Turning inspiration into action at the Skirball

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The exhibition "A Path Appears" at the Skirball Cultural Center. Photos by Avishay Artsy.
The exhibition “A Path Appears” at the Skirball Cultural Center. Photos by Avishay Artsy.

As we enter the holiday season of giving, many of us think about how we can donate our time and money in a meaningful way. A new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center aims to introduce visitors to people and organizations attempting to tackle issues of human rights and poverty around the world. And when people leave the galleries, they will be encouraged to turn their inspiration into action.

“A Path Appears,” which runs Nov. 19 through Feb. 21, 2016, draws attention to grass-roots campaigns in the fields of health, education, jobs and empowerment (meaning civil and human rights). Each issue gets its own section of the exhibition — the curators call them “pavilions.”

The show includes objects used in developing countries to overcome pressing problems. For example, a plastic drum used to transport water; a high-quality, low-cost prosthetic knee; a teddy bear handed out to comfort child refugees; and a center where young women and girls can go to feel comfortable talking about contraceptives in the setting of a beauty salon.

The exhibition draws from the stories in “A Path Appears: Actions for a Better World,” co-authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists — and husband-wife team — Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Their book celebrates creative solutions to everyday problems around the world. This project is the second collaboration between the authors and the Skirball. Their previous book, the 2009 best-seller “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” which focused on threats women face around the world, including sex trafficking, prostitution, maternal mortality, violence and discrimination, became a Skirball exhibition in 2012. That show displayed photos and other multimedia materials about the plight of women and girls, most of them from Africa and Asia, and told stories of their brave fights to overcome those obstacles.

The empowerment pavilion.
The empowerment pavilion.

For “Half the Sky,” the Skirball approached Kristof and WuDunn about creating an exhibition that would turn the book into an interactive, immersive experience. This time around, the authors came to museum director Robert Kirschner to see if the Skirball would be interested in launching another exhibition around their work.

Elizabeth Eshel of wHY Architecture, left, and Jonathan Alger of C&G Partners.

The show was designed in partnership with wHY Architecture, based in Culver City, and C&G Partners, based in New York. The two award-winning firms worked alongside exhibition fabrication firm Cinnabar to create what they describe as “a low-tech, high-charm approach” to the show. Each of the four pavilions uses a different genre of materials, including discarded automobile tires, compact discs, bubble wrap and newspapers. The materials relate to the content of each pavilion.

“In the health pavilion, we wanted to create a sky effect of the clouds that represent the security of health care,” said Elizabeth Eshel of wHY Architecture. “As we were playing around with different media, we played with bubble wrap,” when, she explained, on one of their weekly phone conferences, Neal Baer, a pediatrician and the guest curator of “A Path Appears,” suggested that the bubble wrap looks like alveoli (tiny air sacs within the lungs). They wrapped the bubble wrap around lights that brightened and dimmed, suggesting a breathing motion.

In the empowerment pavilion, visitors can watch trailers for inspiring documentaries in a theater made of used tires. “We arrived at tires because, locally, tire waste is a huge issue for LA County,” Eshel said. “So we diverted these tires from landfills and stacked them in such a way that they create a nice little theater. And they represent mobility and empowerment.”

The jobs pavilion features a wall of CD’s – 6,000 of them, zip-tied together, forming a wave. And the education section is created with a wall of newspapers, along with seats made of thick cardboard tubes. Jonathan Alger with C&G Partners said this exhibition is unlike other projects they’ve worked on for several reasons. For one thing, the designers intend to post the blueprints for the exhibit online so it can be recreated elsewhere, using equally low-cost materials.

“Typically, when you’re done with a project like this, the intention isn’t to issue open-source instructions. It’s a little bit like an open-source browser or open-source software,” Alger said. “In this case, the whole thing is a prototype of itself. It’s a beta test for itself. And all the materials were chosen to give people the sense of breaking down that barrier. This is all made of cardboard, this is very humble. You can do it yourself, and you should.”

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The health pavilion, featuring clouds made of bubble wrap and a Hippo water roller for transporting water in the developing world.

Visitors can use a smartphone app and Web platform to help them take concrete actions connected to specific issues, such as early childhood education or forced child marriages. Each object or story is connected to an “action step” to be taken on the spot or afterward.

The app is part of the social action tool ActionLab, a project of the Global Media Center for Social Impact at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. Baer is a pediatrician and Emmy-nominated writer and producer (“ER,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Under the Dome”) who founded ActionLab as a way of bridging storytelling and social change. For example, one episode of “Law & Order: SVU” featured Jennifer Love Hewitt as a rape survivor whose rape kit had never been tested. The episode was accompanied by a campaign to pressure law enforcement officials to clear their backlog of rape kits. ActionLab currently is working with author Marion Nestle on her book “Soda Politics” to help people reduce sugary drinks in their homes, schools and communities.

“I was doing all these shows that have either social justice issues or public health issues, and people would often say to me, ‘I really liked that episode, and I wish I knew how to do something about that topic,’ ” Baer said. “It seemed natural to give people the action steps that they could take. I was finding that people were often inspired by a documentary or a TV show that I’d done, and yet they didn’t know what to do. And so we’re giving them the concrete actions that they can take to make a difference.”

Visitors are encouraged to gather colored stones from the four pavilions and drop them in these receptacles at the end, to indicate which sections of the exhibition inspired them.
Visitors are encouraged to gather colored stones from the four pavilions and drop them in these receptacles at the end, to indicate which sections of the exhibition inspired them.

In the “empowerment” pavilion of “A Path Appears,” visitors can watch a trailer for a documentary Baer produced called “If You Build It,” about high school students who built a farmers market in a low-income North Carolina town. Inspired visitors can use ActionLab to connect with a Los Angeles group that assigns architects and designers to contribute their time pro bono to projects in their own community, such as helping to design a recreation center.

The exhibition fits the Skirball’s track record of presenting exhibitions with a social justice component, including 2006’s “Rwanda/After, Darfur/Now,” 2009’s “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement” and the current exhibition “Manzanar,” featuring photographs taken by Ansel Adams of the Japanese-American incarceration camp in Manzanar, Calif., during World War II, museum curator Erin Clancey said.

“A Path Appears” is at the Skirball Cultural Center from Nov. 19 through Feb. 21, 2016. For more information, visit skirball.org.