shared experience is the goal

THE 66-year-old Herscher is the Skirball's Noah, the patriarch whose vision for the future launched a great adventure. The son of German refugees, he was born in Tel Aviv and raised in a home he describes as "loving yet mournful" because so many relatives had died in the Holocaust. After moving to America in the mid-1950s, Herscher became a rabbi and a scholar. He has presided over the Skirball since it opened 11 years ago and has long dreamed of creating a place for families.

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