These words begin many of the most powerful stories we hear. The first-person telling of an experience is one of a kind; it includes details that can only be recounted by the individual who lived it. Passing stories on from generation to generation and from community to community is central to our mission here at the Skirball. Simply put, it’s a place where people’s histories—and a people’s history—matter.
As of this fall, visitors to our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, now have the opportunity to view testimonials of Holocaust survivors provided by USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. Since I oversee the development of programs for school groups, it fell to me and my staff to create a Visions and Values gallery tour for high school students that not only includes the video testimonials, but that gives teenagers an understanding of the socio-economic and political context that led to national socialism in Germany and the atrocities of the Holocaust.
How do we mark the passage of seasons here at the Skirball? Well, as this is Los Angeles, there are few, if any, golden autumn leaves to be found on our campus. But the color gold abounds every fall nonetheless—in the form of public school buses that line our main entrance each and every weekday morning.
These buses carry some of the Skirball’s most precious visitors: students in pre-K through twelfth grade and their teachers, from more than thirty districts across Los Angeles. They come to participate in any one of the number of school tours and performance programs we offer throughout the school year. While we’re proud to be providing content-rich programs that are fun and engaging, I am also struck by how much the students give back to us. Their enthusiasm and curiosity bring the Skirball to life and remind me why I love what we do here.
Recently, I cleared my calendar of meetings and snuck down to our galleries to observe a morning of school programs in action. Here are some snapshots from that day.
We welcomed four classes of students on this particular day. That’s pretty typical for us, and our team has it down to a science (really, an art). Here comes a class of kindergarteners from Yorkdale Elementary. Darn, they’re cute!
These five- and six-year-olds from Yorkdale Elementary have come to experience Noah’s Ark, our award-winning, hands-on destination inspired by the ancient flood tale. The two young Noahs-in-training pictured here are helpfully conveying a pair of monkeys onto a giant floor-to-ceiling wooden ark made of Douglas fir.
Meanwhile, in our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, a class of third-graders from Estrella Elementary sits around a table set for the Jewish holidays. For this program, “At Home in Los Angeles,” the students learn about Shabbat, the weekly day of rest in Jewish tradition when families refrain from work and spend time together. Our Skirball educator is inviting the students to discuss the holidays and customs they observe with their own families. One of the girls mentions eating homemade tamales every Christmas Eve with her family, who comes from Mexico.
At the Skirball, students learn through doing and experiencing things together. Here’s a jubilant young guy and his fellow classmates learning a traditional Jewish song.
Creativity. Interpretation. Argument. Collaboration. These were just some of the skills utilized by our nation’s founders as they haggled, debated, and compromised their way to the formation of the American republic. The exhibition Creating the United Statesexplores the work of the founders and their struggle to create a nation according to the principles of a free society and a populace with the power to govern itself. Working together, setting aside differences, and considering the future played key roles in establishing the country we now know.
Exploring similar processes is at the heart of the work of students at Granada Hills Charter High School who are participating in the Skirball’s 2012 In-School Residency, “Re-Creating the United States.” Working with Otis School of Art and Design faculty members Patty Kovic and Michele Jaquis, directors of the award-winning NEIGHBORGAPBRIDGE interdisciplinary design course, the students are thinking about how to communicate the relevancy of these skills and ideas to Skirball visitors. Continue reading →
Shofar and Case, Maker: Marcus Jonas. Oakland, California, ca. 1870s. Wood and ram’s horn. From the collection of the Skirball Cultural Center. Photograph by John Reed Forsman.
What’s a shofar? It’s a ram’s horn that is hollowed out (through a pretty messy process) and polished. In Jewish tradition, it is blown during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Some interpret the shofar’s blast as a call to reflect, a call to repent, a call to listen to the voice of one’s own conscience, a call to do good deeds, or a call to express prayer with breath.
Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.
In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.
Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.
This gallery wall was designed to illustrate the tragic fact that sixty million girls and women are “missing” from the world because of their gender. It’s a participatory experience that one student who visited recently took very seriously.
Inside the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, one wall of the gallery is covered with dots—20,000 of them, give or take a few. Each one measures about an inch in diameter, a thin blue line rounding an empty center. Over time visitors have filled in the white circles, transforming the mostly blank space into a field of tenderly hand-colored dots.
The 20,000 are meant to represent, if only in part, the sixty million girls and women estimated to be “missing” worldwide because of sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, or gender-specific abuse or neglect—or what an article in The Economist calls “gendercide” (the article also increases the estimate to 100 million). It’s a startling, sobering figure. While standing before this giant display of thousands upon thousands of dots, visitors are invited to take a moment and color in a circle in honor of a life lost.
A young middle-schooler, B.J. Dare, who toured the exhibition as part of a recent school field trip, colored in more than a dot or two, then chose to share the experience with online reading and writing community Figment. We stumbled upon it late last week, and we were moved. Here’s an excerpt of B.J.’s composition “A Trip to the Skirball”:
I colored and colored and colored and colored. Every dot was a new color, some were multi-color. For each dot, I felt like I was trying to help, or give support, somehow. Continue reading →
I treasure these thank-you notes from kids who’ve gone on school tours with me. One of them says, “Archaeology rocks!” I agree!
Some of the most exciting happenings at the Skirball take place in the mornings before it even opens to the public. Nearly every Tuesday through Friday during the academic year, at least one school tour is taking place. The Skirball has an entire curriculum of tours for every grade level, all geared to California State Standards. The most popular of the school tours is the sixth-grade Archaeology of the Near East tour, which focuses on the shared needs of peoples, past and present. In sixth grade, students study ancient civilizations, so a visit to the Skirball’s simulated dig ties in nicely.
Every Archaeology of the Near East school tour is split into two parts. Half the group (like the students pictured above) goes to the Archaeology Discovery Center and learns about ancient trade routes, the development of writing, and the archaeology of a tel (a mound with layers representing different civilizations).
The tours are run by docents, and I’m privileged to be one of them. Becoming a docent isn’t easy. It’s like finding a job: you have to apply and you have to make it through an interview. Why do you want to be a docent? What qualifications do you have? Docents work in teams. What would you do if a docent wanted to do something differently than you? What would you do if a kid throws up?!
I first applied to be a docent a couple of years ago, but my timing was off. I filed the idea away and did other things. To my surprise, last May I received a phone call: A new class of Skirball docents was starting up, to be trained specifically to lead the archaeology tour. Was I still interested?
Training began this past July. A week here, a week there. Three days a week each time. It’s a bit overwhelming at first. Just the terminology was a challenge: ostracon, stratigraphy, balk (and no, not the baseball kind). There was so much to learn! Continue reading →
Welcome to SkirBlog, just another way into the Skirball. Photo by John Elder.
A few weeks ago, a woman from the East African nation of Burundi found herself visiting our newest exhibition, Women Hold Up Half the Sky. She was part of a small entourage traveling with the African Union Ambassador to the U.S. As the group walked through the gallery with the Skirball’s Museum Director, Robert Kirschner, the Burundian woman suddenly stopped in her tracks, listening intently. She thought she must be imagining it, for what she heard were the voices of girls singing a traditional Burundian lullaby. Where was that sound coming from, so far away from home? Bob assured her that the music was in fact part of the commissioned audio installation Amplify, by multimedia artist Ben Rubin, designed specifically to amplify the voices of women and girls that often go unheard. Moved by the idea of the project and the music from her homeland, our visitor asked if she could listen again.
This story quickly made its way around the Skirball, as stories tend to do around here. On any given day, at any moment—while grabbing a cup of coffee, rushing across the courtyard for a meeting, working a lecture or concert—any one of us staff or volunteers hears about… well, all sorts of things. Baby hummingbirds abandoned on campus and lovingly rescued by security staff and Noah’s Ark facilitators. A shy teen who found his voice participating in the Skirball’s spoken-word residency and, on the last day of the program, read a surprisingly emotional poem before a crowd of fellow high schoolers. A curator’s eye-opening visit to the L.A. home of a legendary émigré artist whose lesser-known work in film may well be the subject of an upcoming exhibition (spoiler alert not needed; we’ll tell you about it when we can). Negotiations underway for a double-bill concert starring Algerian Jewish pianist Maurice El Medioni and Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodriguez, whose joint album Descarga Oriental blew our programming team away. Continue reading →