Managing Advanced AV in Museum Exhibits

  • by Carolyn Heinze
  • As facilities directors, curators, and the artists themselves strive to bring new and innovative elements into their exhibits, audiovisual technology is playing an increasingly larger role in museum-exhibit design. Not only is AV being used to transmit practical information—such as through the application of digital signage—but it’s also being used to create and enhance mood and ambience, as well as to boost interactivity between visitors and the exhibits themselves. Jeremy Scheinberg, chief operating officer of Alcorn McBride, Inc. in Orlando, Florida, notes that the recession, which has resulted in less discretionary spending and, therefore, fewer tourists, has driven museums to go after local clientele by incorporating more interactive elements into their existing displays. “Local museums need to boost their offerings with a lot of online interactions, and they need to boost the way they display their artifacts,” he says. “That requires a lot more audio and video integration and control.”
  • There’s also increased interactivity in the transfer of information at the actual exhibit, says Curtis Kelly, AV designer and integrator at Delicate Productions, Inc. in Camarillo, California. “It’s more tactile, visual, and sensory in terms of audio and video, so that it’s not just a static display where you push a few buttons and see things happen; it involves a little bit more,” he says. Accustomed to AV in so many other parts of life, the public is also demanding a more sophisticated experience in general, Scheinberg observes. Companies like Alcorn McBride, which is entrenched in the amusement-park industry, are noticing a stronger parallel between museums and theme parks when it comes to the application of audiovisual systems. “For us, that’s exciting, because we cut our teeth in the theme-park business, and we are hallmarked for the design and manufacturing of equipment that delivers these kinds of experiences,” he says. “A lot of this translates into the museum market as it stands now, whether it’s a traveling exhibit or a permanent install.”
  • Stephen Keever, production manager in the audiovisual department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, notes that he has overseen the application of AV more in just the last year than in his previous 30 years at the facility combined. “We have a lot of artists who are starting to use audiovisual technology with their art who have never done so before,” he says, and notes that even “traditional” artists, who are focused on painting, prints, and drawings, are now starting to explore the incorporation of AV technology into more conventional mediums. “Things are becoming more integrated into exhibitions, and they become more of an environment,” Keever says, and sound and video are being used to create that environment.

The museum’s current expo of designer Marcel Wanders features projections, soundscapes and lighting, all controlled through an Alcorn McBride show controller. “It’s an extensive multimedia show that has to repeat every 20 minutes, every day, for six months.” Also cropping up are social media and downloadable applications, which enable visitors to both prepare for their visits ahead of time and refer to information on the exhibit long after they’ve left. This is especially popular among educators, Kelly says. “You receive the information before you arrive, and once you arrive you apply that information to make the process more interesting in terms of seeing and experiencing the environment of the exhibit; and then after you are done, you can look up what you did and have something to take home.” It also encourages visitors to participate in and engage with the exhibit, rather than just receive information on a static level. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, AV is also playing a role in artifact conservation, especially in the costume and textiles gallery, where exhibits can’t be brightly lit for fear of degrading the fabrics.Jen Schlegel, an AV technician, also notes that slide shows and video clips enable curators to show visitors more detail as well as the actual costumes “in action,” as was the case during a recent exhibition of 1920s fashion in Paris that featured Pathé footage of models on the catwalk. “It gave another dimension to something that is normally just a dress on a hanger on the wall,” she says. Whereas a few years ago, high-definition (HD) video remained a novelty, the decreasing prices of content design and display tools are making it more accessible to facilities of all sizes. “With Final Cut Pro and an HD camera, you can make a great high-end video,” Scheinberg says. For facilities purchasing new systems nowadays, there is less incentive to invest in standard definition. “Even for the small to medium-sized museum, all of a sudden HD is not only affordable, it’s in many cases the way to go.” While equipment costs are indeed dropping, Schlegel admits that the sheer demand for AV presents some financial challenges. “We had a five-projector show and another video projector in the video gallery,” she says. “With so much equipment needed at the same time, we’ve had to make a lot of new purchases.” This can be contentious for the curators, she added, since they haven’t always budgeted for it. “They assume that we have enough equipment in storage to accommodate their heavy-equipment shows all the time.” And since the museum has had a significant influx of equipment, the AV department will face the challenge of storing it when it isn’t required for less AV-heavy exhibitions.

Curators can also be territorial about which projectors and media players are used in their shows, Schlegel notes. “Deciding who gets to use what is difficult, and we try to determine that on a first-come-first-served basis. We try to be fair about it that way, but it’s difficult when we have shows that require so much equipment all at the same time.”There is also the matter of learning how to use the technology, which often occurs just a day or two before a show, when the equipment arrives. “We do a lot of our learning once it’s plugged in and functional,” Schlegel says. “While someone is feeding cables into the ceiling, someone else is there with the manual and remote, learning the device.” As facilities expand their inventories of audiovisual equipment, there is an increasing need for control systems that enable technicians and engineers to operate technology, such as video projectors, from one source or even a remote location. “They want the ability to turn them all on in the morning and turn them all off at night from one central point,” Scheinberg says. Monitoring and maintenance is also an issue, and it’s much easier for AV staff to efficiently ascertain the status of, say, projector lamps from one location. As they have evolved, Scheinberg adds, these control systems are becoming easier to integrate and more user-friendly. “A lot of our museum clients do the installations themselves rather than bring in a firm to do it for them.”

The networking of AV systems has become a high priority at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is composed of three main facilities as well as a number of outbuildings, all managed by a four-person AV department. “We have to get all this equipment to be able to talk to each other over a network so that we can turn it on and off easily,” Keever says. “This has become really important as the amount of equipment has expanded. We can’t continue to run around adjusting individual timers here, there and everywhere.”

Alcorn McBride:
Delicate Productions:
Philadelphia Museum of Art:

Carolyn Heinze has covered everything from AV/IT and business to cowboys and cowgirls ... and the horses they love. She was the Paris contributing editor for the pan-European site Running in Heels, providing news and views on fashion, culture, and the arts for her column, “France in Your Pants.” She has also contributed critiques of foreign cinema and French politics for the politico-literary site, The New Vulgate.