exterior of Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, image

The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles welcomes more than 600,000 visitors a year.

Noah's Ark, Skirball Cultural Center, image

At the Noah's Ark exhibit, kids can help build the ark.

elephants and zebra in mezzanine of Skirball Cultural Center, image

An elephant and zebras mingle in the mezzanine at the Skirball Cultural Center.

giraffe in Noah's Ark at Skirball Cultural Center, image

A giraffe sticks his neck out at Noah's Ark.

Noah's Ark at Skirball Cultural Center

Noah's Ark at the Skirball Cultural Center is wonderland of fun for kids.

Road Journals Blog—When you hear the phrase “family-friendly” in connection with Southern California, what do you think of? I’m guessing Disneyland, Legoland, and SeaWorld, to start. Those places are plenty fun, but another destination in the area deserves more love: the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., 310-440-4500).

If you’re thinking that saying to the kids, “Hey, we’re going to the cultural center!” won’t elicit that jumping-up-and-down-clapping-and-shouting-“Yay!” response, I’m here to tell you that the Skirball is flat-out cool. I won’t go on about the offbeat exhibits, the courtyard game tables, the drop-in art studio, the pretend archeological dig (complete with vest, brush, and pottery shards), the hot-day draw of a mist generator, and the amphitheater with live music. I won’t even go on about the in-house restaurant, Zeidler’s Café, and its smoked trout salad, salmon pastrami club sandwich, and bottomless glasses of pink lemonade.

What I will go on about is Noah’s Ark.

A permanent exhibit in an 8,000-foot-gallery, Noah’s Ark at the Skirball presses the wonder button right from the start. Before you even make it to the ark itself, you encounter a life-size menagerie made from found objects. Laotian bamboo steamers form an elephant’s trunk, and car floor mats serve as ears. You can spin the zebras’ bodies, made from wind turbines painted black and white, or flip the hundreds of perfectly aligned keys that make up the deer’s neck ruff.

Once you can pull yourself away, the next room continues the sensory awesomeness. Yank on a pulley to make the wolf above your head howl, push a lever to generate lightning inside a glass tube, press a pump to make leaves spin in a mini-tornado, and turn a crank to send the sound of wind moaning through the room.

And then turn around. Behind you, a floor-to-ceiling wooden ark covered with rope ladders to climb, niches to fit into, and animals to play with bring grins to even the grumpiest grandpa. Send animals two-by-two up a conveyor belt. Wobble across a rope bridge to hide behind moveable puppets and sculptures. Cook a tasty meal in the well-stocked play kitchen, then use tiny brooms to sweep up the animals’ mess (actually just light projected onto the floor—but still a big hit with my 7-year-old boy).

More than anything, you’ll marvel at the inventive handmade creatures all around you. Owls sport fans for wings. A hedgehog bristles with surgical tubing. Mirrored disco balls shine in an elephant’s eyes. It’s easy to blow several hours just pointing out the cleverness to each other.

When you’ve exhausted your curiosity, head next door to the story room, where a rainbow appears on the wall near a painting of a dove bearing an olive branch. Ah, peace. Not something often associated with a family adventure, but one the Skirball pulls off with ingenious delight.

Photography courtesy of Hughwa/Wikipedia (exterior); Grant Mudford/Skirball Cultural Center (ark); Grant Mudford/Skirball Cultural Center (elephant and zebra); Steve Cohn/Skirball Cultural Center (ark and giraffe)

This blog post was first published in March 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.