Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

In museum AV, when you integrate technology into exhibits, it becomes part of the story, rather than an object on which the story is told. Here's why that's important to remember. 6/02/2011 11:21 PM Eastern

Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

In museum AV, when you integrate technology into exhibits, it becomes part of the story, rather than an object on which the story is told. Here's why that's important to remember.

Raymond Kent

It all starts with a thing. it could be an object, such as a book or a piece of clothing. It could be a sound, such as a voice recording or a music track. Each has a story to tell. The depth at which that story is communicated to the masses differs depending on several factors, including the medium. Museums, theme parks, and even corporations struggle with storytelling, which can be imperative to their success.

In today's technology-driven world, these organizations have new tools at their disposal to help in their storytelling—video, audio, show control, virtual reality. These tools can take a museum patron, for instance, to places that bring a story to life. Today, someone can not only look at a dinosaur bone at a Smithsonian Museum, but also enter a world complete with the sounds and smells of the Jurassic period. It's the job of the design team, working with the storytellers, to communicate that vision.

Recently, I had the pleasure of being the lead AV, lighting, and show control designer on one of America's iconic museums—the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio—as it examined and refined how it told its own stories. Over the years, the massive I.M. Pei–designed structure, which opened almost 16 years ago, presented challenges in terms of how the museum staff could exhibit its collection of artifacts, particularly given its large glazed lobby. In addition, the museum staff discovered that wayfinding was a major concern. Many patrons, it turned out, hadn't realized that the building was both a hall of fame and a museum under the same roof. People could miss entire sections of artifacts in Ertegun Hall, for example, where the majority of the collection is displayed, due to poor wayfinding and lighting.

These problems were made worse by the building's outdated audiovisual, lighting, and presentation technology, most of which was original to the building. Terry Stewart, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his staff decided it was time for an update. "It's fairly simple," Stewart said about the project. "We try to make sure that the music and the detritus around how music is created—whether they're instruments, costumes, or lyrics—are preserved and exhibited here. A great deal of what the renovation is about is reacting to what we've learned about the building during the last 16 years."

Architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky was added to the team based on its experience as a practice leader in performing and cultural arts. (And it helped that the firm is headquartered just blocks from the Rock Hall.) The team, led by managing principal Paul Westlake, FAIA, and project director Josh Haney, AIA, was guided by the Rock Hall's mission statement, which basically spells out that it sees itself not only as a source of entertainment, but also one of education. We had to keep this mission in mind when we evaluated how best to accomplish the Rock Hall's goals within its $5.5 million budget.

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Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

In museum AV, when you integrate technology into exhibits, it becomes part of the story, rather than an object on which the story is told. Here's why that's important to remember.

One of the biggest challenges when working in an existing structure, especially one designed by an iconic architect, is determining how the architecture relates to the storytelling. Westlake described the scenario as "architecture needing to provide the backdrop and pathways that lead a patron directly where you want them to go and hide where they should not go."

As designers, we had to walk a line between our contribution, especially in terms of AV technology, and the museum's contribution, in terms of the content and artifacts. Technology such as digital signage, video displays, audio, and lighting needed to work in concert with the architecture to tell a story. But it couldn't become the story. Here's how Stewart put it:

"As far back as when the museum was built, we felt we had a balance of technology and static exhibits. We think you need to strike that balance. Some folks are going in the direction of strictly interactive and technology-driven museums and we don't think that's correct. Rock and roll is an art form represented by great totems or relics, meaning guitars, clothing, and more. The spirit of the music is captured in those relics. At the same time, it's very hard to tell the entire story—and it is certainly hard to exhibit the art form itself, which is music—without the creative and ever-evolving technology of the day. We've lived so long in this day of interactivity, personal computers, cell phones, and everything else that we are driven to technology because it's what people expect."

Ultimately, the technology scope of the Rock Hall project was pretty straightforward. We were to provide a cohesive, unified system that was bulletproof and easy to maintain. In the process, we had to deal with poor acoustics, old or insufficient infrastructure, outdated content in obsolete formats, and issues about how the museum technology staff was going to operate and maintain the new systems. Not to mention, we had to factor in the museum's desire to leave a green footprint.

The system's backbone is based on Alcorn McBride's V16 Pro Show Controllers, linked over a new fiber-optic network. The controllers trigger several Alcorn McBride Digital Binloop HD DVM/HD-Pro video players and Digital Binloop audio players. This setup gives the museum the flexibility to take individual exhibits off-line without impacting that daily operation of the facility or drastically reducing the visitor experience.

The system also ties into the museum's new theatrical-based exhibit lighting system, which is controlled via Alcorn McBride Light Cue Pros running DMX 512 to Altman Smart Track fixtures, retrofitted with Cree LED lamps and Philips Color Kinetics eW Cove Linear LED fixtures for case lights. Traditional incandescent track fixtures were used on a selective basis where the light quality of an LED lamp was not sufficient for a specific artifact. This solution gives the museum control of lighting at the fixture level. It also reduces the potential damage to artifacts by virtually eliminating infrared and heat. And because the lamps have a 50,000-hour life span, it reduced maintenance as well. Yes, the cost to upgrade to LED was almost double that of more-traditional lighting designs, but the energy savings and the benefit to the artifacts proved substantial.

Throughout, displays and projection systems were upgraded to 1080p. In some cases their location and integration were rethought in order to better tell the story without being intrusive. And the new audio was planned carefully to minimize the acoustical impact of the reconfigured flow of the museum.

Before the renovation, audio bleed was a major issue. We addressed it with a combination of custom-built Brown Innovations focusing array loudspeakers and K-Array KKVB-50 mini line arrays strategically placed to keep patterns tight, give better directionality, and minimize bleed. For example, there's a line of exhibit casework called City Scenes in which each section of case represents a different city in the country and its musical influences. Prior to the renovation this area was a cacophony of unintelligible sound that overlapped to distraction, and the video displays were lost within poorly lit and overcrowded casework. By using the KKVB-50 line arrays, centering the video displays, and reworking the lighting, we created a series of distinct exhibits that tell a linear story and provide a much better experience.

You see, when you integrate technology into exhibits—whether in museums or a corporate lobby—it becomes part of the story, rather than an object on which the story is told. Technology for technology's sake can come across as an afterthought. About the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Westlake said, "The architectural changes and technology helped to shape distinct rooms and experiences with their own individual characteristics."

If you haven't been to the Rock Hall in a while, come back and reexperience it. If you've never been, you should. It has a great story to tell.

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