Exhibiting Wonder

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From children circling the dinosaur bones to families captivated by military history, museum-goers expect a hearty dose of what Susie Lepp calls the "Gee Whiz" factor.

The trend toward entertaining and educational interactive technology, begun some 20-25 years ago with early laserdisc players, is gaining momentum in an increasingly competitive museum market, said Lepp, senior vice president at the Lorton, VA-based Design and Production (D and P). "Even five years ago, using computer interactive technology was done carefully because computers required more maintenance," she explained. "Now that industry is more reliable for continuous-use operation."

AV computer industry growth is a sign of the times, Lepp said. "Kids are all computer-literate; they're playing exciting games, and they need to be engaged. That's driving the growth of technology within these facilities in major ways."

D and P's recent projects include the "The Price of Freedom" exhibit at the National Museum of American History, "Our Universes" at the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian), "The Public Vaults" for the National Archives Experience, and EdVenture in Columbia, SC, the largest children's museum in the South (see related sidebar).

Although 9/11 delayed many projects, there's currently a lot of opportunity, Lepp said, with an increase in new museums across the board. "It's a wide canvas of venues including history and military, science, and children's museums, both regional and national. Education has always been a core mission for these facilities, but entertainment is recognized as a necessary component to attract visitors."

As product becomes more affordable, clients want more, she said. "The cost of flat screens has come down to where they are now in many homes. Five years ago, a museum may have had a big bulky monitor in a big enclosure. Now we can do plasma or LCD, saving on construction costs and increasing potential for smaller spaces with the lower weights and surface area of the new products."

Lepp said many of her clients are requesting MPEG 2 from DVD players to video servers. The more sophisticated among them ask that information be downloadable from other locations. "Of course, they want plasma screens," she revealed. "They ask for user-friendly, one-button interfaces; that's a big part of what we market. Through AMX Show Control with the RS-232, we can set up more communication to house devices. We can pulse equipment for information, such as how many hours are on the projector bulb, etc. It's easy to monitor maintenance. And that will continue to increase especially for larger facilities with centralized systems."

Lepp has one caveat: Don't mask presentation with technology. "You want people to be engaged and learn, not to figure out what's behind the scenes. You have to analyze what it is the visitor is taking away. If the technology gets in the way or breaks down, what's the point?"

The marriage of IT and AV allows many smaller, niche museums to get on the interactive bandwagon, said David Prince, director of engineering for Design and Integration. The Baltimore-based commercial AV company is currently involved with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which will open in June. The firm recently completed AV work at the American Visionary Art Museum presenting the works of self-taught artists.

"There's a revival of museums here in Baltimore," Prince said, "and a lot of these venues are trying to reach out with at least some AV elements in every exhibit. The Lewis has media servers for video and audio files stored on their internal network, and an in-house staff to run video production." The next five to 10 years, he says, will bring a greater convergence of websites or internal networks and outside information.

"Some clients have nonspecific ideas of what they want but lack the personnel to run the systems," Prince stated. "We give them a heads-up in the design stage. They need someone who is truly knowledgeable because the public wants everything to work perfectly as they walk through, and they can be unforgiving."

Museum clients also have little tolerance for out-of-order systems, says Bob Haroutunian, principal, PPI Consulting, a Washington, DC-based AV media systems design firm. PPI's projects, institutional and corporate, include the National Museum of the American Indian and America on the Move, both at the Smithsonian; BMW Zentrum in Spartanburg, SC; and the Bacardi Visitors Center in San Juan.

"Clients have to compete for visitors' time and income, a fairly recent phenomenon," Haroutunian commented. "When a family gets up on a Saturday morning, you want to be on their radar screen with 100-percent-operating system so they'll recommend it to others and come back."

Media is integral in telling the stories, he said. "I worked on the Holocaust Museum, and Shaike Weinberg, one of the original directors, said, 'You can go to any museum and see stuff. The great museums show you stuff but tell you a story.' We use a lot of RFID technology to personalize a story for the visitor."

A general story, Haroutunian said, can be adapted for various types of visitors and interests, for international or local audiences, and for various languages. "We can register visitors when they enter and collect data such as age, gender and education," he said. "We can extend the story to the web, engage visitors in ways never before possible, developing ongoing relationships leading to memberships. Their visit is not a one-off."

Many facilities are experimenting with PDAs-the visitors' own or by rental or loan-to augment graphics or text with information such as a video interview with a designer. "Audio systems still have their place, but PDAs extend the experience to a different level," Haroutunian admitted. "This is part of an ongoing evolution. Web browser icons have become part of our visual vocabulary."

Corporate clients tell their stories with technology similar to that of museums. "We're doing a lot of immersion theaters involving audience-response systems or kiosks to obtain feedback," Haroutunian informed. "Those clients see visitor centers as offering customer choices as opposed to a museum which is a linear, planned experience. Corporate system design has to be more flexible in its initial planning, and has to be modular to stay in step with current marketing objectives."

Traditional collecting museums are part of the interactive trend as well, said Denver Art Museum (DAM) director of design, Dan Kohl. "In the past, you bought an art book or a coffee, a simple commercial exchange. Now, our audience wants a unique aesthetic experience, and they are open to tech."

DAM, which will open its new Frederic C. Hamilton glass and titanium building in the fall of 2006, recently hired a director of new technologies. "We have several places in the museum where tech is used to present didactic information, and to give a sense of context and ambiance," Kohl said. "We're trying to signal that we encourage our visitors' response to art."

DAM also is looking to AV technology to create installation pieces where patrons can leave personal data, comments and responses to art each time they visit. "Embracing technology is a trend you will see in traditional museums around the country," Kohl predicted. "Art museums are slower to respond to the call, but we're all getting there."

Karen Mitchell is a writer based in Boulder, CO.

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