An ambitious $5 million exhibit in Los Angeles uses the story of Noah's Ark to teach the importance of working together. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, the story has its roots in the Jewish tradition, but the exhibit's creators say it has a message for a multicultural city.
The exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center is lighthearted and whimsical. Visitors see shapes that suggest the animals saved by Noah from the flood, but on closer examination, the creatures are seen to be composites of discarded items. A leather glove, two parts of a violin case, a violin neck and part of a vehicle tire are assembled to resemble a crocodile. A rounded metal skeleton suggests an elephant, its hooves consisting of bronze rain-drums from Thailand.
Designer and puppeteer Chris Green created some of the animals, including movable puppets, which greet the visitors.
"When they first come in, they are in this room, saturated with images of animals," he said. "And then they hear sounds."
Such recycled items as bicycle parts, bottle caps and rear-view mirrors from automobiles all contribute to the illusion of 186 animal species assembled to take refuge in a giant wooden ark.
The Skirball Cultural Center is devoted to exploring links between Jewish culture and American democratic traditions. This exhibit has a special message for Los Angeles, says the center's Robert Kirschner.
"We wanted something that could bring people together in a community that is so often so centrifugal and has people rushing off in every direction, or confined to their automobiles," he noted. "And Noah's Ark kind of brought that all together, because it's a story that's based in the Jewish heritage, but a story with a universal message."
The message of cooperation in the face of adversity is conveyed throughout the exhibit. Puppets and sound-making devices require a coordinated effort to work properly. Alan Maskin of the Seattle firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, which designed the galleries, demonstrates its interactive displays.
MASKIN: "Suddenly the wind starts to pick up. OK, would somebody come over and turn one of these. Suddenly the rain starts. Here's the rain coming down."
As visitors pump levers, rotate wheels and turn handles, the biblical flood story comes to life in sights and sounds.
Robert Kirschner says the exhibit is a teaching tool for children.
"So when they board the ark, for instance, they board two by two," he added. "They need a companion. When they help the animals find a place to nest or to live, they have to provide provisions for the animal on the ark. If they want to create a storm experience, one of them has to do the thunder and one does the lightning and ones does the rainfall and one does the rising water level. You can do those things alone, but not nearly as effectively as you can do them together."
Architect Alan Maskin says the exhibit conveys messages about cooperation, respect for the environment, and the importance of second chances after setbacks. He notes that although the Biblical flood story comes from Judaism, the themes in the exhibition are found in other sacred traditions.
"There literally is a narrative - narratives from Africa, South America, from the Middle East, from Alaska," he explained. "Almost all cultures, for some reason, had a flood narrative at some point. So that became an aspect of diversity for this project, where we could reach out to all people of all backgrounds."
Visitors move through three stages in the exhibit. In the first, they face storms, which represent challenges. In the second, they find refuge and community. In the third, they enter a room brightened with a rainbow, which represents a hopeful world awaiting them.
Noah's Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center opens to the public on June 26.