October 17, 2018

New Skirball exhibition channels the power of you

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.

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.

“We understand ourselves as a Jewish institution, and we spell that identification and commitment in terms of ideals that we understand to be intrinsically Jewish,” Kirschner said. 

Such values as freedom, equality, justice and human dignity are universal values, he said, but have been aligned with Jewish principles since biblical times. 

“When we did ‘Half the Sky,’ for instance, we cited the verse that applies to this project as well, from the Book of Leviticus, that you shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds,” Kirschner said.

Students attend class at the Kibera School for Girls in Nairobi, Kenya, founded by Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). SHOFCO combats gender inequality and extreme poverty in urban slums by linking tuition-free schools for girls to holistic social services for all.

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. 

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. Neal Baer, the guest curator of “A Path Appears,” 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.”

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.

“I think ‘Half the Sky’ and ‘A Path Appears’ fit into that category of exhibition that speaks to our mission as a Jewish institution in terms of our values,” Clancey said.

Kirschner cited the Hebrew aphorism, “Lo ha’midrash hu ha’ikar, ela ha’ma’ase,” meaning, “It’s not what one says, but rather what one does.”

“A Path Appears” is at the Skirball Cultural Center from Nov. 19 through Feb. 21, 2016. Sheryl WuDunn will discuss the exhibition with Neal Baer on Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit