Modern Sensibility

The experience of going to an art museum is like attending a live musical performance. In both situations, visitors possess some previous knowledge of creative works before witnessing them in person, but a more in-depth appreciation inevitably occurs following the observation of old and new works arranged by curators for a new level of understanding.

Art in particular benefits from these "live" encounters, and the right amount of supplemental information presented alongside artifacts can alter a visitor's perception of a work even when he leaves the museum. It is with this circumstance in mind that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) made enhanced AV capabilities a significant part of its major renovation. When the museum reopened the doors to its Manhattan home last November after nearly two years of construction, the architecture wasn't the only changed aspect of the museum. Within the new walls was a fully integrated network of audio, video and control systems that will assist patrons in their understanding of the works displayed in galleries. In fact, as more contemporary art continues to take the form of digital media, several works will be displayed via these technical means rather than alongside them.

"Contemporary art really incorporates sound and video, as well as a combination of traditional art with digital mediums," observed K Mita, MoMA's director of digital media. "Ideally we'd like to control all of this media from a central location, and have the infrastructure there to support it. We haven't even fully contemplated what artists are going to come up with in the future, so right now we're trying to establish a good foundation. We have a good network system, we have enough control systems so we can manipulate it from wherever we need to, and now we will build from there."

With the changing shape of artwork, technology plays a major role from the initial curatorial meetings onward to exhibit setup, gallery opening events, and of course the actual shows. To facilitate this process, the new MoMA houses numerous boardrooms and theaters behind the scenes in addition to its public galleries and the stunning one-by-nine Samsung 40-inch LCD display which visitors see upon entering the lobby. The AV design for these various spaces was developed by John Kessler, managing consultant for IBM Global Services, and installed by Ralph Capria and his team at Fairfield, NJ-based Audio Visual Services.

Starting in February 2003, Kessler worked with Mita and his staff to identify their technological needs , and then went beyond those to create a comprehensive system that links media in the museum so transparently that the entire staff is still surprised at the possibilities. "He really just went in and behind the scenes added a lot more technology and infrastructure than the museum had initially called for," Mita said, "and now that it's there, the curators are all eager to utilize this technology."

The first stop for a digital work of art might be one of two executive conference rooms on the sixth floor, where Digital Projection DLP projectors and Samsung 63-inch plasma displays might show a video work of art in an acquisition meeting. Facilitating the discussion about such a work would be a SMART Board, a Sony three-chip BRC 300 camera, a Tandberg 6000 codec and ClearOne devices used for audio mixing and echo cancellation.

Even as standalone systems, the conference rooms are pretty well outfitted. However, these locations are just two of many nodes on the Crestron control network running on the facility's IT infrastructure. In addition to the remote operation and monitoring capabilities this brings to MoMA's audiovisual staff, the Crestron system also incorporates several wireless touchpanels for use throughout the conference rooms and theaters. "Crestron MediaManager devices are also running many of the exhibits," Kessler said. "All of the Crestron control is tied in on RoomView software so the audiovisual people know how the exhibits are doing and what's going on during events."

This networked approach isn't limited to control in the museum. There are approximately 30 custom distribution panels for audio, video and network links throughout the MoMA's six floors. A portable system of two audio carts and two Jelco video carts make any one of these 30 locations into an instant audio reinforcement system or video display point.

The audio carts each contain a Panasonic Toughbook laptop, Soundcraft LX7 mixer, Lexicon effects processors and a Pioneer 7400 DVD player. Audio for all the above is transported via a Whirlwind E-Snake, which allows MoMA's audiovisual staff to instantly connect to any of its EAW or Meyer Sound loudspeakers. Or if it's the BSS Soundweb music and paging system that needs adjusting, the cart's onboard laptop has WiFi connectivity and therefore provides access to web control of the Crestron system. That way, if there's live music during a gallery opening on the lobby level, the music can be distributed throughout the museum's many floors via ceiling speakers.

If these events become overcrowded (and they often do) the video carts have built-in plasmas, and optional VBrick or Magenta Research distribution that allows staff to stream video from any location to the display. If the museum wants to communicate with the outside world from any of these locations, the carts are also equipped to do videoconferencing.

Even with all of this infrastructure enabling communication in so many ways, the part of the project which makes Kessler most proud is the Founders Room on the sixth floor. "In there, I wanted to have more immediacy for meeting room functions," Kessler said. The result is a truly unique design complete with a customized hoist system that lowers a stretched Stewart masking screen, a center channel speaker, and two Sony BRC 300 three-chip cameras into view in one swift motion like a fly system in a theater. This was made possible by a 23-foot available ceiling height in the room, with a false ceiling at approximately 15 feet. When not in use, the screen resides fully expanded above the ceiling. Projection in the Founders Room is handled by a Digital Projection is8 2K by 1K cinema projector.

But the fun part of the Founders Room is the audio. First there's a 7.1 surround system comprised of SLS Loudspeakers 1065 studio monitors handling front and back left and right channels, a Magnetic Audio Devices (MAD) center channel and remaining channels provided by two of eight total Tannoy ceiling speakers. Four Bag End D12E-AD subs are hidden behind curtain walls in the room. Since the room is also equipped to do audio and videoconferencing, the ceiling speakers help with a mix minus system for the 17 Shure MX692 wireless boundary microphones on the table.

If the meeting room setup doesn't provide enough entertainment, the audio for the receptions often hosted in this space might suffice. Kessler specified several Servoreeler microphones that can be lowered in various areas of the room to pick up musical performances, which are then enhanced with Lexicon effects processors for ambience.

All of this Founders Room activity is controlled by one of three Crestron control panels. The first option is the technician-ready TPS 6000, with advanced programming possibilities for MoMA audiovisual staff. The second is a user-friendly PPMC 10, Crestron's new WiFi touchpanel and the third is the presenter's MP500 hand-held controller. Backing everything up is a Crestron TPS 4500 VL in the control room.

Even with such a complete system already in place, the MoMA's future will certainly involve more technology. Right now, the museum is pilot-testing a PDA program to provide more information on exhibits. In addition to that information resource, Mita has aspirations of expanding the electronic signage found in the lobby area to other parts of the museum to better inform visitors about what they're seeing - without detracting from their observation of art.

Judging by how much technological change the museum has seen in the six years Mita has been there to usher in digital media, the future will certainly hold more for his department. Artists have already begun working directly with Mita and his crew to help make their visions a reality in the galleries. "We're not just AV guys anymore," Mita said. "When I first started here, I was a department of one and my primary goal was to tinker around with a couple of the kiosks. Then in a matter of three and half years we went from that to a full-blown dedicated network for AV. That's a huge change in a very compressed time frame."

Audio Visual Services…
IBM Global Services…

More For MoMA

In addition to the gallery spaces and meeting rooms, MoMA also has a variety of education and event spaces for patrons. These also benefited from a thorough AV design. Here are some facts about only a few of these auxiliary spaces.

The two cinema theaters, Titus 1 and Titus 2, not only have 35mm projection, but they are also awaiting delivery of Sony's newest 4K projector.

A distance learning broadcast room on the second floor uses two existing Fujitsu plasmas, a Tandberg 6000 codec, a Sony BRC 300 three-chip camera and a Crestron PPMC 10 WiFi panel.

Last but not least, a digital technology classroom on the first floor has 12 PCs, four Macs, a number of printing capabilities, and video projection in two directions. The first is aimed above computers along a side wall, so students can simply look up to follow a presentation. The second is at the front of the room, where a screen comes down in front of two NEC 42-inch plasma displays that are used for videoconferencing.

Kirsten Nelson is a freelance content producer who translates the expertise and passion of technologists into the vernacular of an audience curious about their creations. Nelson has written about audio and video technology in all its permutations for almost 20 years; she was the editor of SCN for 17 years. Her experience in the commercial AV and acoustics design and integration market has also led her to develop presentation programs and events for AVIXA and SCN, deliver keynote speeches, and moderate and participate in panel discussions. In addition to technology, she also writes about motorcycles—she is a MotoGP super fan.